Farewell to the Folies Bergere

Les Folies BergereCourtesy of Tropicana Hotel & Resort

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.

Les Folies BergereCourtesy of Tropicana Hotel & Resort

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.)

Les Folies BergereCourtesy of Tropicana Hotel & Resort

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.

Les Folies BergereCourtesy of Tropicana Hotel & Resort

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.


7 responses on “Farewell to the Folies Bergere

  1. Very sad, indeed. Another Las Vegas classic vanishes… great post and exposure of an older, different version of Las Vegas. The retro since has it’s appeal. I’m glad you got to enjoy the show before it’s just a memory.

  2. Hehe, I meant “the retro still has it’s appeal”. I’m still in sleepy dream mode!

  3. Jules — Thanks for writing! Love your blog. I think retro is more appealing than anyone realizes. Just read a story in the NYT that calls downtown Las Vegas “a worn-out showgirl at the end of a parade,” but I think the author is totally missing the point. “Folies Bergere” was the real deal. It won’t go out with a huge Stardust funeral pyre, but it’s definitely the end of an era.

  4. Thanks Megan. Silly NYT writer – downtown rocks! Lots of great deals (including the classic shrimp cocktails for 99 cents) plus it isn’t pretentious. It’s a nice mix of the old Las Vegas with a newer one (e.g., the light display). Sure, there may be some questionable things and old, worn out facades on Fremont Street or elsewhere downtown. But the same goes for any city. You just have to know where to find the good stuff. I guess he isn’t in the loop, hehe.

  5. Working backstage at the Les Folies Bergere for 12 years now I have to say I’m still stunned and perhaps in denial that it will close on the march 28th of 2009. When I first walked in to the Les Folies Bergere I had little knowledge of the shows history. After a short time I began to learn the stories of some cast and crew that had been with the show for years. Soon the lives of the cast and crew became vivid vicarious stories I will never forget. Thinking of the days my grandfather worked backstage and then later my mother’s sister worked as wardrobe for the show it soon became clear this show was part of my whole families life not just my own. The realization that I have worked a historic show will bring me treasured memories to look back on in my twilight years. Letting go of the Folies is becoming frightfully real as the final date approaches. I can only hope for someone to realize the value and treasured historic significance of the Folies keeping the show alive.

  6. Having been in the show as a showgirl for ten years, this sad news breaks my heart. I am no longer in the show but my heart is still with it. I also am on the billboards advertising it, so even though I have moved on, part of me is forever there.
    The Folies is a major part of my history. It is where I met some of the most wonderful women in my life and we are all still very close friends.
    I second Mike’s hope that someone will see the beauty within the Folies Bergere and be able to take it to a place where it can shine once again.
    Anyone?? Please?
    Help keep history alive.

  7. As a chorusboy of nearly 7 years in Ice Capades, and having shared the fate that the wonderfully talented singers and dancers of Les Folies Bergere are facing tonight..closing night……I find myslef quite misty eyed thinking of the 7 wonderful performances I saw of Folies while visiting ex castmates in Las Vegas who traded in their skates for heels to dance in Lido de Paris,Jubilee and Folies Bergere. I am awash in tears of vivid recollections of a very talented cast who set standards of elegance..that we embraced as the standard of class and professionalism we tried to emulate nightly on our 200 ft long stage of a sheet of ice.

    How well I recall the sequined poncho number with the fabulous showgirls of Folies in black and red doing an exhausting syncopated dance block on the stairs in pill box hats and leaving the stage long enough to blink your eyes and return with massive black feathered shoulder harneses..Jerry Jackson knew how to move dancers through their paces with electrifying speed….to this day..,I often can hear in my head the music from production numbers..I guess..ONCE a chorusboy..ALWAYS A chorusboy…

    not to overlook the Marie Antoinette costumes with RUdas Acro dancers emerging from the underside with streamers filling the stage….. and the drop dead gorgeous and elegant showgirls of Folies frozen in pose in their belle epoque ballgowns as the curtains rise in austrian swags above their heads as the audience bursts into applause,oooohs…and ahhss…. at the stunning beauties filling the stage. the QUALITY of the costume design.. the superb execution and workmanship of the costume makers of those costly period costumes is second to none. I am one of the lucky people who have witnessed the magic of the girls rising into the air in opening number sitting in a sea of lights.thrilled to the superb kicks of the boys and girls in the closing CAN CAN…and shall miss each and every one of those terrific people who exemplify WHY I became a chorusboy.. WHat profession could bring more joy to one’s heart than to be surrounded nightly with some of the world’s most beautiful girls..dressed magnificently and working as a TEAM to do one thing only…”put a amile on an audience’s facenihgtly and leave a memory in their heart to last a life time”?. I am convinced there is no finer calling.

    so keep your CIRQUE DE SO WHAT of contortionists in spray painted spandex…it lacks the glamour and elegance that only a showgirl can exude…they will never see a dime from me.

    NOW regrettably…we are left with only our shared memories of a piece of Showbiz history as a common bond we share as performers that can never be taken from us. I still cannot believe that SOMEONE hasn’t the brains to step in,upgrade and SAVE the MAGIC that was “Les Folies Bergere”…..my gratitude and condolences to each of you who MADE THE MAGIC HAPPEN NIGHTLY on this teriorbly sad night of closing. I will always be your fan.. Au Revoir et BON CHANCE!.korozboy CRAIG

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