Bally’s ‘Jubilee!’ maintains grand Las Vegas show tradition
BY MIRIAM DI NUNZIO Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org February 1, 2013 5:42PM
IF YOU GO
“Jubilee!” is the resident show at Bally’s Las Vegas. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. nightly (dark Fridays). A “covered show” is staged at 7:30 p.m. Saturdays. Tickets, $64.50 to $132.50. Visit www.ballyslasvegas.com or call (800) 237-SHOW.
Updated: March 4, 2013 6:24AM
LAS VEGAS — They are ambassadors of all things Las Vegas. With their statuesque figures, elaborate feathered headdresses and bejeweled costumes, showgirls are part of the very fabric of this city.
And they are a vanishing breed.
In fact, the last, true showgirls on the Strip are found in “Jubilee!,” a razzle-dazzle throwback to the Golden Age of the city, when nearly every casino in town boasted a showroom spectacular replete with the iconic performers.
Diane Palm, company manager for “Jubilee,” which has called Bally’s Resort and Casino home for 31 years, knows the show inside and out — she was once a showgirl, first in “Hallelujah Hollywood!” at the old MGM Grand, followed by a 14-year run in “Jubilee.” Palm was there when the show’s creator, the late impresario Donn Arden, envisioned a grand spectacle filled with singing and dancing and seemingly endless lines of beautiful girls. Very tall, beautiful girls.
“I was 5 foot 9 when I danced in the show, and I was a short showgirl,” Palm said with a chuckle. “Showgirls have to be between 5 foot 9 and 6 foot 2 in their stocking feet. The stage is enormous, so height is essential. The girls are dancing on 2- or 3-inch heels, and then you add a headdress that can add four more feet to your height. All that height only makes the show more visually stunning because the costumes and the movement are so elegant, and the incredible, statuesque lines created by the height are quite lovely.”
“Jubilee!” boasts nearly 100 people and 1,000 dazzling costumes designed by the legendary Pete Menefee and Bob Mackie. The performers — there are showgirls, male and female dancers and singers — work on a stage that is 15 stories high and half the size of a football field wide. The largest of the hundreds of set pieces weighs nearly 4 tons. The production numbers take the audience on a journey through world history and pop culture — from the biblical times of Samson and Delilah and the sinking of the Titanic to the glory days of Hollywood musicals and the advent of disco.
As the longest-running production show in the history of Las Vegas, “Jubilee!” remains true to Arden’s original 1981 concept. That means the showgirls perform topless in some of the numbers (there is a family-friendly, “covered” show at 7:30 p.m. Saturdays), as this was de rigueur for these shows back in the day. The feeling of wearing those costumes, or lack of them, and the headdresses, is unlike any other stage experience a dancer will ever know, Palm said. And it takes a lot of talent and hard work to carry it off — literally.
“You have to have years of dance training, ballet especially, to have the strength and grace to carry the costumes and balance those headpieces atop your head, hit your marks and smile the entire time,” Palm said, noting that the headdresses can weigh anywhere from 8 to 17 pounds.
Some of the headdresses simply rest atop a performer’s head via a small cap. The largest ones (the height can go beyond four feet in some instances) are affixed onto a harnesslike backpack woven discreetly into the costumes. In addition, some of the headpieces feature yards of cascading feathers and fabric that the performer must also balance and navigate with the greatest of ease.
Dancer Stephanie Bell, who joined the company four months ago, realized a career in “Jubilee” was a perfect fit for her 5-foot-10 frame. The former Chicagoan (by way of Florida) was honing her improv/acting skills at Second City while continuing her dance training at Chicago’s venerable Lou Conte Dance Studio when one of her ballet teachers made a suggestion that changed her life.
“My teacher literally said, ‘You’d make a fabulous showgirl,’ ” Bell said. “So I bought a ticket to New York and auditioned at a ‘Jubilee’ casting call, and I got the job. In ballet, I was always the odd, tall girl in the back or at the end of the line. Here, I’m one of the shortest girls in the show!”
In “Jubilee,” there are showgirls and dancers; dancers wear showgirl (or similar) costumes but do not perform topless. Both groups, however, learn all the choreography and perform together in nearly every number.
Bell, 26, knows she could step into a showgirl role down the road. It’s a crossroads of sorts for a dancer, she said, and their families.
“Potentially it could happen,” she said. “I’m totally fine with [the nudity]. Initially my mom wasn’t sure what I was hired for. She was freaking out because in her mind she thought topless meant stripping. Then she came out to see the show and she totally got it. All she kept saying was how beautiful the girls are and how spectacular the production numbers are.”
“After a while, you forget they’re topless,” Palm said of the troupe. “When you come to see the show, it’s like looking at a piece of art up on the stage. You’re admiring the beauty of the female form. Plus, there is so much else to look at on the stage and so much movement and so many costumes and set pieces. The topless aspect just really blends into the over-all scene.”
With the advent of Cirque du Soleil productions and the mega-star headliners working the rest of the Strip’s theaters, “Jubilee!” continues to stand the test of time.
“Two shows a night, six days a week in a 1,000-seat theater — the demand is there,” said Sean McBurney, vice president and assistant general manager of Bally’s Las Vegas. “It’s the only vintage show still on the Strip. Yes, it’s over-the-top, but it epitomizes what Vegas is all about. There are seven rows of girls in these amazing costumes on that stage, more than 100,000 lights and 5,000 gallons of water that sink the Titanic every night. It’s fabulous singers and dancers.”
To find their cast members, Palm and her team used to rely on performers flocking to Las Vegas for casting calls. These days, while auditions are still held in town, Palm heads to New York, too.
“There were so many of these shows in town back in the day that everyone used to come here to audition. You could move here, even without having secured a job, because you’d go to maybe five or six auditions for the dozen or so shows that were hiring,” Palm said. “More often than not, the dancers and singers who were really good could land a job somewhere. But now we’re the last one, so in the last seven or eight years, we’ve had to go where the talent is, and that’s primarily New York.
“We have auditioned in Chicago a few times but didn’t get the response we thought we would. It’s a very different dance town. We did audition at Hubbard Street because the training is excellent, but that’s a very different type of dancer, and they’re too short. Even the Joffrey dancers are short for our needs. We audition for our singers and male dancers there, but even they have to be very tall and very slim.
“You have to be tough to be a dancer in this show. Back in the day, the showgirls didn’t carry they heavy dancing, the technical dancing that the dancers did. Now all of them need to do it all. They all need an extensive background in ballet, lyrical jazz, contemporary dance.”
Like Bell, showgirl Cathy Colbert came to “Jubilee!” when her height increasingly became the obstacle to a professional dance career, though she previously danced with the prestigious San Diego Ballet for several years as well as the Nevada Ballet Theater.
“I wish I had known about ‘Jubilee!’ when I was younger,” the 5-foot-9 Colbert said. “You spend so much of your career as a dancer being told you’re too tall and too fat and then you get to be in a show like this, and every day you feel beautiful. I can’t put into words what that means to a dancer’s psyche. What other job do you get to wear these elaborate and enormously expensive costumes? I mean, we’re wearing Swarovski crystals every night. It’s the ultimate glamorous job for a dancer. And the whole topless thing? It’s really not a big deal. There’s no time to think about it, really, because you have so much else going on with the choreography and hitting the marks and making your entrances and exits and getting those costume changes done literally in 30 seconds sometimes. My parents are as God-fearing as you can get, and they love this show.”
Palm, who officially stopped dancing in the show 17 years ago (“though I still can hit all my marks and I occasionally do jump back in an emergency”), is as passionate today as she was three decades ago when she first danced in “Jubilee!”
“When people think of a Las Vegas showgirl, they don’t know it, but they’re visualizing the Donn Arden showgirl,” Palm said. “You may not know his name, but you should. He always said of us, ‘My girls don’t sweat, they glow.’ He always wanted to present the best on stage. That’s why he hired the best talent, surrounded us with the best costumes, the best designers, the best sets.”
For Bell, that same passion is ignited within her.
“The best part of being in the show is that you’re part of a legacy,” Bell said. “Saying that ‘I’m a classic Las Vegas showgirl’ is so much bigger than myself. It’s like being a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model or Bond girl. It’s the legacy. No one can take that away from you. When I’m 85, I can smile and say ‘I was a Las Vegas showgirl in ‘Jubilee!’.”