Once upon a sign … I mean, a time … showgirls ruled the Las Vegas stage.
“We were like the Cirque shows,” said former “Lido de Paris” showgirl Lou Anne Harrison Chessik during a panel discussion on Stardust Showgirls last week at the Neon Museum. “We were in every hotel on the Strip.”
Part of the museum’s ongoing Times of the Signs program, the discussion marked the 55th anniversary of the Stardust hotel (imploded in 2007). The enormous Stardust sign now lives on in the Neon Museum’s historic collection.
“When they exploded that building all of our history went up in smoke,” said Chessik.
“The Stardust embodied classic Vegas,” added former “Enter the Night” showgirl Akke Levin. “To me it felt like I danced in an icon of a hotel.”
Along with Chessik and Levin, panelists included former showgirl Rusty Taylor Feuer, College of Southern Nevada historian Lisa Gioia-Acres, University of Nevada, Las Vegas archivist Joyce Marshall Moore and CSN history professor Michael Green (moderator).
“Showgirls are the icon of Las Vegas,” said Gioia-Acres. ”They danced with Frank Sinatra, then they went home to their kids. They were iconic goddesses on stage, but they still had all the same issues as other women.”
The former showgirls shared stories of their time on stage, from whacking the “handsy” Frank Sinatra (Feuer had an Army background and a Judo belt) to counting the steps as they paraded down the Lido’s staircase (a showgirl must never look down). They also discussed how they came to Vegas and why they decided to stay here once their dancing careers ended.
The fiery Feuer was discovered at a Los Angeles audition by legendary choreographer Donn Arden. A former Army photographer, she had absolutely no dance experience — she didn’t even know there was an audition. She was looking for work and wandered in off the street. Two weeks later she was working as a showgirl alongside legends like Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas.
“My life was serendipity, you could not write it,” said Feuer. “I was a lucky gal.”
Feuer jokingly claims to hold the record for falling off the stage. “I wore this $25,000-$35,000 costume and I always got my heel caught in the netting,” she said, adding she her size 11 foot was crammed into a size 10 shoe. “If there was anything on that stage, I’d find it and slip on it.”
Chessik, meanwhile, was first hired as a dancer in 1979 by famed Jubilee creator Fluff LeCoque. She went on to the “Lido de Paris” at Stardust following the tragic MGM hotel fire in 1980. Though she admits to complaining about how heavy her costumes were at the time, she has extremely pleasant memories of walking on stage fully adorned under the lights as live musicians played.
“Thank god for Velcro,” she added, noting upwards of 13 costume changes per show.
Chessik noted that one of the many advantages of being a showgirl was having time to study between shows.
“A lot of us went on to careers as lawyers or in real estate in this community,” said Chessik, creator and producer of the Las Vegas Showgirl Art Competition and Costume Exhibition. “It’s sh*tty getting old, but it’s great having those relationships.”
Levin holds a masters in Dutch law from the Open Universiteit, Herleen, Netherlands as well as a Juris Doctor degree from UNLV’s William S. Boyd School of Law. She came to perform in “Enter the Night” at Stardust after starring in shows in Monte Carlo, Monaco and Paris.
“It was such a different life,” said Levin of performing in Vegas. “It was great to be on stage but I liked the whole ambiance. My best memories were backstage.”
Levin, who at one time served as a spokes-model and face of the Stardust, noted the change in culture as Las Vegas became more corporate in the early 1970s. She said that one of the unfortunate side effects was the decline of expensive showgirl-based shows. Nowadays traditional showgirls are only found in one show on the Strip, “Jubilee!”
“It’s so wonderful, that you have the neon signs here,” she added. “It’s a little bit of history you’re holding on to.”