Those Fabulous MGM Costumes Exhibition
“There’s a lot of punch in that hall,” says Sheryln Hayes-Zorn, acting director of the Nevada Historical Society.
Punch is one way to put it. The modest front hallway of the pint-sized museum has been taken over by the elaborate, sequined splendor of its recent MGM showgirl costume display, Those Fabulous MGM Costumes Exhibition.
Upon first walking inside, visitors are greeted by colorful fluffy feathers—brightly courting viewers from the tops of looming headdresses once balanced precariously on some lucky 5’10” dancer’s head. Wandering farther into the entryway, sparkling sequins battle for attention over dozens of twinkling rhinestones, each precisely placed on a garment of similar grandeur.
The 20 costumes lining the museum’s walls are all original pieces taken from the 1978 Donn Arden production Hello Hollywood Hello, the cream of the crop showgirl extravaganza that overtook the MGM Grand in Reno for 11 years. Boasting the largest stage with its five stories and hailed as the biggest production for the time period, Hello Hollywood Hello brought in dancers worldwide and was seen by 7 million people in the course of its 7,000 shows.
“If you had friends and family come into town, this is where you’d take them,” says Hayes-Zorn of the MGM attraction. “We were Vegas—this was the show.”
While the costumes may be over 30 years old, they don’t have a wrinkle to show for it, thanks to the collection’s owner and caretaker, Karen Burns. Burns, who handpicked the pieces currently on display, was a showgirl herself back in the day, and personally wore some of the costumes while dancing in Hello Hollywood Hello as a “bluebell,” one of the three levels of dancers. In showgirl terms, a “blue bell” is the shortest tier of dancer who is never nude. The other levels include the “tall nude,” a dancer who stands at least at 5’10” and goes topless (but never bottomless—that’d be a different kind of show), and the “tall showgirl,” also tall and skimpily clothed but never exposed.
The glitzy pieces are only a small portion of Burns’ personal collection of showgirl memorabilia. The former performer is the proud owner of a 3,000 sq. foot warehouse containing 1,000 of the 3,000 costumes used in Hello Hollywood Hello. After the show closed its curtains for the final time in 1989, Burns bought many of the costumed memories—preserving as many of the historical outfits as she could.
“[The show] didn’t pay taxes on the costumes’ expenses, and they put so much into them,” explains Hayes-Zorn of the pieces, which ranged in cost from $750-$3,000 thanks to materials like ostrich feathers and Aurora Borealis Swarovoski rhinestone crystals. “So they destroyed many of the costumes after the show.”
Choosing which costumes to showcase for the exhibit was quite the feat. But Hayes-Zorn says the final decision was based on both functional space, and a desire to recreate the timeline of the two-hour show itself, which highlighted MGM classic musicals and movies such as Wizard of Oz, Show Boat, and Barbary Coast Gent.
“We wanted to see what costumes would look good on what mannequins we had, which ones best showcased the different time periods and themes, and also space,” says Hayes-Zorn. “We don’t have a lot of space in that hallway.”
Alongside the glamorous show garments are also original photographs, news clips, costume design sketches, and random fun facts pertaining to each.
If showgirl history isn’t enough to send one over to check out the exhibit, perhaps current popular Reno culture will do the trick.
“It’s a great influence for Burning Man!” says Hayes-Zorn.
Particularly the 60 lb., ape-like Barbarian Wizard costume.