Legendary Tropicana Bows Out After 67 Years to Make Way for Baseball Stadium

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As the last echoes of revelry fade and the lights dim for the last time, the legendary Tropicana in Las Vegas is embracing its final curtain call. Having stood tall on the Vegas Strip for nearly 67 years, it’s now bowing out, presumably to pave the way for a fresh-faced baseball stadium.

The Tropicana, fondly referred to as the Tiffany of the Strip, has a rich tapestry of memories, with several being etched into the annals of this particular reporter’s recollections. I was bestowed with the unprecedented honor of being the first – and last – male showgirl to grace the stage in the illustrious ‘Folies Bergère’, a spectacle exclusive to the Tropicana.

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Dewdrops of reminiscence carry me back to September 2008. A humor columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, I embarked on a myriad of eccentric, exclusively Vegas jobs for the ‘Fear and Loafing’ series. Weeks of learning the ropes – and a fair share of stumbles – led me from washing windows atop Stratosphere to masquerading as a Venetian statue. Dancing in the iconic ‘Folies Bergère’ pushed my boundaries but also shone a light on the real people keeping the Vegas show alive.

Inevitably, post-column discussions would orbit around the incredulous revelation – “They really let you do that?” Well, the gatekeepers of ‘Folies Bergère’ were not immediately swayed, it wasn’t until the eminent closure announcement did my presence grace their stage. With a changing cultural battleground where the likes of Celine Dion and Cher ruled the roost alongside dazzling Cirque du Soleil spectacles, the show was losing its audience.

But the showgirls themselves held their dedication fast. One of them, Janu Tornell, took it upon herself to invest in me, in fear of a stray stumble botching the show. Countless hours were spent on the empty Tiffany Theatre stage, rehearsing the Can-Can number, absorbed in her tales of her Cuban showgirl mother who migrated to the States just as Fidel Castro rose to power.

Incidentally, Tornell didn’t initially set out to tread the path of her mother. She was unexpectedly thrust into the world of ‘Folies Bergère’ after a friend arranged an audition. That proverbial fluke revealed the joy of performing, the wonder of wearing gorgeous costumes and the allure of four-hour-nightly work schedules.

Named in honor of Paris’ maiden music hall which opened in 1869, ‘Folies Bergère’ spun a tale of resplendent female costumes that eventually bared more skin. With its inception in 1959 and subsequent closing 50 years later, it holds the record for Vegas’ longest-running production; a record Tornell added to for the final 14 years.

As I stood teetering on five-inch heels, swathed in ostentatious drapes under a three-pound headdress, I could hear directions echoing from Elaine Celario, the Tropicana’s entertainment director, questioning my natural runway gait.

The minimum height requirement dictated that the showgirls towered over me by five inches, lending a distinct resemblance to an unfortunate fifth-grade incident where I fell victim to a taller classmate. Yet today, the consoling chuckles were just viewed as par for course.

Showgirls were the glittering mascots of Las Vegas since their christening in 1952 with the Copa Girls at the Las Vegas Sands. They continued to light up Vegas, even 14 years after ‘Jubilee!’ the last showgirl show at Bally’s, closed its doors. I proudly claim a connection with these dazzling dames, a connection which continues to endure.

And so, I found myself amidst a flurry of high-kicking dancers, unicyclers, and somersaulting acrobats, carving a choreographed path across the Tiffany Theatre stage. The spectacle flowed seamlessly as I maneuvered the spotlight and finally came to rest on the center staircase’s third step. Two bewildered older women in the front row were a minor distraction. But hey, it’s Vegas!

As the final notes played out and the applause roared, I exchanged victorious smiles backstage with Tornell. I was now a small part of an era forever etched in Las Vegas lore. Regardless of the impending silence, the Tropicana’s legacy will continue to thrum to the rhythm of Vegas, a testament to a time when everything shone a little brighter under the streetlights.