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Putting a top on iconic topless show

'Folies' mirrors Vegas: Success, then hard times

Svetlana Failla put on her makeup in the dressing room of ''Les Folies Bergere'' at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas last week. Below, dancers performed ''The Fans.'' After nearly 50 years, the show will have its final performance on Saturday. Svetlana Failla put on her makeup in the dressing room of ''Les Folies Bergere'' at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas last week. Below, dancers performed ''The Fans.'' After nearly 50 years, the show will have its final performance on Saturday. (photos by gary friedman/los angeles times)
By Ashley Powers
Los Angeles Times / March 22, 2009
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LAS VEGAS - It outlasted Elvis, the Rat Pack, the mob, the Atomic Age, and the Stardust, Dunes, and Sands. It helped cement the showgirl as Sin City ambassador - the mayor often appears with one on each arm - and as pop culture shorthand for glittery, sexy Las Vegas.

But months shy of its 50th year, "Les Folies Bergere" will close soon, a victim of slumping revenues and changing tastes.

When it opened on Christmas Eve 1959, the Tropicana's topless review embodied all that was naughty and daring in Vegas. But, in time, Vegas became much racier than the "Folies." Cirque du Soliel performers disrobe in "Zumanity." In the show "Bite," vampires bare fangs and breasts. Even female tourists sunbathe topless at hotel pools. In a way, "Folies" history mirrors that of Vegas: a long stretch of success, then hard times. Its story is told through an aging chorine who remembers opening night, the director who struggled to keep the production afloat, and a showgirl who will strut in its final plumed and sequined performance, on Saturday.

Their time in "Folies" ties them to a Vegas that brought glamour to the masses. These days, the show's demise mostly merits a shrug in this recession-battered town - there are too many businesses closing, too many foreclosures, too much grief.

The 1950s dawned with Clark County as an outpost with less than 50,000 souls and a handful of Western-themed gambling halls, although the backwater's ambition was as immense as the Mojave Desert.

Its first topless production, "Minsky's Follies," opened in 1957 and was advertised as "riotous" and "eye-popping." The true forerunner to modern showgirl productions, "Lido de Paris," arrived a year later at the Stardust.

Meanwhile, in El Paso, a beauty queen named Virginia James spotted a newspaper ad: The Sands was hiring dancers for its Copa Room. "The owner wanted to see a whole line of Texas girls because Texas is known for beautiful girls with beautiful teeth," she recalled.

James aced the audition and moved to Vegas, where she still lives. She is 77 and maintains a wavy white-blond coiffure, a dancer's posture, and a trim figure clad in black leggings and calf-high boots.

"I met everybody famous in the world," she said. Nat King Cole. Dean Martin. Lena Horne. She attended parties, she says, on Frank Sinatra's arm. "I met Elvis later. I went out with him. I didn't sleep with him, but he kissed me and my heart stopped."

James tried Hollywood but found it distasteful and returned to Vegas. The Tropicana had opened in 1957, and James danced in its short-lived Jayne Mansfield show.

"Then Mansfield was out, the marquee was blank and all the dancers got pink slips - except me," she said. Entertainment director Lou Walters wanted her in "Folies," his $250,000 show imported from Paris.

"He said, 'What do you think about nude?' And I said, 'I don't.' "

He put her in charge of dancers who didn't disrobe. "Three-quarters of them were from Paris and didn't speak a word of English. But I said I was from Texas and they knew Texas, so they called me Tex," James recalled. Opening night, she remembers, somehow felt bigger than other premieres: "It wasn't the first topless show, but it was the first 'Folies Bergere.' "

For a decade, Svetlana Failla has lined her eyes like Cleopatra and glued on false lashes that graze her cheeks when she winks. Ten times a week, she dons a rhinestone-studded bra and thong for the opening number's signature "butt shot," in which a spotlight briefly highlights her backside.

Failla started dancing at age 5, although as a young ballroom dancer in Moscow, she never imagined life as a showgirl. Her father, who died when she was a girl, was a watchmaker; her mother toiled in the garment industry. She never saw her dance in Vegas.

"She would have never approved of me doing topless," Failla said. "And I'd probably be on stage dancing and she'd come running after me with a towel."

She had traveled for two years as a backup dancer for a Russian pop star when, in 1991, she visited her then-boyfriend, who was in a circus act at the Stardust. She spoke German, Italian, and Russian, but no English. She had him ask if she could rehearse with the Stardust dancers to stay in shape.

Soon, the green-eyed, 5-foot-10 blonde was offered a role. She broke her touring contract to become a feathered beauty. In 1999 she joined the "Folies."

"When I go on stage, I disappear," Failla said, her hands flying and her words lightly accented. "I always pick someone in the audience and perform for them."

In the 1960s, showgirls became civic icons. They presided over golf course openings and smiled on magazine covers. For a two-drink minimum, they could be ogled in casinos all over town.

"This was a place where you could find things that were nowhere else," said Su Kim Chung, an archivist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "And where else could you find a 6-foot-tall woman with feathers sprouting off her back and fishnet stockings and a string bikini?"

Into that world stepped Jerry Jackson, who in 1966 helped Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire's choreographer, stage a new edition of "Folies." When he overhauled the show in 1975, Jackson bestowed it with the first of several themes - the French music hall - and an ornate setting: tap-dancers shuffling on red pianos, showgirls in $3,000 beaded gowns and a 1930s Rolls Royce purring onto the stage.

In an arrangement that differs from most Strip productions, the Tropicana owns "Folies" and pays cast salaries and other costs. In the 1990s, Jackson said, the casino stopped showering the show with money.

Jackson, 73, struggled with a diminished budget.

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