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MY NIGHT AS A TROPICANA SHOWBOY: Vegas Reporter’s Unique Remembrance

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Posted on: April 1, 2024, 05:00h. 

Last updated on: April 1, 2024, 04:59h.

At 2 a.m. Tuesday morning, the Tropicana in Las Vegas will close for the last time after almost 67 years, supposedly to make way for a new baseball stadium. To honor her legacy, I’d like to share a fun memory from the Tiffany of the Strip possessed by no other reporter on earth. And, for that matter, no other man.

This reporter, left, as though you really needed that clue, was the first (and last) male showgirl to appear on stage in “Folies Bergère” in the 50-year history of the Tropicana’s show. (Image: Jason Bean/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

“Stand in place and clap seven times!” Janu Tornell reminded me of the routine she helped me rehearse all week.

It was September 2008, and I was two years into a six-year stint as the humor columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. For my weekly “Fear and Loafing” series, I sampled various only-in-Vegas jobs around the Strip, spending a week or so training with, and interviewing, someone who did the job for real.

I allowed the column to place me in all manner of awkward situations in the hope of good copy and good lessons about the real people who keep Vegas humming behind the scenes. Among the 176 real jobs I tried out were washing the windows at the top of the Stratosphere, trying to stand perfectly still as a Venetian statue, and dancing in a live performance of “Folies Bergère” at the Trop.

Showmanship

One of the questions I always got asked after one of my columns ran was: “They really let you do that?”

“Folies Bergère,” a staple topless showgirl show on the Strip since 1959, was on its last long legs when this reporter joined the cast for a night. (Image: New York Times)

Truth be told, the producers of “Folies Bergère” initially turned me down. I had pitched them what a natural next step this would be after “Chippendales: The Show” had just allowed me to use its stage at the Rio to impersonate a man.

One day, they changed their minds. Not coincidentally, it was the day after it was announced, sadly, that the show would close within a year. With competition from five different Cirque du Soleil shows and superstar residencies from Celine Dion and Cher, “Folies Bergère” and the Strip’s only other showgirl show still kicking, “Jubilee!” at Bally’s (now Horseshoe), just weren’t drawing the crowds they once did.

Without much time left, “Folies Bergère” obviously didn’t care about anything anymore.

However, the showgirls themselves cared. Tornell was fearful that I might trip or otherwise misstep and ruin the show for its 500 or so audience members. So she took several hours of unpaid personal time to train me for my eight minutes in the show’s big production number, “The Can-Can.”

During one of our one-on-one sessions on the empty Tiffany Theatre stage one afternoon, Tornell, best known at the time for having starred in the “Survivor: Palau” reality series in 2005, told me she was raised in Las Vegas by a former Cuban showgirl, but never intended to follow in her two-steps.

“My mom danced in Havana right before Castro came in,” she said. “That’s how she got to the States. But it’s not something I ever aspired to be.”

That was until six years later, when a friend of hers got her an audition.

It was a fluke,” said Tornell, who was runway modeling in LA at the time. “But I love performing in the show. I get to do a glamorous job with beautiful costumes, and I only work four hours a night.”

“Folies Bergère” got its name from Paris’ first music hall, which opened in 1869 with dance shows featuring elaborate female costumes that, eventually, became less elaborate in the top region.

The Tropicana spinoff launched in 1959 and closed 50 years later, making it the longest-running Vegas production ever. Tornell danced in it during its final 14 years.

One Night in Paris

“Now walk to the table,” Tornell directed me during our final dress rehearsal.

Walking anywhere is not easy while wearing living-room drapes, 5-inch heels, and a 3-pound headdress that keeps threatening to fly off and take your showgirl show an additional kind of topless.

Janu Tornell (in the mirror) does her best to make sure this imposter at least looks the part. (Image: Jason Bean/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

“Do you really think girls walk like that?” Elaine Celario, the Tropicana’s entertainment director, chimed in.

It was now only hours before my live debut, and the entire cast had assembled for my benefit — and their entertainment. By the way, this was not the first time beautiful females have encircled me, pointing and giggling. I was reminded of that fifth-grade afternoon when Debbie Lee beat the hot lunch out of me on the playground.

For the record, Ms. Lee had a 5-inch advantage over me. Coincidentally, that’s the same advantage my fellow showgirls enjoyed. The minimum height requirement to star in “Folies Bergère” was 5-foot-10.

“You’ll be standing on one of the staircases a lot,” Celario explained.

Extinct Species

Faker showgirls than even this reporter pose with a tourist on the Las Vegas Strip. (Image: wandering-through-time-and-place.com)

Starting with the Copa Girls, who opened at the Las Vegas Sands in 1952, showgirls played a major role in Las Vegas entertainment  And they remain the city’s official icon. Two 50-foot neon versions even greet motorists at Las Vegas Boulevard and Main Street downtown.

Yet, after Bally’s shuttered “Jubilee!” in 2016, real showgirls went extinct in Las Vegas and never returned.

You know the ones you see on Strip sidewalks offering selfies and then haranguing you for a $50 tip afterward?

I’m more of a real showgirl than they are, and that’s because none of them can claim to have ever danced in an actual showgirl production on the Las Vegas Strip.

“Stomach in!” Tornell whisper-yelled. “Now wave!”

Show Time

We were in the live performance now, tracing out a giant semi-circle with our high heels in the middle of the stage.

Fortunately, the audience couldn’t hear Tornell’s stage directions over the blaring strains of Jacques Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” (which I had to look up because I knew “The Theme From ShopRite’s Can-Can Bash” probably wasn’t accurate).

Dancer Aaron Shanley guides this reporter across the lip of the Tiffany Theatre stage. (Image: Jason Bean/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Though my actions were highly choreographed, they were less a series of dance steps than a vigilant avoidance of the lines of high-kicking dancers, unicycle pedallers, and somersaulting acrobats crossing in front of and behind me.

I was one of nearly 50 people crowding the stage at one point, and Tornell and her commands were, thankfully, never more than 15 feet away.

Dancer Aaron Shanley guided me across the lip of the stage, by my crimson-gloved right hand, and deposited me at my final mark: the third step on the center staircase.

Other than a slight wobble in my walk, my big moment went off hitch-less. Well, two older women in the front row pointed at me, one with a distinctly “o” shape to her mouth. But mostly, it seemed, no one in the audience noticed anything particularly askew.

The most likely reason occurred to Tornell as we celebrated backstage after the show.

“You were good,” she said, “and hey, it’s Vegas!”

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