Word that “Les Folies Bergere” at the Tropicana had been axed reached me by “social media.” Somebody hinted about it on Facebook, and I went searching until I found a “breaking news” update that revealed the sad truth. Just short of the show’s half-century mark—“Folies” opened on Christmas Eve, 1959—the cast will be laying its feathers down for the last time on March 28.
According to Jerry Jackson, the show’s choreographer since 1966, “Folies Bergere” is the longest-running show in America. Whether that’s true hardly matters; 49 years is an amazing run by any standard. In contrast, “Cats” ran for only 18 years. OK, that’s Broadway, but still. Even “The Mousetrap,” that venerable tourist-pleasing institution at St. Martin’s Theatre in London, beats “Folies” by only seven years.
Here’s another way to put “Folies” into perspective: The show’s been around for nearly half the span of Las Vegas’ existence. The city celebrated its centennial in 2005. If New York had a show that began when the city was half its current age, it would now be in its 193rd year. What that means in Vegas time is that “Folies Bergere” has been around longer than the La Concha Motel. It’s the same age as the Nevada Gaming Commission. Perhaps most incredibly, it was around before the Rat Pack. No, it isn’t a show Vegas locals tout as awesome, like a Cirque du Soleil spectacular, and it’s not the showcase of a venerable headliner like Wayne Newton. It’s a show we all took for granted, a show we didn’t have to go to see because it would always be there.
Except now it won’t be. While I regret to say that it took the show’s cancellation to motivate me to buy a ticket, that’s exactly what happened. I caught the late performance last Saturday night.
As I walked into the Tropicana, I realized it had been years since my last visit. Strangely, nothing much had changed. The entire casino, from its light-studded ceiling to its stain-disguising patterned carpet looked like it had just emerged from a time capsule buried a few decades ago. I found that I kind of liked it. This isn’t the Rat Pack’s Vegas, but it isn’t Celine Dion’s Vegas, either. It’s somewhere in between, from an age of big hair, platform shoes and disco balls.
Disco balls, in fact, were the first thing that caught my eye as I followed the usher down the center aisle of the Tropicana Showroom. Two vintage mirrored spheres hung above the stage, one on each side of the huge red velour curtain. Since I’d sprung for the priciest seats in the house, I found myself ensconced in an upholstered booth furnished with a Formica-topped table. A menu offered drinks that also reminded me of “Saturday Night Fever.” Kahlúa with milk led the list.
Before the show began, I was joined in my four-person booth by two Belgian gentlemen in town for a home builders trade show. A man and his son-in-law, they hailed from Ghent. (If Ghent had a show that began when the city was half its present age, by the way, it would be around 500 years old.)
With the house perhaps two-thirds full, the lights dimmed. A spotlight found a showgirl midstage. She was wearing an enormous pair of pink feathered wings. While she did nothing more than pose, she successfully set the tone for the rest of the show. Scene after scene offered escalating levels of classic kitsch, including snow, smoke, a black-light routine and a Busby Berkeley sequence with a giant suspended mirror. Reflecting the styles of the last eight decades, a cast of dozens danced and pranced in a truly impressive variety of costumes and headdresses. How many turkeys were denuded to create this extravaganza is impossible to estimate, but “Folies Bergere” is never more accurately described than when it is called a “feather show.” Interspersed with dance numbers were a comic juggler and a pair of impressively limber Chinese acrobats. The grand finale was, appropriately, a can-can.
When the lights came back up, I asked my booth mates whether they had enjoyed the show.
“Yes,” the older man said without further elaboration.
“Um … no,” the younger one said. “When I come to Las Vegas, I expect something—something bigger. Something newer.”
Something bigger. Something newer. Yeah, I guess that’s what Las Vegas is known for. And there was a time when I, too, might have made the error of comparing “Folies Bergere” with “Love” or “O” or “Ka.” But now I’m more like the other Belgian guy, who smiled through the whole show the same way I did. Watching a show that delivers talent, sparkle and the sweet taste of slightly corny nostalgia is like biting into your grandmother’s Bacardi-soaked fruitcake. It’s not hip to admit it, but … Mmmm.
What will replace “Folies Bergere” remains to be seen, but the young Belgian will probably like it better. He’ll probably be happier when the whole Tropicana is blown down and replaced with “something bigger, something newer.” I, on the other hand, now feel like a genuine local. I’m sorry to see the Folies go, and especially sad to watch feathered showgirls take one more step toward extinction. With the closing of “Folies Bergere,” the habitat of our signature species will be reduced to a life-threatening level. “Jubilee!” at Bally’s lives on, at least for the moment. I’m not going to wait for its funeral announcement to buy a ticket.