Thursday, March 26, 2009

A night at the Folies

Last Saturday evening we went to see one of the final performances of Folies Bergere at the Tropicana. It’s the oldest show in Vegas, in its 49th year, which they say is also the longest running show in the world. The web site says: "The timeless musical extravaganza embodies the very essence of sexy, classic Las Vegas entertainment. Folies Bergere has everything a great Las Vegas entertainment show should have - fabulous singing & dancing, gorgeous Las Vegas showgirls in barely-there costumes, dazzling scenery, hilarious comedy and sheer spectacle!" The TV advertisement for the show is posted:

CBS TV did a story on the show closing a few days ago.

We started out for the Strip a little later than planned, we only live three miles west of Las Vegas Boulevard, but depending on what casino we want to go to, traffic and road construction it is usually difficult to estimate accurately how long it will take to get there. Every casino has their own parking garage, but I usually park in just a few that are easy to get to and then we walk over to our destination. The Tropicana is on the east side of the Strip, the last big casino down on the south side by the airport. For the south end of the Strip we use the parking garage at Mandalay Bay. I like smaller roads instead of the big arteries, so I usually go down Torrey Pines south then turn on Hacienda, which crosses the railroad tracks and I-15 then goes right past the Mandalay Bay parking garage. This is a large parking garage that is easy to get in and out of on this back road, has nice wide aisles and good size angled parking spaces. Up the ramp and I parked in about the middle of the garage on the third floor. This garage has six floors, and probably room for about a thousand cars on each level. Close to the casino there are escalators in a row that take you down each floor to the ground level and drop you right at the rear entrance to the main building. Unfortunately today the escalators between levels three and two are stopped and taped off, so we just walk further to the elevators and go down to the bottom.

We wanted to grab some burgers at the Burger Bar on the bridge over to the Luxor, so we walked past the restaurants in the back, through the casino and over to the escalator up to the bridge. It was pretty crowded in the casino, this being part of the March Madness basketball period; a lot of people come to Vegas on the weekend for the parties set up in the sports books. We went up the escalator; at the top is a new place, the minus 5 Ice Lounge, where the temperature is kept below zero, the bar is a block of ice, you dress up in fuzzy warm clothes and only get twenty minutes inside to swig down shots from their huge vodka selection. Out front are some scantily clad girls in fuzzy boots and hats enticing the guys to come inside. We went down to the Burger Bar but being a Saturday night, even though it is early (about 5:30), there is already a line of people waiting to get in. Our show starts at 7:30, but with the wait to in and still have to pick up tickets it would not be enough time to enjoy a meal there. So we continued to wander down the mall and over to the Luxor, where we maneuvered through the casino over to the coffee shop.

We’ve started to hit the coffee shops in the casinos, there are usually no lines to get in, the food is pretty good and prices are reasonable, or at least Vegas Strip reasonable that is. The Luxor casino is as packed as it was over at Mandalay, with lots of happy people playing slot machines and table games and wandering around. With the lower number of people coming to Vegas recently due to the financial problems this coffee shop has half the tables closed off, which would be fine but on this weekend there are a lot of people here. We only had to wait behind two groups in order to get a table, and found a big menu sign announcing the specials; brats or Italian sausages with Budweiser beer selections. I understand the beer thing, it seems to tie in to the basketball stuff. B just had a salad; I went for the sausages, which ended up being pretty good.

After we ate we made our way outside and walked past the Excalibur to the corner and crossed the pedestrian bridge over to the Tropicana. It was pretty windy up there, and we found another broken escalator, the down one going off the bridge. The Tropicana has a water feature on the corner, with a pond and some waterfalls, which in the wind were creating eddies of dampness blowing over people walking past. Some casinos have entrances at the top of the pedestrian bridges, but the Tropicana is an older casino built back from the street with the main casino entrance on the corner, so it was down to street level and across the taxi and car lines to get to the front door.

We stayed at the Tropicana on our first trip to Vegas, about twenty years ago and saw the Folies show at that time. B remembers us going, but I have a rather poor memory and all I remember from the trip were the corridors past the pool area back to the hotel tower, with parrots on stands placed periodically and the horrible jungle themed carpet in the hotel room, designed to make it uncomfortable in there and drive you out to the gambling areas. The casino has changed hands a few times and is currently part of a larger company that is in bankruptcy. The Tropicana in Atlantic City, New Jersey lost its gaming license last year because of actions of the owner. The Tropicana here looks like it has not been touched in twenty years, it feels like a smaller cheaper casino compared to most of the others on the Strip which have been renovated or blown up and rebuilt every few years. The front doors put you right at the end of a row of table games. Like the other casinos the Trop was pretty busy. If you have never been to a Vegas casino then it is totally different than anyplace else; there is the constant noise of people talking and laughing and cheering coupled with all of the slot machine sounds as well as background music. Most casinos are not quiet places, and the old Tropicana is one of the noisiest. The gambling hall is not one large high ceiling room as in some newer casinos, but there are a lot of pillars and lower ceiling areas that make the one room look smaller. The hotel check in desk is just off to the left, and we looked for signs pointing to the Folies showroom, but did not find any. Most casinos put the showrooms off in the back, so we first started walking to the rear of the casino. When we hit the back wall there were signs pointing off to different features, but none for the showroom, so we asked the gentleman at the security desk. He pointed us up towards the front of the house, across from the front desk.

I had purchased tickets on line the week before, but the reservation system required you to go to the show desk to pick up the actual tickets. Some shows will let you print an entrance ticket right on their web site, letting you avoid the line out front. The Folies showroom was up a few stairs, between a coffee shop and the sportsbook. As at most other Vegas casinos the sportsbook has a wall full of TV screens, probably twelve or fifteen, showing a variety of sporting activities. Because of the March Madness basketball thing most were tuned to basketball games, and it was full of noisy people yelling whenever a point was scored or something special happened. I am not a sports fan, not at all, so whatever was going on did not mean anything to me. The stairs up to the showroom were full of older women in feathery red hats. A woman at my last job was a Red Hat member, and ended up talking B into joining the group.

The Red Hat Society is an organization designed for ‘older’ women, providing and outlet to periodically get together and do some activities together. I don’t know how large it is, but there are several dozen Red Hat groups in the Las Vegas area each composed of a few dozen women. Each group arranges its own activities, B has been to some outdoor plays, museums, shows and a few other activities since joining. There are no dues or planning meetings, I think a few women in each group just plan and organize outings and everyone gets together at these. Oh - just found their web site, there are 97 groups within 10 miles of our zip code. Well, that is quite a number of groups. Anyway, the way you recognize a member of the Red Hat Society when they are on an outing is by the red hats that they wear. You are free to wear any hat you want to, as long as it is red. Many of the women put in a big effort in decorating their hats, creating new ones for each outing, usually involving a lot of red feathers. The stairs outside of the Folies showroom were filled with women with red feathers on their heads. I thought this appropriate, because the Folies is always referred to as a ‘feather show’. I think that dates back to the fan dancers of Vaudeville, who used big feathered fans to hide behind as they disrobed, occasionally waving them to give the audience a brief flash yet still maintain the legal level of coverage.

I got in line to pick up the tickets, and then we wandered off to the restrooms and back to the entrance line. This show, as many of the others like it, used to be a dinner show. Everyone sits at long tables or smaller booths. Way back when the first show of the evening was dinner and a show, the second was two drinks and the show. When I first came to visit Vegas thirty five years ago I stayed at the then new Caesar’s Palace and saw Alan King and Carol Channing at a dinner show. You used to buy tickets, or get comped tickets for gambling, your seating was determined at entrance time, usually based on how much you tipped the guy at the door. Now you reserve your specific seats on the web in advance, with nobody to tip out front. The tables remain but the dinner and drinks are gone. The number of people going to this show has declined over the years, thus leading to its closing. The back half of the showroom as curtained off, and there were many empty seats. Most of the people at the show were locals, there like us to see the show before it disappeared. There were not even any cocktail waitresses; you had to walk over to the bar on the side yourself to get drinks.

Basic table tickets are under $40, with a little extra for a seat in a booth. The room was laid out in a standard theater pattern, with rows of seating rising up from the bottom area in front of the stage. The front row tables were placed right up against the front of the stage, long narrow tables with the thin end facing forward and five people sitting on each side. If you had a front seat then you were literally sitting with your shoulder up against the rim of the stage, where the performers could shake your hand and involve you in the act. If it was a comedy show then people in the front row, usually high rollers comped their seats, would really be involved. Alan King did talk directly to them, I remember stories of some aggressive comedians really tearing apart people, and some romantic singers directing a song to a lovely lady sitting right there. This room had a row of tables right up front, then a step up and a row of booths, each with a small table and seating for four, then a step up to tables, then booths, and so on up to the back. The room probably would seat 800 or so, but was half empty.

We got in right when the doors opened at seven, and thought we might have the booth to ourselves but another couple showed up just before the show started. They were also Vegas locals, the wife wanting to catch the show before it was gone. There were about fifty people in the show, all the women seemed to have long legs and wore black fishnet stockings with a little ribbon of black cloth hiding the essential bits. About a dozen women had small bikini tops, about fifteen were topless. There were about a dozen male dancers, all fully dressed. The show was composed of many quick songs, with people dancing along to taped music, rotating off stage to change wigs and filmy tops, or put on different colored feathers and open front costumes. There usually were a dozen or so people on stage, moving from a couple that might start a dance when dozens of women in big feather costumes would them descend a staircase behind them, or a dozen guys in tuxedoes would dance and then have a dozen women come out as partners. Interrupting the group dances were some smaller acts: two Chinese brothers performing acrobatics with rings and things, a juggling comedian, and a woman singer that did not seem to be lip synching but still sounded pretty good. There was a master of ceremonies, who would come out at times and introduce particular segments. During most of the show there were usually at least a half dozen women in topless outfits on stage, except for the final number which was the French Can Can number, with everyone on stage, all fully dressed. The whole show lasted about an hour and a half, and we both found it to be very enjoyable. I was surprised that for a quarter of the price of a Cirque show or Cher or another big name you could be entertained quite well. B said she liked it, and was sorry that we hadn’t gone more often.

When out of town visitors come it is always challenging to take them out. B’s best friend was here the weekend before, and wants to come back to see Elton John with B. That’s a nice concept, but good tickets for Elton are over $225 apiece, coupled with dinner that makes for a rather expensive evening. Here you could get more people dancing around for the same ninety minutes at a lot lower price, just without the big name out front. With the Folies closing that just leaves the Jubilee at Bally’s as the only old style show in town, also feathers and topless, but at twice the price. We haven’t seen it yet, but after seeing this one will probably check it out. There are Jubilee tickets way in back for $50 or so, we might do the cheap seats just to see.

As at Zumanity the concept of topless does not only refer to the costumes; most of the women in these shows are not, shall we say, ‘well endowed’. I guess it would be challenging to dance and run around stage in six inch heels without some type of support. Those girls are probably in the Strip clubs making much more money. These big shows do have cast members that stick around; our local magazine had a story on the girls of the Folies a few months ago, with nice pictures of ten of them, all of which had been with the show for more than ten years. As long as you look good in makeup, can carry those heavy costumes and walk and dance in the heels, and don’t gain any weight or get tattoos you can continue to work. But put on ten pounds and you are out of there, as the city is filled with lots of legs willing to replace you on stage.

After the show B just wanted to go home. We are getting old and do not party late any more. Well, we never partied late anyway, preferring our house to fancy (expensive) clubs. It was nine o’clock on a Saturday night, and the Tropicana casino was still full. The sports book had changed into a lounge, with a live band on stage making lots of noise. We wandered outside, and climbed the steps up to the bridge over Las Vegas Boulevard (the escalator was broken, remember?). We were halted by a group of about a dozen gathering together in the middle of the bridge to get their picture taken with all the Strip casino lights in the background. We then went into the Excalibur and wandered around for a while, as we had not been in that casino for quite a while either. It too was very busy and noisy. One bar area we had to walk through had dancers up on small platforms, with some dancing platforms out in the casino floor in amongst the slot machines. Since the three casinos on that corner, the Excalibur, Luxor and Mandalay Bay, are all owned by the MGM Corporation they are connected together by bridges so you don’t have to walk outside in the summer heat to visit each one. There is also a monorail out front that can be used, which was in place before the connecting bridges were built. We finally found the escalators up to the shopping level and wandered past everything to take the moving beltways over to the Luxor. The effects of the economy were also evident here, with quite a few empty storefronts visible. This dropped us right onto the casino floor of the Luxor on the north side. We wandered through the very busy casino to find the escalators up to the bridge and shopping area that led to the Mandalay. Now retracing our steps we found another broken escalator at the end going down. The Mandalay casino was quiet compared to the last three we walked through, though it was much larger with high ceilings, and probably had just as many people in it but spread out over three times the area. Then past the restaurants to the parking garage elevators and on home.

So, there is a long post with few photos telling you how we spent our Saturday evening. We had fun, saw thousands of people that also seemed to be having fun, most of them getting drunk. In Vegas you can walk the streets with open alcohol containers, so you can usually tell the tourists by the three foot high plastic souvenir cups filled with watered down drinks they are carrying, or the twelve pack of beer they guys have under their arms. I see them every lunch hour when we go out for our walk, already getting loaded at noon, or else still up from the night before.

Update: here is a link to the LV Journal story on the last night of the Folies.

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