There's no greater icon for Las Vegas than a statuesque showgirl, sparkling with jewels, her head covered in ostrich plumes as she stands motionless and nude, a celebration of the beauty of the female form.
But times change.
Where once every casino on the Strip had an elaborate showgirl production, today it is all Cirque du Soleil and Broadway musicals. When the Folies Bergere closed in 2008 after a run of 49.5 years, that left the Strip with just one last showgirl production.
Ah, but what a production it is. Jubilee! is pure Vegas - the longest running show in town, and now second longest production in the world. For 31 years, this $50 million, over-the-top spectacle of 85 dancers wearing 1,000 different costumes has exploded on a stage half the size of an American football field. Literally exploded. Each show uses five pounds of explosives and 1,000 pounds of dry ice.
But no special effect can top the showgirls - the 60 beauties who wear 10,000 pounds of rhinestones, 8,000 miles of sequins, 4,000 pounds of feathers...and not much else.
One of the great ways to enjoy the show is on a backstage tour, held three days a week. Led by one of the showgirls, the tour takes you into their dressing rooms and behind the show's staggering 75 different curtains and backdrops to see what it takes to put on this swirling sea of color.
Our tour guide, Laura, is a former ballet dancer who has been with Jubilee! for five years. She's perky, tall and model-thin and joins the tour wearing a g-string, fishnet stockings and a short little sparkling black jacket and bowler hat. While she's certainly the most glamorous thing in our group of twenty, we soon learn there is very little glamour in being a showgirl.
Jubilee! is performed twice a night, six days a week, 52 weeks a year. There is only one cast and there are no understudies. That means each dancer must perform every show. When dancers are injured, sick or on vacation, the other cast members must fill in. Laura is a "swing" dancer, so for certain production numbers, she has to know the moves and routines of all the other performers so she can fill in for anyone missing. This requires her to memorize 45 different dance routines and costume changes and be able to perform any one of them at the drop of a hat.
Into the Dressing Rooms
After standing on the main stage to see the immense size of it, the tour group descends two stories below to the cramped dressing rooms. Laura has 11 costume changes in the show. Each change requires that she go up and down two flights of stairs in three inch heels, often wearing a 20 pound costume with a headdress that can stick out three-feet on each side, all the while avoiding the other 85 dancers (and 75 stage hands pulling curtains and pushing sets). She does 1,500 stairs a night. "There's no need for the dancers to work out or exercise," she says. "We get all the exercise we need just being in the show."
It's hard to imagine the chaos that goes on in these cramped quarters. Some of the headdresses are huge and held up by pulleys twenty feet in the air, then lowered on to the girl's head just before going on stage. The headdresses can weigh 25 pounds with hundreds of feathers from ostrich, pheasant, and even vultures -- all individually attached to a football-like helmet designed to fit snugly on a showgirl's head. There are no chinstraps. It takes balance and incredible strength to hold the headdress up, move gracefully across stage, avoid hitting the other girls, and get back to the dressing room, where you have three minutes to change and do it all over again.
Designed by Bob Mackie and Pete Menafee, the costumes are all different, and many of them are 30 years old. They are valued at up to $50,000 apiece.
Keeping the costumes in shape requires three costume shops, where a team of specialists are constantly sewing, wiring, and cleaning. "This is where we spend most of our lives, and we're like a family," Laura says. Dancers must be 18, but there is no older age limit and the oldest male dancer was 51 and a grandfather. "As long as you look good and feel good wearing a g-string, you're in," Laura says.
History of Nude Dancing in Las Vegas
When Las Vegas introduced showgirls in 1959, the law was that for them to be nude, they could not move. That led to the iconic image of showgirls just standing still. Today, that has loosened up and all of the showgirls are dancers and athletes. Forty of them in Jubilee! are topless; the other covered dancers, of which Laura is one, are called "Bluebells," after a Miss Blue Bell, one of the early dressers. But it is the nude dancers that steal the show, and consequently they make more money, are the featured dancers, and have the best costumes. "When I saw the costumes, I knew I had to try them," Laura says, so she "swings" or fills-in for the nude dancers when required. She holds up a bra that is little more than a ribbon outline of sparking diamonds, the key pieces missing. "It doesn't look like much, but I'd feel naked without it!" she laughs.
In addition to the dressing rooms, the backstage tour visits some of the elaborate sets that are stored below stage and whisked up by 11 elevators. The show's set pieces include the sinking of the Titanic, a Samson and Delilah number in which a gigantic temple crashes to the ground and homage to Hollywood. Two floors underground, you can see the 30-foot model of the Titanic, or the ship's enormous boiler rooms, or the huge metal cages, where Laura, as a slave girl, dances in the Samson number. Some 100,000 pounds of sets are moved up and down to the stage in seconds - and all by hand. Whereas modern shows like Phantom of the Opera are computer and machine controlled, the "Old School" Jubilee! production is done by hand with 75 stage hands pulling ropes, shoving props, and placing explosives by hand.
Each girl must do their own makeup - and to be visible on a huge stage, the makeup is heavy. Since their own hair is not part of the show, the girls wrap their heads in a pantyhose cap so they can easily slip into and out of headdresses and wigs. The makeup and pantyhose cap may not be the most glamorous look close-up behind the stage, but once they get into their costumes, dance past the curtain, and shimmer into the spotlight - you are seeing some of the hardest working, most athletic and talented dancers in the business.
If you go: Jubilee! is unique and wildly expensive to produce. When it closes, the world will never see its likes again, so see it soon. The backstage tours are available Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at 11 a.m.; cost is $17 per person.