Margaret Kelly, 94; Created Bluebell Girls
Margaret Kelly, the Irish-born showgirl who created the Bluebell Girls, the high-kicking nightclub dancers first seen at the Folies Bergere in 1930s Paris and more recently at the Stardust Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, has died. She was 94.
Kelly died Sept. 11 at her Paris home, European news media reported. The cause of her death was not announced.
Her company premiered in 1932 with Kelly’s innovative stage style. Dancers were 5 feet 10 or taller and their sumptuous costumes consisted mainly of feathers and headdresses. In later years, the feathers were often wired for lightbulbs.
“I wanted them tall with long necks to show off the costumes, with their big feathers and long trains,” Kelly said in a 1986 interview with The Times. “I wanted long legs because they show up better and I wanted the girls to look as though they were enjoying themselves,” she said.
She was known to be strict with her dancers for the sake of perfection on stage.
“Miss Bluebell set the standard,” Fflolliott LeCoque said about Kelly’s showgirl look, which is still in vogue.
“She was a proper lady, with a great sense of humor,” said LeCoque, who is the company manager for “Jubilee!” at Bally’s hotel in Las Vegas. “She could be a lot of fun.”
When topless dancing lost some of its shock value, Kelly allowed it at the request of the Bluebell Girls. “I’ve made my reputation on elegance and class,” she said. But, “If that’s the way the world is going, I must go with it.”
A native of Dublin, Kelly was abandoned by her parents as an infant and raised by a professional nurse who took her to live in Liverpool, England. When Kelly was 6, a doctor suggested she take ballet lessons to strengthen her legs and nicknamed her Bluebell because of her bright eyes.
By the age of 14, she was a professional dancer. At 19, she made her debut at the Folies Bergere as a summer replacement in the chorus line.
World War II put an end to nightclub extravaganzas in Paris. Kelly, who married Marcel Leibovici, a Romanian born pianist who was half-Jewish, spent the war years fending off the Nazis. She was briefly imprisoned in southern France until the Irish ambassador convinced the Germans that she was a native of Ireland, a neutral country.
Leibovici, however, was sent to a concentration camp. He escaped and Kelly hid him in a Paris apartment, bribing the concierge to keep quiet about it until the end of the war.
The couple had four children, three of whom survive. Kelly’s husband died in an auto accident in 1961.
After the war, Kelly put most of her energy into managing her growing assortment of Bluebell dance troupes as well as her Kelly Boy dancers.
She trained about 15,000 dancers, ages 16 to 26, over the years. Well into her 60s, she was still doing the can-can with them, at parties if not on stage. She retired at 79.
In 1948, Kelly formed a partnership with Las Vegas producer and director Donn Arden when he was hired by the Lido in Paris to bring his showman’s touch to France.
One extravaganza they created had an ancient history theme with live camels, pyramids, slave girls and Roman centurions. “The scenes pass so quickly it’s like being on a roller coaster watching the history of the world as told by Fellini,” a Times reviewer wrote in 1985.
Arden brought three extra choreographers to the company. Kelly changed roles, selecting and training new members. Starting in 1958, the Bluebells took their show to the Stardust in Las Vegas, where they were featured until 1991.
She was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1996.