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Adieu, ‘Lido’ : After 32 Years and 22,000 Performances, the Curtain Falls on Vegas’ Aging Institution

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lucky Seven Limousine chauffeur Rena Warden carries a folded photocopy of her “Lido de Paris” showgirl photo to show passengers interested in the good old days along the Strip. Carefully unfolding the tattered sheet of paper, she smooths it out on the cocktail lounge table: It depicts a high-contrast likeness of a much younger Rena, draped in a dated costume of white mink and Persian lamb.

“It was taken in 1970,” Warden said over a glass of white wine that she sipped during the “Lido” farewell party Tuesday night. If the costume still exists at all, it’s more suited to a museum than a high-breasted model like the one Rena once was.

“I’m going to call my memoirs ‘Tits and Feathers,’ ” she continues with a laugh.

For 32 1/2 years, the “Lido” and its troupe of topless showgirls, slick jugglers, animal acts and slapstick comics have done two and sometimes three shows a day, six days a week. But tonight, after 22,000 performances, the heavy velvet curtain comes down on the “Lido” for the final time.

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An estimated $5 million to $8 million in sets, props and costumes will go the way of the “Lido de Paris” marquee out in front of the Stardust Hotel--victims of a younger, less flash-and-trash oriented casino marketing strategy.

The longest-running show in Las Vegas history may or may not find a new home along the Strip. Rumors among the cast and crew are that another hotel-casino, perhaps Caesars Palace, just down the Strip from the Stardust, may be interested.

In the meantime, the Las Vegas “Lido” is history.

And what a history: Three decades on the Strip that have seen Vegas itself transformed from a sleazy, Mob-corrupted playground for the few high rollers into a corporate-run Disneyland of bourgeois naughtiness for millions of visitors each year. When the “Lido” opened, it elevated the trashy strip shows to new heights of gaudy, but essentially middle-class, respectability.

The breasts were just as bare, of course, but the “Lido” was the Las Vegas Strip, and, inside the Stardust, it was Paris .

Those who want to watch precisely one hour and 37 minutes of French fluff, flounce and flutter will have to go to the original (and considerably less spectacular) show in Paris.

“The show never started or ended any more than 30 seconds late,” recalled Walter White, a 20-year veteran of the “Lido” stage crew. “You could call your wife and tell her exactly when you’d be home for dinner.”

For the most part, the men and women of the “Lido” were, and are, working-class family people who happen to dance, aim spotlights, sew costumes or bare bosoms for a living. There is even a grandmother at work among the girls in the current chorus line. Despite the lurid lure of tall, leggy women whose mammary glands hang out for public view twice each night, the original French revue has never catered to anything but the most conservative values offstage, according to former cast members.

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Tracey Heberling, another showgirl from the “Lido’s” heyday, now runs a child care center, but she remembers having to grin, keep in step and dance around horse or dove dung often left behind by a previous act.

“There’s this idea of what a showgirl is, but the truth is we’re really very normal, you know,” Heberling says.

She has two grown sons and goes to college at UNLV in her spare time. Other “Lido” alumna run dance schools, cocktail lounges, cleaning services, convalescent homes . . . and all are saddened to see the Parisian show where they danced, sang and performed in the vaudeville tradition fade away.

Far from learning sin and vice on the “Lido” runway, the showgirls learned self-discipline, Heberling said. When she was in labor with her second son, she insisted upon applying her makeup on the way to the hospital so that she would look her best in public.

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“Everyone has kept nice,” she says, glancing around at a crowd of perhaps 100 former dancers and stage crew members at the farewell party Tuesday night. Donn Arden, the Fred Astaire contemporary who choreographed the first “Lido” and has gone on to stage several other Strip extravaganzas, showed up. So did some of the original chorus line members. Muscle tone and makeup have kept many of the showgirls, some now in their 60s, looking a decade or two younger.

Heberling first danced in the show in 1960, two years after it opened. For 15 years, she did the twice-nightly routine and remembers Oscar-nominated actress Valerie Perrine, perhaps the best-known “Lido” alumna, when she did her showgirl turn in 1969. One of the partygoers displays an 8-by-10 of a pre-motion picture Perrine in heavy mascara with her hands cupped over--though hardly disguising--her naked breasts.

Despite the suggestive nature of such poses, “Lido” nudes were, and are, downright strait-laced. Between shows, many go home to cook for families and help kids with homework.

Heberling recalls that stage managers once required dancers to attend church services. On Saturdays, the “Lido” carried a third show at 2 a.m. for late arrivers who had flown in for the weekend from the East Coast, she said. For Catholics like Heberling, Stardust entertainment director Tommy McDonald called in a priest at the close of the show to celebrate Sunday sunrise Mass in the Stardust showroom.

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But Las Vegas remains Las Vegas, even at the “Lido.” After several years of post-"Lido” Eucharists, Heberling recalled, the casino bought the priest a green Mercedes to show its appreciation and the church transferred him and his new car to less gaudy--and potentially corruptible--digs a short time later.

There’s a droop to the pink-spangled C-cup brassieres hanging next to the faded purple ostrich plumes up in the second-floor dressing rooms of the “Lido de Paris” showroom.

Dust on the cracked plastic leaves of the phony ficus plants used during the Forbidden Love Dance is so thick that it rolls into greasy balls between the thumb and forefingers. And the two silvery satellite props backstage at the Stardust Hotel which are used in yet another of “Lido de Paris’ ” nine acts, look as though they belong in the Smithsonian, not in a Vegas Strip showroom.

Next month, a female impersonation floor show called “Boy-Lesque” that just finished a run at the Sahara moves into another showroom in the Stardust Hotel, while the frayed red carpeting of the “Lido” showroom and the ice rink, swimming pool, waterfall and other “Lido” accouterments of the showroom stage get a complete overhaul.

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In mid-July, a new and more ‘90s kind of revue will open in the refurbished showroom: “Into the Night,” with hip-hop dancing and a “Sting” rock crooner as part of the program. Auditions for the new show have been conducted in both Las Vegas and Los Angeles this week, with further auditions scheduled for New York early next month. “Lido” headliner Bobby Berosini and his trained orangutans will probably remain in the new show, but most of the fantasy production numbers won’t.

“Multi-sensory . . . high-tech . . . intense” are the descriptive sound bites that “Lido” director of publicity Kathy Espin uses to describe the new show.

Bare breasts will be part of the new show, of course. Entertainment of the world’s most jaded audiences--the shell-game shocked conventioneers and weekend gamblers who leave billions of dollars behind in the desert before heading home to Middle America--demands several sets of mammary glands on stage each night.

Some things never change, muses Espin.

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But the feathered boas, rhinestones and mink that have graced the stage of the Stardust’s Cafe Continental for more than 32 years are headed for the warehouse or worse. The “Lido’s” Gallic-flavored burlesque packed an estimated 19 million into the northeast corner of the hotel’s casino since the show first opened on July 2, 1958. Bob Hope and the McGuire Sisters were in that first audience.

As of Tuesday, the biggest name to RSVP for the last show was LaToya Jackson, “and she’ll show up for a garage sale, I’m told,” said Espin.

Such is the faded glory of the “Lido de Paris.”

Though the official reason given for the shutdown of the show is that the Stardust wants to modernize under its newest owners, the Boyd Group, the real reason is the enormous expense of producing the show, according to several sources.

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Under its agreement with the owners of the “Lido” name, the show must be produced in Paris and then exported to Las Vegas--a proposition that runs about $3 million in addition to another $3 million or more a year for payroll, licensing rights and other expenses. All artistic changes must get pre-approval from Paris.

The only other French show on the strip, the Tropicana’s “Folies Bergere,” is licensed from the Parisian original but wholly produced in Las Vegas.

Still, the biggest shortcoming of the current edition of the “Lido de Paris” show, titled “Allez Lido!,” is that it is old.

In the past, the productions changed every 2 1/2 years, with new costumes, skits, props and music incorporated into the new productions in order to bring variety to an old production. But production costs and tariffs on many of the expensive costumes imported for the shows made the 2 1/2-year rule economically prohibitive, according to wardrobe supervisor Annie Plummer. Rather than pay the heavy U.S. duty to ship sets and costumes back to Paris, they were often simply destroyed, she said.

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Because of the escalating costs, “Allez Lido!” became the longest-running edition of the show. For over 13 years, the same basic scenes, songs and costumes have been used.

“They still wear bell bottoms on stage, for God’s sakes,” said Espin.

Once, when Siegfried and Roy were still in the show back in the early ‘70s, stage crewman Terry Mann remembers a 250-pound tiger that the two animal trainers had tethered to a pillar on stage. The animal chewed through the rope and, while no one was looking, leaped up into the rafters above the stage. The show went on. The trainers got the tiger out of the attic between shows, before it could fall through the ceiling and land on a dinner table.

Singers sang “Chanson D’Amour” while sliding around in slick dove offal and dancers kept on showing their teeth despite close brushes with disaster. One woman hobbled off stage with a smile on her face after having her instep crushed by an elephant’s hoof.

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And Walter White remembers the time that a horse spooked on stage and ran through the audience, stepping on a pregnant woman before it was brought to bay.

“The kid was probably born with a horseshoe birthmark on his forehead,” he says with a laugh.

Rena Warden remembers her own minor animal problems, the night she had to dance around camels in an oasis fantasy while the animals spit gobs of sputum at her.

But the show always went on.

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