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2007 Las Vegas Showgirl Art Competition Articles:

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Preserving the legacy of the showgirl

Art competition to highlight Las Vegas' glamorous dancers

By BEVERLY BRYAN
VIEW STAFF WRITER



marlene karas/VIEWLas Vegas showgirl Tara Edmonds models for students in Kelly Mabel?s art class at Las Vegas Academy. Students are planning to participate in a showgirl art competition.



Above, real estate agent Diane Varney talks to Las Vegas Academy students about her career as a showgirl. Beside her stands her portrait created by showgirl-turned-painter Terry Ritter. The Las Vegas Showgirl Art Competition being spearheaded by retired Stardust showgirl Lou Anne Chessik, left, is an effort to preserve the history of the unique form of performance. "It?s its own world and it?s all going away," Chessik said of the old shows with enormous casts and ornate costumes like the surviving "Jubilee!" at Bally?s and the "Folies Bergere" at the Tropicana. Chessik danced in both the "Lido de Paris" and "Enter the Night."marlene karas/VIEW



Above, real estate agent Diane Varney talks to Las Vegas Academy students about her career as a showgirl. Beside her stands her portrait created by showgirl-turned-painter Terry Ritter. The Las Vegas Showgirl Art Competition being spearheaded by retired Stardust showgirl Lou Anne Chessik, left, is an effort to preserve the history of the unique form of performance. "It?s its own world and it?s all going away," Chessik said of the old shows with enormous casts and ornate costumes like the surviving "Jubilee!" at Bally?s and the "Folies Bergere" at the Tropicana. Chessik danced in both the "Lido de Paris" and "Enter the Night."marlene karas/VIEW



marlene karas/VIEWDaryl Roth, a former dancer in "Jubilee!" and "Enter the Night," urged Las Vegas Academy students to, "Go see ?Jubilee!? It?s the last of its kind," he said.
 

Former Las Vegas showgirl Linda Spinks, now a self-described "menopausal cocktail waitress," spoke to Kelly Mabel's 8:30 a.m. art class at Las Vegas Academy with the poise and accent of Dame Julie Andrews.

She looked back on a long career in dance that included roles as a showgirl in Stardust spectaculars. She started in "Lido de Paris," which ran at the Stardust from 1958 to 1991, when it was replaced by the updated Broadway-style "Enter the Night." Heavy, studded and beaded costumes passed from hand to hand as visual aids for students, along with a picture of Spinks dressed in $10,000 worth of white fox-fur and feathers. Spinks was a line captain -- one of the head dancers -- in "Lido de Paris."

She told the high school art students that she was hesitant to dance topless in the Las Vegas shows, but "As soon as I got on stage, I loved it," she said.

Spinks visited Las Vegas Academy with a group of former dancers from now-gone shows at the now-imploded Stardust in the hopes of inspiring young artists' to enter the Las Vegas Showgirl Art Competition being spearheaded by retired Stardust showgirl Lou Anne Chessik. The competition is open to all but is being promoted in schools and the arts community. Entries are invited in drawing and painting, photography and digital art from June 8 to 11. Prizes of $2,550 divided between the categories are being offered.

Daryl Roth, a former dancer in "Jubilee!" and "Enter the Night," followed Spinks, answered questions about his career and urged the students to, "Go see 'Jubilee!' Its the last of it's kind."

This was to be a recurring theme during the presentations -- the concern that the classic Las Vegas shows and their living crown jewels, the showgirls, are vanishing and soon will be forgotten.

"It's its own world and it's all going away," Chessik said of the old shows with enormous casts and ornate costumes like the surviving "Jubilee!" at Bally's and the "Folies Bergere" at the Tropicana. Chessik danced in both the "Lido de Paris" and "Enter the Night." She's organizing the art competition in search of works that will, according to the entry guidelines, "capture the spirit of the Las Vegas showgirl and production shows for which Las Vegas is world famous."

After Roth, came class of 1999 Las Vegas Academy alumna Tara Edmonds, who addressed the class in her full regalia as a working showgirl -- a cloud of black marabou, pink pheasant feathers and little else. She said she became a woman and grew up through dancing onstage. She got her start in "Splash" and is now a bevertainer at the Rio.

 

 

Roth helped Edmonds onto an island of drawing tables so the students could photograph her. The photos might serve as inspiration for their class assignment to create a portrait of a showgirl.

Showgirl-turned-painter Terry Ritter's commissioned portrait of showgirl-turned-real estate agent Diane Varney sat on an easel as an example. Varney stood beside her portrait and shared her experiences as well. Ritter may be one of the competition's judges when the time comes.

Chessik, who has worked as a development director for Nevada Ballet Theatre and produces events for nonprofits, organized a reunion for shows at the Stardust in September 2006.

"The 'Lido' had never had a reunion, and everyone kept saying, 'We've got to have a reunion,' but no one stepped up to do it. ... When I heard they were closing [the Stardust] down, it provided us with the motivation to finally do something," she said.

The reunion's theme was Five Decades of Entertainment in the Stardust Showroom, and five decades of performers shared the stage in two numbers from "Lido" and "Enter the Night." Dancers in their 70s reprised their roles, speakers looked back over the years and 650 people came. Ritter did a portrait commemorating "Lido," and the press came out.

The response from her fellow performers and from the media motivated Chessik to do more to keep showgirl history alive in the wake of the March Stardust implosion.

"I realized we were becoming history and that people were realizing that. I wanted to preserve that history," she said. She said an art competition simply struck her as the best way to do it.

She called Linda Spinks, whose daughter is a student at Las Vegas Academy, and got in touch with Mabel through her. Mabel agreed to bring the showgirls into her class and assigned her students a narrative portrait of a showgirl showing either "who she is under the lights" or "who she is behind the scenes" for their final exam. Mabel said she felt that meeting with showgirls and hearing their stories would give her students a deeper understanding of their subject.

Once 25 to 35 pieces have been selected for the touring show, the Nevada Historical Society will show the competition paintings in Reno, to be followed by a showing at Barnes & Noble on Charleston Boulevard and again at the 2007 cast and crew reunion for the Stardust. Chessik does not yet know where the second reunion will be held, but she said she thinks the Nevada Historical Society is a good possibility.

She hopes to see the top 12 or 18 works made into a calendar with a series of artist signings to follow. She said a portion of the proceeds would go to the special collections department at UNLV where a collection of showgirl photographs and related historic documents is being preserved. The calendars would be sold in the Las Vegas Historical Society gift shop.

Chessik is working to find more sponsors, but so far she said Varney and Bank of America are among her angels.

Farther down the road, she said she would like to see a regular educational program in the schools focusing on the history of the production shows that she fears soon will be replaced forever on the Strip by solo headliners and Cirque du Soleil.

"It's so expensive to even create a show like that," she said, doubtful that a new production show of similar proportions would come to take their place.

She finds that people already are forgetting that "Lido" and "Enter the Night" ever existed. "And now the building's not even there, you know?" she said.

For more information on the Las Vegas Showgirl Art Competition visit www.castandcrewreunion.com

 

 

 

 

 

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  National Report / The New York Times

 

 

 

 

 

 

Karen Burns, center, helped Cassie Joy Hill, left, and Hana Freeman put the finishing touches

   On costumes as part of an exhibition on showgirls in Reno, Nev., on Friday. (Jim Wilson/NYT)

Showgirls Return to the Spotlight for History's sake

By Patricia Leigh Brown

Published: July 3, 2007

RENO, Nevada: The American West has inspired artists like the bullet-spitting buffalo hunters of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell's bronco riders. But the canon may not yet be ready for Terry Ritter, a former Las Vegas showgirl whose canvases include "The Red Boas," ecstatic torsos swirling in a sea of red feathers.

Forget the Ash Can School. Behold the Cancan School.

Ritter, 54, is featured in what is billed as the first Showgirl Art Competition Exhibition, which opened Friday at the Nevada State Historical Society here.

The small exhibition, which includes a rare turkey ruff boa, bejeweled G-strings and other showgirl artifacts, along with about 20 paintings, is part of a fledgling preservation movement by former showgirls eager to claim and interpret their own history. Dozens of dancers gathered for the opening, aware that the legacy of the lavish and long-gone production shows like the Lido de Paris at the recently imploded Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas is quickly vanishing.

"It's preserving a section in time, like Degas and the dancers," said Ritter, who began painting in 1982 between acts at Les Folies Bergère at the Tropicana, setting up her easel in the backstage shower because it had the best light.

The month long exhibition will travel this fall to Las Vegas, site of the second annual reunion of former showgirls and crew members.

Both the art competition and the reunion were the brainchild of Lou Anne Chessik, who danced for 15 years at the Stardust and in "Hello Hollywood Hello" in Reno (where she famously balanced on the wings of a moving replica of a jet, dressed in a rhinestone bra and G-string).

The demolition of the Stardust was a galvanizing event for Chessik, now a statuesque 50.

"Las Vegas keeps recreating its history," she said. "The shows were both a big part of my life and what Vegas was built on."

The budding genre of showgirl art was exemplified by Ritter's sultry portrait of Diane Varney, a former Lido and Folies Bergère dancer turned real estate agent.

More significant, the exhibition featured glittering objects and costumes from the collection of Karen Burns, who danced in Reno for 30 years. Her 1,200-piece Showgirliana collection is an assemblage of painstakingly labeled racks and boxes: black top hats, powder-puff feathered headpieces, white go-go boots, rhinestone armbands.

In the collection's lime-green capes and feathered headdresses - plumed architecture for the female nude - the glamour of production numbers like "Hello Hollywood Hello," which opened in 1978 at the MGM Grand in Reno and ran for 11 years, has been gloriously resurrected.

Like medieval armor, the costumes may one day be regarded as talismans of a vanished culture, which had its apogee in the 1960s, when nearly every hotel and casino on the Strip had a lavish theatrical production.

In recent years, the number of major showgirl productions has dwindled to just two - the Folies Bergère and "Jubilee" at Bally's Las Vegas - as audiences seek state-of-the-art spectacles like Cirque du Soleil. In an era of cable television, the scantily clad woman is hardly a novelty.

Burns, whose company supplies showgirls for corporate events, possesses a curator's zeal. She has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on her obsession, even hiring a retired wardrobe specialist to solder damaged underwires on about 50 rhinestone bras.

What motivates Burns is the misrepresentation of showgirls as pole-dancing strippers.

"When you tell people you're a showgirl, everyone assumes your IQ drops to 50," said Burns, who became a high school teacher after her career as a showgirl ended. "I've been married for 30 years. I have a college degree. We're not bimbos."

Eileen Edgecomb, 53, who described herself as a "stage mother" of two boys, once danced as a "pony" - a nickname for dancers under 5-foot-6, or 1.68 meters. Standing by images from her former life, some by art students, she recalled the demanding expectations of the choreographer and director Donn Arden, who produced legendary shows like "Hello Hollywood Hello" and the original "Jubilee" created 25 years ago at Bally's.

"He wanted to see your tour en l'air, your pirouettes and how many entrechats you could do," said Edgecomb, referring to challenging ballet steps.

For "seasoned" showgirls, as they now call themselves, the heyday of large-scale productions poignantly coincided with their own youth.

"You got paid to be in shape," said Chessik. "Once the lights hit, the adrenaline got running."

But after 15 years of working seven days a week, two shows a night - three on Saturdays - she got tired.

The retired showgirls recalled the rules that dominated their lives. Weight was monitored, and tan lines were "a real no-no," Varney said. Breasts more in keeping with ballerinas were preferred, contrary to popular belief, because they made dancing easier. Every six months, there was an open casting call, Chessik recalled.

"You could always be eliminated," she added. "I made sure I got out in my prime. It was all about youth."

The University of Nevada at Las Vegas has included the oral histories of showgirls as part of its labor history collection.

Michael Green, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas, said a reappraisal was overdue.

"Showgirls have the undeserved reputation as feathered call girls, and there are a lot of myths to explode," Green said. "They are more multilayered figures than appearances would suggest. "

At the opening, Varney stood by the portrait of herself as a 21-year-old dancer, her arched bare back enveloped in white fox fur.

She cherishes that season of her life, captured on the canvas in acrylic, glitter and rhinestones, and hopes to use the painting in her real estate business and pass it on to her children.

"You can implode hotels and sell off the contents," Varney said, "but art won't vanish. Art is forever.

 

 

2007 Las Vegas Showgirl Art Competition  

        

Our vision is to capture the Legacy of the Showgirl and production shows for which Nevada is world famous. The project connects the visual and performing arts with a stunning combination of Art and Costumes that reflect the magic and history of this marvelous era. Timeless and everlasting.

The 2007 Showgirl Art Competition Exhibition was embraced by the staff at the Nevada Historical Society. They saw the historical value of the Showgirl Legacy and agreed to host the first year event that ran June 29 through August 3. The Las Vegas Showgirl Art Competition was promoted through the schools and in the arts community in both Las Vegas and Reno, but it was Miss Kelly Mabel, an art teacher with the Las Vegas Academy for the Performing Arts that embraced the project and encouraged her students to explore the rich history of the showgirl. Twenty pieces of art were chosen, and professional Las Vegas Artist Terry Ritter offered four pieces to be shown. The project continued to grow, and Karen Burns, with Karen Burns productions included pieces from her special collection comprising of nearly 1000 vintage costumes from MGM’s “Hello Hollywood Hello"  The Reno Community was delighted with the live showgirls that greeted them at the opening reception, as well as the stunning combination of art and costumes. New York Times writer Patti Brown and photographer Jim Wilson flew in for the opening reception to capture the allure of the showgirl in their story that included color pictures and a featured article in the first section of the New York Times, as well as other national publications. I was thrilled.

The Exhibition continued to travel and was displayed at the grand opening of the Water Street Art Gallery in downtown Henderson. The winning artists and their families attended a reception and were awarded $1,000 in cash prizes by its producer (me) and a contemporary showgirl dressed in one of Ms. Burns costumes. The Exhibition was included in a fundraiser for the Las Vegas Academy for the Performing Arts at the West Charleston Barnes and Noble book signing Saturday, October 27, and then by popular demand, was extended through February 2008.  The popular Showgirl postcards were a “hot” gift item for the Holidays.  The Art and cards were also at the Second Annual Cast and Crew Reunion November 4 at the Orleans Hotel and Casino and again received great audience acceptance.

This all could not have been possible without our 2007 sponsors that believed in the first year of this project: LasVegasShowgirlRealEstate.com:Diane Varney, Technology Exclusive: Phil Lulek, Carolyn Morledge Sparks, Bank of America: George Smith, Kell & Nancy Houssels, Greater Las Vegas Assn. of Realtors: Irene Vogel, Nevada Historical Society, Denny Weddle & Associates, Barnes & Noble, Karen Burns Productions, Terry Ritter, and our many, many volunteers who, without their support, we could not have achieved such great success.

 

Lou Anne Harrison Chessik, producer

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