Showgirls Return to the Spotlight for History’s Sake

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RENO, Nev., June 29 — The American West has inspired art like the bullet-spitting buffalo hunters of Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell’s bronco riders. But the canon may not yet be ready for Terry Ritter, a former Las Vegas showgirl whose canvases include “The Red Boas,” ecstatic torsos swirling in a sea of red feathers.

Forget the Ash Can School. Behold the Can-Can School.

Ms. Ritter, 54, is featured in what is billed as the first Showgirl Art Competition Exhibition, which opened Friday at the Nevada State Historical Society here.

The small exhibition, which includes a rare turkey ruff boa, bejeweled G-strings and other showgirl artifacts, along with about 20 paintings, is part of a fledgling preservation movement by former showgirls eager to claim and interpret their own history. Dozens of dancers gathered for the opening, aware that the legacy of the lavish and long-gone production shows like the Lido de Paris at the recently imploded Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas is quickly vanishing.

“It’s preserving a section in time, like Degas and the dancers,” said Ms. Ritter, a strawberry blonde who began painting in 1982 between acts at Les Folies Bergere at the Tropicana, setting up her easel in the backstage shower because it had the best light.

The monthlong exhibition will travel this fall to Las Vegas, site of the second annual reunion of former showgirls and crew members.

Both the art competition and the reunion were the brainchild of Lou Anne H. Chessik, who danced for 15 years at the Stardust and in “Hello Hollywood Hello” in Reno (where she famously balanced on the wings of a moving replica of a jet, dressed in a rhinestone bra and G-string).

The demolition of the Stardust was a galvanizing event for Ms. Chessik, now a statuesque 50.

“Las Vegas keeps recreating its history,” she said. “The shows were both a big part of my life and what Vegas was built on.”

The budding genre of showgirl art was exemplified by Ms. Ritter’s sultry portrait of Diane Varney, a Lido and Folies Bergere dancer turned real estate agent (

More significant, the exhibition featured glittering objets and costumes from the collection of Karen Burns, who danced in Reno herself for 30 years and once worked as a waitress at a birthday party for Liberace. Her 1,200-piece Showgirliana collection is an assemblage of painstakingly labeled racks and boxes: black top hats, powder-puff feathered headpieces, white go-go boots, rhinestone armbands.

In the collection’s lime-green capes and feathered headdresses — plumed architecture for the female nude — the glamour of production numbers like “Hello Hollywood Hello,” which opened in 1978 at the MGM Grand in Reno and ran for 11 years, has been gloriously resurrected.

Like medieval armor, the costumes may one day be regarded as talismans of a vanished culture, which had its apogee in the 1960s, when nearly every hotel and casino on the Strip had a lavish theatrical production.

In recent years, the number of major showgirl productions has dwindled to just two — the Folies Bergere and “Jubilee” at Bally’s Las Vegas — as audiences seek state-of-the-art spectacles like Cirque du Soleil. In an era of cable television, the scantily clad woman is hardly a novelty.

Ms. Burns, whose company supplies showgirls for corporate events, possesses a curator’s zeal. She has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on her obsession, even hiring a retired wardrobe specialist to solder damaged underwires on about 50 rhinestone bras.

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What motivates Ms. Burns is the misrepresentation of showgirls as pole-dancing strippers.

“When you tell people you’re a showgirl, everyone assumes your I.Q. drops to 50,” said Ms. Burns, who became a high school teacher after her career as a showgirl ended. “I’ve been married for 30 years. I have a college degree. We’re not bimbos.”

Many former showgirls are now soccer moms. Eileen Edgecomb, 53, who described herself as a “stage mother” of two boys, once danced as a “pony” — a nickname for dancers under 5-foot-6. Standing by images from her former life, some by art students, she recalled the demanding expectations of the choreographer and director Donn Arden, who produced legendary shows like “Hello Hollywood Hello” and the original “Jubilee” at Bally’s, which is still kicking at age 25.

“He wanted to see your tour en l’air, your pirouettes and how many entre chats you could do,” said Ms. Edgecomb, referring to challenging ballet steps.

For “seasoned” showgirls, as they now call themselves, the heyday of large-scale productions poignantly coincided with their own youth.

“You got paid to be in shape,” said Ms. Chessik. “Once the lights hit, the adrenaline got running.”

But after 15 years of working seven days a week, two shows a night — three on Saturdays — she got tired, especially with eight costume changes. “Your shoes, your jewelry, your G-strings, your rhinestone bras,” she recited, “ the pulling of the tights over the fishnets. Though you wereflawless in those fishnets. You never saw cellulite.”

The retired showgirls recalled the rules that dominated their lives. Weight was monitored and tan lines were “a real no-no,” Ms. Varney said. Ballerina-size breasts were preferred, contrary to popular belief, because they made dancing easier. Every six months, there was an open casting call, Ms. Chessik recalled.

“You could always be eliminated. I made sure I got out in my prime,” she added. “It was all about youth.”

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has included the oral histories of showgirls as part of its labor history collection. Michael Green, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas, said a reappraisal was overdue.

“Showgirls have the undeserved reputation as feathered call girls, and there are a lot of myths to explode,” Dr. Green said. “They are more multilayered figures than appearances would suggest. “

At the opening, Ms. Varney stood by the portrait of herself as a 21-year-old dancer, her arched bare back enveloped in white fox fur. Ms. Varney cherishes that season of her life, captured on the canvas in acrylic, glitter and rhinestones.

Ms. Varney hopes to use the painting in her real estate business and pass it on to her children.

“You can implode hotels and sell off the contents,” she said, “but art won’t vanish. Art is forever.”

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