Putting the 'sin' back into Sin City

Forget the family friendly stuff -- the white tigers, the roller coasters, the wave pools. In a town that is constantly redefining itself, what's old is new again as the entertainment pendulum swings back toward sex appeal. For all the talk about the Disneyfication of Las Vegas as a wholesome, family-oriented destination, topless entertainment is making a comeback here in Sin City.

Sure, most of the Strip's signature shows -- the ones featuring tall, bare-breasted showgirls parading in flamboyant headdresses -- have long since closed shop. But in their place, a different breed of erotic show is on the rise -- including matinee burlesque, G-stringed magicians, aerobic dancers in the almost-buff prancing around to canned music.

One downtown hotel, the Plaza, is offering explicit "gentlemen's club" fare. The topless dancers at its variety show hang around after the curtain drops, and perform individual stripteases and lap dances for customers seeking naughtier action.

And the biggest hotel in town -- the MGM Grand, which embraced the family market when it opened in 1993 -- is now putting its imprimatur on the rejuvenation of sex in the city. It launched its first topless show this month, modeled after one at Paris' famed Crazy Horse Saloon. Called "La Femme," the show employs the same performers who work in Paris. Promising to celebrate "the art of the nude" with heavy use of light projections, the performance creates only the illusion of nudity.

Executives at another Strip hotel say they are on the verge of announcing their entry into the topless business. And casino entertainment directors are quietly debating whether to offer upscale striptease bars to keep gamblers -- and those pockets stuffed with $20 bills for lap dances -- closer to their own slot machines.

"People come to Las Vegas to be a little bit naughty," said Anthony Curtis, publisher of Las Vegas Advisor, a subscription-only consumer newsletter that tracks entertainment trends here. In the late 1980s "Las Vegas went mainstream with family entertainment and everything moved away from topless revues except for a few of the tried-and-true ones," Curtis said. "Now, all of a sudden in the last 12 months, Vegas has done an about-face."

And tourists here are lapping it up.

"I'm a lady the rest of the time, but here in Vegas I can be a little risqué," said a middle-aged New York woman, after watching her third topless show in a week.

"I'd be reluctant to ferret this sort of thing out in New York -- somebody might spot me," she said. "I don't want to be seen enjoying this. But here, it's OK. There's no stigma."

A Connecticut couple were similarly motivated to watch "Skintight," a provocative Harrah's show featuring a Playboy centerfold and a trio of hard-bodied male dancers. "This is the only place in the world we can see this sort of entertainment," said Bob Richo. "We wouldn't be doing this at home."

"When folks visit us," said Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, "they expect to partake in the glitter and glamour of old Las Vegas. This is a return to yesteryear."

With the 1957 debut of topless performers in Minsky's Follies at the old Dunes hotel, bare-breasted showgirls became firmly implanted on the local entertainment landscape. As more topless shows were introduced -- eight or more at one time in the late 1970s -- other hotels that signed headliners for their big showrooms still offered various kinds of topless entertainment in smaller lounges.

"When people in movies and television were still covered, people had to come here for risqué entertainment," said Ginny Murphy, entertainment director at the Tropicana. But high production costs and the proliferation of sexually charged entertainment at the movies and on cable TV put a damper on the popularity of topless production shows. Also, men looking for edgier shows were leaving casinos for the town's growing number of gentlemen's clubs, where they could interact with the dancers.

With the boom of new casino resorts in the late 1980s, hotel bosses broadened their target market to include families, and the Strip became home to amusement parks, video arcade centers and lavish-but-G-rated production shows. The Mirage and its resident magicians, Siegfried & Roy, led the way. While the duo had performed with topless entertainers at other venues, their supporting cast at the Mirage is covered up.

Topless dancers had no relevance to their new show, said Alan Feldman, a vice president of MGM Mirage. "Much of the entertainment that was being presented in the 1970s and '80s was topless for topless' sake," he said. "It had lost its grounding as having any artistic purpose in a show."

Some hotels along the Strip persisted in introducing topless revues to supplement variety acts, and many bombed. ("Panties Inferno" was closed within days. Another, called "Eclipse," was so lacking in artistic value, it was canceled by the hotel before its opening night.)

But others found a successful hook. Four years ago, "Showgirls of Magic" opened in a small lounge at Hotel San Remo, featuring female magicians who performed covered in the early show, topless in the late show.

"Sex definitely sells," said producer David Saxe. "I get three times as many people for the late show as I do for the earlier one. Women feel justified seeing topless because it comes with magic, and men justify seeing magic because it's topless. Either way, it's value-added."

Breck Wall has produced the burlesque-based "Bottom's Up" off-and-on in Las Vegas since 1964 -- sometimes topless, sometimes not. When he opened his current show at the Flamingo in September, he found a niche as the only topless matinee show in town. "I could care less if my show was topless," Wall said, "but the hotel saw it as an attraction."

Likewise, when impressionist Bill Acosta's show was moved from the Luxor to the Flamingo six months ago, some of his supporting dancers also shed their tops.

"People decided a few years ago to make this a family town," said the show's producer, Jeanne Bavaro. "But I don't think it'll be much longer before this town is the way it used to be -- an adult Sin City. That's when this town worked best."

Indeed, "Folies Bergere," which opened in 1959 and is the longest-running show in the country, and "Jubilee!," which opened in 1981, have succeeded because of the public's enduring fascination with their iconic, mannequin-like showgirls.

But tastes are changing. With the growth of gentlemen's clubs -- partly a result of the increasing number of men coming to town for conventions and seeking out more sexually explicit entertainment -- hotels are more receptive to smaller shows that are more racy than the French-inspired productions.

"I think the demand for that kind of (more provocative) show has been here all along," said Suzanne Trout, spokeswoman for Harrah's. "Collectively, we lost sight of that."

The MGM Grand has conceded as much, in closing its amusement park last year, refocusing on adult entertainment and bringing in "La Femme." "It's part of the evolution of Las Vegas," said MGM Grand President Bill Hornbuckle. "We're not anti-family by any stretch, but we clearly understand that Las Vegas is a destination for adults, and that's our key focus."

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