The modern-day Las Vegas production show originated with the tried-but-true formula of women dancing in provocative costumes, magicians and jugglers dazzling audiences with seemingly impossible feats, plus singers belting out popular tunes. Nevada-based producers combined these elements with over-the-top staging and elaborate special effects to create the uniquely Las Vegas-styled production show. The genre is instantly recognizable yet open to change as evidenced by the Cirque du Soleil shows, which are contemporary versions of the traditional circus.
A typical Las Vegas spectacular is a series of linked musical numbers intended to overwhelm the senses with incredible visuals—such as replicating the sinking of the Titanic or the legendary collapse of Samson's Temple—while beautiful women wearing feathered headdresses and colorful costumes parade about the stage with male cohorts dressed in period-themed garb.
Inspired by late nineteenth-century French musical revues featuring scantily clad females—the high leg-kicking "can can" was a scandal at that time—the Las Vegas-style productions were crowd-pleasers for various reasons. With no script or plot to follow, foreign visitors did not have to worry about understanding English. And while tame by today's standards, the fact that the women often wore little more than a smile surely contributed to the shock factor that produced the iconic "Las Vegas showgirl" and sent tourists home knowing they would see nothing similar at the local playhouse. The shows were a hit for the casinos' bottom line, too: there was no need to pay big money for a featured star, which freed up cash for extravagant sets and large casts of easily replaceable "showkids" and specialty acts.
Chorus dancers were no surprise to anyone—New York's famed Radio City Rockettes were a hit back in the Roaring '20s. But burlesque-based Minsky's Follies was the first Las Vegas show to completely bare breasts when it played the Dunes Hotel-Casino in 1957. That minor yet still ground-breaking revue cleared the way for producer Donn Arden to pull out all the stops the next year when he imported an updated version of Lido de Paris into the Stardust Hotel, where it would remain until 1992. Arden, who died in 1994, created a demand for tall (minimum height 5'8") and firm-bodied young women.
The success of these shows resulted in casino executives giving Arden free rein to stage and produce lavish spectaculars such as "Hallelujah Hollywood" and "Hello, Hollywood, Hello" in Las Vegas and Reno casinos. In Las Vegas, these large-scale productions featured nightly reproductions of the exploding dirigible Hindenberg, replete with stuntmen falling from the fly loft—on non-flammable ropes, of course. The Reno show featured the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. As a result, some called Arden the "Master of Disaster."
This "no holds barred" philosophy also was apparent in the Folies Bergere, which the Tropicana Hotel imported to Las Vegas in 1959, partly in response to the success that the Stardust and Arden enjoyed with the Lido show. The Folies Bergere included spectacular sets and a cast of over 100 performers recreating everything from World War I to the high life on a Mississippi riverboat. Remarkably, the show is still running (with some updating) and joins "Jubilee" at Bally's Hotel-Casino as the last of the original spectacles that helped spread the news about the unique allure of Las Vegas, which the newer Cirque-style shows continue as well.
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