Women on the Las Vegas stage: Introduction

Showgirls at the Moulin Rouge, 1955 (Photo courtesy of UNLV Special Collections)

Jan Laverty Jones, the first woman mayor of Las Vegas, was recording a political ad for a local TV station when an entertainment manager was overheard saying, “Isn’t it amazing that only in Las Vegas could you find a mayor who, in her past life, had been a showgirl?”

Jones had never been a showgirl, but the assumption sheds light on the notion that women’s roles in Las Vegas professional and political life have been significantly shaped by the history of women’s work in the city’s entertainment industry. The fact that someone would assume that a female Las Vegas political figure came from the Vegas stage is both a commentary on popular ignorance about the public and professional lives of women in Las Vegas and a testament to the empowerment women have enjoyed as showgirls and in other iconic performance roles on the Las Vegas Strip.

The idea that all women who work in Las Vegas must be showgirls, cocktail waitresses or involved in the sex trade is probably derived from an early trend that actually circumvented turn-of-the-century anti-woman labor conditions. The first casino opened in Las Vegas in 1905. Within a year, Block 16 (then the gambling and red light district) became the only place in the city where women could work. Tracing the outlines of the law, women worked as prostitutes in Block 16. When the area was shut down  by the U.S. military in 1942, women continued to work the sex trade downtown, and as the city has developed, women sex workers have provided commodities to the male high rollers, businessmen and tourists whose money helped Las Vegas flourish.

But soon, as formal entertainment became a staple of the Las Vegas economy and the city’s reputation, women took on roles that provided them money, status and a chance at upward social mobility. The showgirl became a symbol of female independence.

Historian Joanne Goodwin, director of the Women’s Research Institute of Nevada, explained that good contracts helped provide the female performers of decades past with economic security. She remembers when the Bluebell Dancers, the chorus line in the Stardust’s topless show “Lido de Paris,” came to town.

“When the European dancers came here in the Lido, they signed a three- or six-month contract,” she said. “Later, the producers began to get more elaborate sets, and then they wanted [dancers] to come for a longer period of time, so their contracts were extended.”

Goodwin said that arrangements like these provided women with job security while protecting their brand as performers.

In the 1950s, a showgirl in Las Vegas made $125 – $175 per week for approximately 12 minutes of stage work a night. Between shows, showgirls were expected to mix with casino guests. They were often given money to play tables and allowed to keep any winnings. (The money was called “window dressing.”) Because showgirls made good money and because they had opportunities to meet and marry powerful men, they often gained respect and social stature. For many in the 1950s and ’60s, this social and economic power helped women in the Las Vegas entertainment industry escape domesticity.

As popular social values have evolved and labor conditions have changed, women have climbed to the highest ranks of the entertainment and tourism industry. Even the women executives who grace the top rungs of some of the world’s biggest gaming and entertainment conglomerates stand to profit from the sexual appeal of women who hold roles that have belonged to Las Vegas women for more than 100 years. However, many female performers have used their success to launch careers in entertainment, business and politics and have helped shape Las Vegas into a place where women thrive in virtually every professional field.

Angela Stabile danced for 10 years in “Crazy Girls.” When she retired from performing, she began producing burlesque shows.

Asked why she made the switch to producing, she said, “I just knew I could do it.”

Stabile said that after watching “Crazy Girls” producer Norbert Aleman do the job, she “knew [she] could do it better.”

Stabile and her husband created “X” (now “X Burlesque”), which shows at the Flamingo, and the downtown revue “Raack ‘N’ Roll.” They’re getting ready to launch another topless show at the Rio.

Stabile is a respected name in Las Vegas entertainment, but she remembers a time when she had to fight to be treated with respect. Though she says her experience as a topless dancer helps her connect with the performers she hires, she is conscious of the elements of her career and her appearance that have stood in the way of others seeing her for who she is.

She said that being underestimated — especially by men in her field — allowed her to trounce expectations.

Stabile is a tall, busty blonde with big blue eyes and an air of self-assuredness that radiates both “sexy” and “savvy.”

“They thought that if you’re a beautiful woman you can’t be [a producer],” she said. She believes that her shows’ success ultimately forced the naysayers to give her the respect she was due.

For decades, women in the Las Vegas entertainment industry have worked hard to gain power, respect and prestige. Their efforts afforded them places in the history books and made way for women like Stabile to stake their own claims to respect and reputation on-stage and off.

Grace Hayes had played in movies and worked with stars like W.C. Fields and Bing Crosby. When she came to Vegas to perform at the El Rancho hotel, she brought the city’s first taste of Hollywood star power. Hayes opened her own club on 5th street (now Las Vegas Boulevard) and continued performing at the Monte Carlo Club and the El Cortez. Called “The Sweetheart of Las Vegas,” Hayes was responsible for drawing in Hollywood connections that helped Las Vegas gain its reputation as the Entertainment Capital of the World. In 1950, Hayes became the first woman to run for Las Vegas Constable. She lost the election by eight votes.

Nancy Houssels (born Nancy Claire Wallace) trained as a dancer at UCLA and came to Las Vegas in 1966 to join the cast of “Casino de Paris” at the Dunes hotel. Two years later, she began dancing in “Folies Bergere” at the Tropicana. She retired from dancing in 1970 when she married the president of the Tropicana Hotel, J. Kell Houssels Jr., but as a mother and stepmother, she devoted herself to community service. Houssels served as chair of the Nevada Council of the Arts for seven years and co-founded the Nevada Dance Theater, a professional dance company and school that provided dance lessons to low-income students. In 1998, the organization became the Nevada Ballet Theater.

Lorraine Hunt Bono grew up in Las Vegas, was educated as a musician and became a cabaret singer in Las Vegas, Reno and Lake Tahoe. She was successful, and she used her earnings to invest in real estate. She married, and she and her husband opened the Bootlegger restaurant on land she owned. Hunt Bono was elected to the Clark County Commission in 1994, and in 1998, she became the first woman to chair the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. She served as lieutenant governor from 1998 until 2002 and made a run for Nevada governor in 2006.

On the basis of work done by forebearers who made the Las Vegas showgirl into an icon of feminine social and economic strength, who made their way in the “man’s world” of business and who put women’s names on the ballot, women have taken hold of Las Vegas entertainment with force.  Women entertainers on the Strip today are masters of arts from dance to drama, and they often pull high salaries and huge audiences.

Veteran Vegas performers like Marie Osmond have stayed the course, balancing family life, professional commitments and artistic pursuits and making way for new faces to change the way we think about Las Vegas shows.

At the center of the Strip, a woman has redefined the image of a Las Vegas headliner. Celine Dion’s recurring concert at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace, opening in 2011, paved the way for the “residency” — a type of show contract that affords the artist maximum performance exposure while protecting her autonomy as a brand.

More than a century after women began working in Las Vegas, female entertainers have made their mark on nearly every inch of the city’s entertainment real estate. The women on today’s stages embrace the history of their roles and look toward to the future.

This month, we will bring you in-depth portraits of the lives of five women who perform in iconic roles on the Las Vegas Strip. You will meet a comic, a topless dancer, a musical theater actor, an acrobat and a showgirl.

The stars of our series have let us look in on their lives at home, in the green room and on stage. They have talked frankly with us about how they view their roles in light of the history of women in Las Vegas, and they have helped us understand how each of their roles provides them with confidence, power, freedom and femininity.

Follow our series on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout July and be surprised and delighted as you gain glimpses of the lives of five incredible women who are making their lives — and history — in fabulous Las Vegas.