LEGACY / CAST AND CREW REUNIONS
Lou Anne Harrison Chessik, a former showgirl and a producer of the 2008 Las Vegas Showgirl Art & Costume exhibition,
poses at the Nevada State Museum & Historical Society in Las Vegas, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2008. An exhibition at the museum
memorializes the heyday of the showgirl. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
A Jubilee! showgirl costume is on display at an exhibition at the Nevada State Museum
& Historical Society in Las Vegas, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2008. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Leonard Zamora looks at a showgirl costume on display at an exhibition that celebrates
the heyday of the showgirl at the Nevada State Museum & Historical Society in Las Vegas,
Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2008. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
By KATHLEEN HENNESSEY
LAS VEGAS (AP) — A place that rarely preserves its past is now trying to preserve its pasties.
Make that pasties and crystal bras, feathered head pieces, fans and thongs — anything that documents the existence of an increasingly rare bird: the showgirl.
"We were the original Las Vegas," says Lou Anne Harrison Chessik, the former showgirl behind a new exhibit that memorializes the garb and glamour of her withering art. "It's important to me that we understand this history."
There are just two large-scale showgirl revues left on the Las Vegas Strip, so very different from the 1960s when every respectable casino housed its own flock of beauties in boas. Their bloodlines may trace back to the French cancan girls of the 19th century, but it took the one-upmanship of Las Vegas to make them icons. Now, they're fading from the stage, and Chessik and others are part of a still young movement to make sure they're not forgotten.
To that aim, Chessik has created the annual Showgirl Art Competition, an exhibit in its second year on display until August at the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas. It is likely the only state museum to display a G-string a spin and a twirl away from 225 million-year-old Ichthyosaur fossils.
The costumes on view include glittering skivvies designed by Cher's costume designer Bob Mackie, a cherry-colored feathered flurry called "Red Heat Wave" and other high art of the genre. But the exhibit's focus is artwork depicting the bare-chested performers themselves. It includes the work of Terry Ritter, a dancer-turned-artist who set up her easel backstage at the shows to create dreamy portraits.
More improbably, it includes the artwork of high school students, who were likely stunned by their luck when a still lean, leggy Chessik, 51, and a group of former dancers arrived in their classroom to regale them with the history of the showgirl.
The homework: paint portraits of dancers. Think Edgar Degas, think Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.
Chessik knows this is a new world for most teenagers — even teenagers in Las Vegas. The French-Canadian acrobats of Cirque du Soleil now dominate the entertainment scene of the Strip. The word "showgirl" has been adopted by far less glamorous establishments.
"A lot of strippers and different groups use the name, 'showgirl' now," she says, somewhat embarrassed.
"The movie 'Showgirls' didn't help," adds Tom Dyer, the museum's exhibit manager, referring to the 1995 Elizabeth Berkley bomb.
This wasn't always so. Some of the first showgirls in Las Vegas were classically trained European ballerinas who arrived to perform in "Lido de Paris," a review imported in 1958 by producer Donn Arden.
"Lido" was among the first topless shows on the Strip and initially caused a stir, which Arden quieted by inviting the chief of police and the city council to the opening. Arden was prepared to cover up the girls if the city fathers disapproved, says Peter Michel, director of special collections at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which houses Arden's papers.
"But they didn't. They thought it was fine. As a matter of fact, they thought it was wonderful," he says. "And because it was so popular and attracted so many tourists, it guaranteed that it was going to be to be copied."
As Arden's shows went through various iterations, he continued to demand that his dancers be trained dancers. They were known as the tallest showgirls on the Strip.
Chessik found her way to Las Vegas because at 5 feet and 11 inches she was considered too tall for most New York ballet companies. She was well-paid, loved performing and had the discipline to stick with a gig that forced her to reaudition every six months.
Arden's "Jubilee!" at Bally's casino still maintains the requirement. Along with "Les Folies Bergere" at the Tropicana, it is a sort of museum exhibit of its own — an artifact appreciated for its connection to the bliss and possibilities offered by an earlier time.
"Jubilee!" has updated over the years, but still includes a nightly sinking of the Titanic and a tribute to Samson and Delilah.
"It's over the top, it's kitsch, it's all those things we associate with Las Vegas culture," Michel says.
Few understand just how over the top these shows were in their heyday as much as Karen Burns. The 54-year-old independent producer bought many of the costumes from Arden's "Hello, Hollywood, Hello" after it closed in Reno in 1989. Burns provided some of the costumes on display at the museum. The rest are stored in a warehouse she had to build to house the more than 1,000 pieces she acquired.
A former dancer in the show, Burns says the massive production employed 150 dancers, many of whom had more than 10 wardrobe changes. Its stage was the size of a football field. Its most famous number involved 10 dancers dressed like stewardesses in bejeweled bikinis riding in on the wings of a DC-10 mock-up. Chessik, who performed in the show, can still strike the pose on cue.
But the cost of such spectacles grew untenable as casinos suffered through slow economic times in the 1980s. Headliners became a more popular and more affordable way to draw crowds. A push to make Las Vegas "family friendly" didn't help.
And so the parades of topless ladies eventually were replaced by even more lavish, outlandish acrobats and contortionists. In an effort to compete, "Jubilee!" has recently offered a new "not topless" show open to ages 13 and up.
"The show is not just about girls, it's about song and dance. It's a tribute to Hollywood. It's something kids can't see anywhere else," says the show's 85-year-old company manager Fluff LeCoque.
That may change if Chessik and Burns are successful in their push to secure the showgirl's place in history. Chessik plans to continue her work in schools. Burns dreams of a traveling exhibit for her costume collection.
On a recent day, at least one student was drawn away from the dinosaur bones by a nearly nude mannequin encased in rhinestone-lined hoops and sprouting a feather headdress.
As she admired Mackie's "The Cage," 11-year-old Danje Elliott pointed to Chessik as she stood nearby.
"Who is she?" she asked.
"She was a showgirl," Elliott was told.
Photos by Craig L. Moran.
No leather and lace.
All feathers and grace.
"What today's showgirl is and the original showgirl is not the same, and that's one reason I wanted to put this in historical perspective in a museum," says former showgirl Lou Anne Chessik. "I have nothing against pole dancers and strippers, but that is a whole different trade, and they've kind of taken the name 'showgirl.' "
Chessik's taken it right back.
Baubles, bangles and beads -- and an array of paintings, photos, artifacts and mixed-media depictions of sexy costumes, sumptuous headdresses, elegant accessories and a Bob Mackie outfit that transforms the female form into a cage on legs -- comprise the Las Vegas Showgirl Art Competition Exhibition at the Nevada State Museum.
"Some of the headpieces we wore weighed 25 pounds," says Chessik, founder of the competition/exhibition and one-time cast member of "Lido de Paris," "Enter the Night" and "Jubilee!" from 1979-91. "We lifted weights just to have the strength to carry the costumes."
After arranging a cast/crew reunion at the Stardust in 2006, Chessik was inspired to further celebrate the once-dominant, pre-Cirque world of Vegas showgirls and created the competition that was promoted through schools and the Las Vegas/Reno arts communities. "I realized we were becoming history," she says, "and I wanted to keep that excitement alive."
Prizes were conferred on the artists, including students from the College of Southern Nevada, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and most notably, the Las Vegas Academy of International Studies, Visual and Performing Arts, whose interpretations graduated to the exhibition. Their creations join the works of showgirl-turned-professional painter Terry Ritter and costumes and accessories borrowed from the collection of former showgirl Karen Burns.
Showing last year at the Reno Nevada Historical Society, the traveling tribute since has been showcased at the Water Street Art Gallery in Henderson, the Fashion Outlets mall in Primm and a second showgirls get-together at The Orleans.
It's now settled into the Nevada State Museum for a run through mid-August.
"I knew the potential of it," says Thomas Dyer, the museum's exhibits manager. "In Las Vegas, the showgirl is an icon. When I told a couple of people that we had the showgirl exhibit coming in, they said, 'In a museum?' But what better place than a state museum to put these people up on a wall? And we're not putting racy things in here."
Racy? No. Sexy? Can you say -- as folks did in the yesteryear of showgirl chic -- "hubba-hubba"? "Va-va-va-voom"? Or, in more contemporary Paris Hilton-speak, "That's hot"?
Among the exhibit pieces, Ynnez Bestari's "The Sensuality of a Showgirl" depicts a red feather boa-draped woman, piercing green eyes made mysterious by her gaze off into the distance, her mouth an alluring pout. Ritter's pastel-toned "Toe Shoes" presents her subject with arm elegantly outstretched, exuding a demeanor of dignified sexuality that stops short of haughtiness. Taking a comedic turn, a piece by James Bousema features a cartoonishly wizened old showgirl smiling up at memories of her younger, sexier self. And several photos snap the action from the long-running production, "Hello Hollywood, Hello," which greeted audiences from 1978-89 at the MGM Grand in Reno.
"When I go to Las Vegas Academy, they think we're really vintage and cool," says Chessik, who, clad in a G-string and rhinestone bra in "Hello Hollywood, Hello," balanced on the wings of a moving replica of a jet. In her Academy visits, Chessik brings along feather-and-rhinestone-studded costumes and showgirls serving as models to inspire the student artists, who are encouraged to create back stories for their artwork. One striking painting portrays a showgirl backstage, puffing on an inhaler. "That's not your traditional showgirl," Chessik says about this imagining of one seriously sexy asthmatic. "That is about a dancer who had asthma and beat the odds. People love that one."
The exhibit recalls warm memories for Chessik, who cherishes her showgirl past and the production-show traditions that remain -- albeit with a reduced presence in what's become Cirque City -- at Bally's "Jubilee!" and the Tropicana's "Folies Bergere."
"A lot of people don't realize the commitment and dedication. We were trained ballet dancers. The way ('Jubilee!' producer) Donn Arden created the shows was that he wanted small-breasted women. If you look at ballet dancers, they're usually small-breasted and he wanted that look. But even when you were dancing topless, you didn't feel topless," she says, referring to showgirls outfitted in feathers, bracelets and headpieces reaching dizzying heights.
Elsewhere in the eclectic exhibit, ethereal sensuality suffuses Heather Herman's intriguing "Hypnotica," showgirls shoring up costumes, applying makeup and indulging in pre-performance primping. Among the artifacts, the glammiest getup is famed designer Bob Mackie's "Blue Cage" costume from the "Jubilee!" finale, its stunning headpiece circling down and around to the waist, earning its name by nearly imprisoning the dancer in pure elegance.
"We have these unique and cool histories that no one else has," Chessik says. "Who would've thought they would be in a museum?"
Leave it to Vegas to put history in a G-string.
Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.
Showgirl art on display
Exhibit showing at Nevada State Museum
The iconic symbol of the Las Vegas showgirl has been produced and re-produced as a brand to market the city to tourists for decades, but with the classic revues of yesterday dwindling in number among Strip properties, one Las Vegas woman said she fears the history behind the sequins and glitter may be forgotten.
Former "Jubilee!" and Stardust dancer Lou Anne Harrison Chessik founded the Showgirl Art Competition and exhibit in 2007 in an effort to keep that history alive.
"My mission is to educate people about the original showgirls and the historical significance -- the impact those shows had on the building of this city," she said. "I think this exhibit accomplishes that."
Harrison Chessik said that the art in each exhibition will change from year to year.
The 2008 Showgirl Art Competition exhibit, now open at the Nevada State Museum, 700 Twin Lakes Drive, features more than 30 artist interpretations of Nevada showgirls from bygone and contemporary eras, along with costume pieces from Las Vegas and Reno productions, including one full ensemble from "Jubilee!" at Bally's and another from the Reno production of "Hello Hollywood, Hello."
Harrison Chessik decided to create the exhibit after organizing a reunion that brought together former dancers who had performed in Strip productions as far back as the 1950s.
"The reunion was a phenomenal experience and really the catalyst for the work that I'm doing now," Harrison Chessik said. "I realized that we were losing an integral piece of Las Vegas history."
The showgirls of yesteryear were athletic by nature, Harrison Chessik said. Most were professionally trained dancers who were used to being held to very specific weight requirements by production managers.
"We were all trained in tap or ballet," Harrison Chessik recalled. "We all had to be in great shape and maintain a certain look. The costumes we wore, the headpieces alone, were very weighty. It required training and grace and balance to perform. It was an art."
Last year, Harrison Chessik began working with instructors at Las Vegas Academy who invited her to bring the history of the Las Vegas showgirl to life for students.
"I brought in costumes from earlier productions and a contemporary showgirl came to model for students who then turned in renderings of her," she said. "We talked about what it means to be a showgirl. The kids were so excited about it that I decided to feature their work in the exhibition."
The 2007 competition, during which students who placed received cash awards, was so successful that Harrison Chessik decided to hold it again this year.
"The exhibit has traveled all over Nevada, and we took it up to Reno this year," she said.
Members of the Reno Portrait Society also submitted work for the exhibit, along with former showgirl and artist Terry Ritter.
"Along with the costumes from productions like 'Jubilee!' and 'Hello Hollywood, Hello,' the work that has been submitted by artists and the portrait society really fleshed out the exhibit," museum exhibits manager Thomas Dyer said.
The exhibit is an amalgamation of costume pieces, acrylic and oil paintings and multi-art, Dyer said.
"Some of the pieces have dashes of glitter here and there," he said. "The artists truly, in my opinion, captured the spirit of the Las Vegas and Reno showgirl."
The exhibit also will feature original costume design print plates that will accompany the finished piece on display.
"We hope to demonstrate the process of evolution from the design concept, to, say, a finished headpiece, while incorporating a drawing of that same piece," Dyer said. "It's a before, during and after progression."
Dyer said that he sees the exhibit as a way for locals and tourists to learn more about Nevada history.
"I think that movies have perpetuated some negative stereotypes against an immensely talented population of women," Dyer said. "This is one way that people can learn about all the showgirl has contributed to the building of Las Vegas. I mean, when you think about Las Vegas, one of the first images that come to mind are showgirls. That's not marketing. It's history."
For Harrison Chessik, the exhibit is a way to keep the history of the old shows alive.
"We were the Cirque shows of that era," she said. "I think that we can continue to educate people about the contribution the Las Vegas showgirl has made to Nevada history and popular culture. The whole town was built around this iconic symbol. That's no small thing."
The exhibit runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through August 2009. Admission is $4 for adults and $3 for senior citizens. Call 486-5205 or visit http://dmla.clan.lib.nv.us/docs/museums/lv/vegas.htm.
Contact Downtown and North Las Vegas View reporter Amanda Llewellyn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 380-4535.