The showgirl must go on
The glamorous showgirl was once an icon synonymous with Reno
Hello, Hollywood, Hello, the MGM Grand's signature stage show, was a production on a scale that seems almost inconceivable today. The show opened with seven stewardesses dancing on each wing of an airplane. There were circus acts, can-can dances, and homages to classics MGM movies like Wizard of Oz. Women danced in elaborate 40-pound costumes. There were onstage waterfalls and earthquakes, and a space age discotheque complete with moving scenery, descending from the ceiling, complete with dancers in robot outfits and spacesuits.
In recent years, as the casinos have scaled back, much of the glitz exemplified by that show has been lost. A college-aged student, born in Reno in the early '90s, might have grown up here with little or no knowledge of the glamour of Reno's not-too-distant past. One of the icons of this glamorous past was the showgirl: a tall, statuesque dancer adorned with a frilly, feathery, dazzling, sparkling costume. The image of this type of performer was closely associated with our community for decades. Now, it seems almost extinct. What happened? Where did it go? And are there signs of the mythological showgirl still alive in Reno?
It’s local history that some residents take for granted and others are unaware of: From 1978 to 1989, Hello, Hollywood, Hello was presented multiple times a week at the MGM Grand Hotel-Casino, which became Bally’s Reno during the run of the show, then later, the Reno Hilton, and it’s now the Grand Sierra Resort.
“In 1978, the biggest show in the world was on the biggest stage in the world and it was in the biggest little city in the world,” says Karen Burns, who was a chorus dancer in the show for two years. She now owns and operates her own production company, Karen Burns Productions and owns the bulk of the costumes from Hello, Hollywood, Hello and other original casino revue shows. But when she says “the show,” she means Hello, Hollywood, Hello.
“There were 142 performers onstage,” she says. “And that was just that show. Every single casino in town had a show. There were over 300 dancers working seven nights a week. Every single casino had a cabaret. Every single casino had a showroom. And dancers were working all over the place. They came from all over the world to Reno. … This area has one of the most exciting entertainment histories in the world.”
Well, maybe not every casino. Burns uses the costumes for dance performances at corporate and private events. She has also exhibited many of them at venues like the Nevada Historical Society, Harrah’s Automobile Museum, the Nevada Museum of Art and the Nevada State Museum. She also regularly presents lectures to college classes, veterans groups and other organizations about dance history and the history of casino shows.
The classic showgirls, as seen in Hello, Hollywood, Hello and other shows were all professional dancers, according to Burns. “They were all professionally trained. You had to have ballet training. That was number one. You couldn’t even audition for any show if you didn’t have ballet training. You had to have ballet, jazz, sometimes tap. You had to be a legitimate dancer. Many of these people had performed on Broadway, on television, and movies and videos. They were incredibly talented dancers.”
Though there’s a strict historical definition of the height and training of a showgirl, Burns prefers a broader definition: “The definition of showgirl, to me, is any girl that performed on any stage in any show.”
According to Burns, the first showgirls danced at Folies Bergère cabaret in Paris in the late 1800s. Florenz Ziegfeld, “the man who invented show business,” saw the Folies Bergère, and was inspired to create the Ziegfeld Follies, lavish Broadway productions famous, in large part, for their beautiful chorus dancers.
“MGM did two movies about the Ziegfeld Follies,” says Burns. “Then, when Don Arden produced the Hello, Hollywood, Hello show, he named it the Ziegfeld Theater and the Ziegfeld stage, because it was all about glorifying the American form. That’s where the original showgirls come from. … The whole thing was just glorifying the female form in gorgeous costumes. Originally, there was nothing sexual about it. When you go to a museum and you see famous pieces of art, there are nude women, but it’s not sexual. … It was all about glamour and sophistication.”Sideshow attraction
“It was part of Reno,” says Joan Arrizabalaga, a local artist who makes a lot of casino-themed artwork. She worked behind the scenes at Harrah’s Reno, in charge of that casino’s wardrobe department from 1986 to 2006. “It’s what Reno always had. We always had that great showgirl culture, all the glitter and glitz and all the excitement of it. You should get some of that when you’re gambling. If they want people to come, they’ve got to get some kind of a reward, besides just losing their money. Not that they don’t win sometimes.”
Arrizabalaga says that the revue shows represented a friendly gesture to the gamblers and other patrons.
“I think the important thing—and I really worry about the Nugget now that it’s been sold—I think the important thing is to have a personal touch,” she says. “When somebody owns the club, and it’s their name and their thing, then they have a personal touch, and they have pride in it. When it becomes a corporation, they no longer care about it. It becomes a revenue producer, and they’re trying to get revenue out of everything. And all that really nice fluff that’s on the top disappears.”
She says that, in the heyday of the casino culture, the showgirl was the living symbol of Reno’s elegance.
One casino, Ernie Primm’s Primadonna, even had a showgirl theme. A few of those old showgirl statues from the casino’s facade now bedazzle the dirty bookstore down the street.
“Everybody could see a glamorous girl walking down the street and there was all this energy around it,” she says. “That was such a big part of all the showrooms. Even when you had a star come in, you’d have showgirls, wandering around the club or any of those things. It’s just such an unusual thing, showgirls are. … Now that they’re gone, you really miss it. You don’t see it anymore. We took it all for granted.”
“Back in the day showgirls were put up on a pedestal as an iconic thing, untouchable, these glamorous girls who would hang out with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.,” says Britney Irwin, a dancer, choreographer and producer.
She and her company, BLV Productions, created The Biggest Little Sideshow, which was produced at Harrah’s Reno earlier this year. The show was a hit among locals, particularly a younger crowd that doesn’t often attend many casino shows. It was voted “best casino show” by the readers of this newspaper.
“It used to be, honestly, there wasn’t a showroom in town that wasn’t filled with showgirls,” she says. “Now, there’s only two or three operating showrooms in town, unfortunately. I feel like age-wise or generation-wise, I’m kind of like the last of the showgirl era that got to experience it, at least got a taste of it.”
In some ways, shows like The Biggest Little Sideshow—and there aren’t many; it was a creative and unique production—are descended from the grand tradition of the casino showgirl revue, though on a much smaller scale.
“It’s definitely evolved from that tradition,” says Arrizabalaga. “And Britney is keeping it going as best she can. And that’s brilliant, and I’m proud of her. She’s good at it. She’s got a smaller situation now, and the shows obviously have to be smaller, because everybody has cut back. They’re not doing it they way that they were, especially in Reno, because it’s a corporation now—Harrah’s, where she was. We have more and more corporations now. It’s pretty tough to get that personal touch that Harrah had when he was there. That was what made it all so great. The showgirl thing and all the shows were a gift. That’s what they gave. You paid some money to get into them but nothing like what they want now. That was a gift to the gamblers. Now it doesn’t feel like they give the gamblers anything. We could mail our money in if that’s what they want.”
“What it all boils down to is money,” says Burns. “In the old days, producers and choreographers were paid to create the show. The hotel paid for the cost of creating a show. They paid to put the dancers on the stage. Now, as a producer, you have to pay for everything. It’s like, ’How cheap can you do it?’ That’s the question in the world now. It’s not how creative, or lavish and beautiful, or wonderful. It’s how cheap can you do this? You can’t create opulence and lavishness.”
Burns says that some of the costumes from Hello, Hollywood, Hello cost $1,500 apiece to create—in 1978 dollars. (She says she’s still paying off the loan she used to buy the costumes from Bally’s in the ’90s.)In need of Renovation
“Poor Reno—Reno used to be the entertainment mecca of the world,” says Burns. “Starting with Piper’s Opera house, and Cal-Neva Tahoe and Harrah’s South Shore Room, starting with the first of the first of the first. That’s where everybody wanted to perform. I even remember—and I’m not that old—Reno was cooler than Vegas at the time I was dancing. Nobody wanted to go Vegas. Reno was cooler than Vegas in the ’70s and the early ’80s.”
Burns says that it’s one of her dreams to develop a traveling exhibit of the more than 1,200 costumes in her collection, and have a permanent, rotating exhibit here in the city.
“There’s like no interest in Reno,” she says. “People look and go, ’Oh, Karen and those old showgirls. We don’t want to do showgirls. That’s topless and that’s not appropriate.’ No, we’re talking about the history of dance and the history of culture and the history of fashion.”
That said, Burns says she has seen some renewed interest in recent years, as the distance in time has become less passé and more romantic.
“Everything old is new again,” she says. “The older generation misses that glamour. They’re like, what happened? Where the glamour? Where’s the sophistication? Where’s the beauty? The young people that I work with, they’re usually between 18 and 25 years old, they just go crazy with the costumes and the music, because they didn’t even know this world existed. It’s new to them. They always ask, why don’t we do shows like this?”
Arrizabalaga points out that, with Burns’ costume collection, Will Durham’s neon sign collection, recently exhibited at the Nevada Museum of Art, archival information in the Nevada Historical Society, the artwork, historical drawings and old slot machines recently exhibited at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Art of Gaming exhibition, there’s more than enough material to create a Reno museum.
“But people don’t seem to want it around here,” she says. “We don’t have a museum in this town for that stuff like that. We don’t have our Reno museum that we need to have, that shows anybody who wants to walk in and get a sense of this, who could see some costumes or see some neon or see some old stuff. We don’t have a museum like that in Reno and no one seems to want one. We have empty buildings downtown. We have the old Penney’s building. We have all kinds of buildings down there that could be a museum. I think that would bring people to Reno. People want to see what it was. It may never be that again, probably won’t. But it would be nice to be able to show people what it was.”