Looking Back – Las Vegas Arrival in 1977

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I arrived in Las Vegas in 1977, grabbed a waitress job at the pool at the Circus-Circus and set out to scour the newspapers for audition notices for the shows. One of those was “Bare Touch of Vegas” at the Marina Hotel. I auditioned but had not heard anything and so had written it off and resigned myself to cocktail waitressing.

My poolside boss at Circus-Circus (I’ll call him Frank) was a young, easy going fellow who loved to put on a fake French accent to talk to “the girls.” He kept us endlessly amused and used the accent often. This particular day, Frank told me his car had died and asked if he could call me for a ride if he couldn’t get it up and running. He promised not to call too late. Mai oui.

Sure enough, my phone rang in the early evening. When I answered, the French-accented voice said, “Leeza Brodeur?” I responded with similar flair. “Oui.” There was a pause and then he said, “This is Pierre Bezard. I am calling to invite you to an audition.” I giggled at how far Frank was willing to take this little charade and said, in a voice full of innuendo, “Oooh, what kind of an audition?” A longer pause. I started to feel a bit doubtful and said “Frank?” “No, this is Pierre Bezard. I am calling to invite you to a callback for ‘Bare Touch.'” OH MY GOD!

I went to the callback and although I was pretty good, I was told that I was 2 inches taller than the rest of the cast, so they decided on someone who blended in a bit more. As it turns out, Frederic Apcar, the producer of “Bare Touch of Vegas,” was also the producer of “Casino de Paris” at the Dunes Hotel.  A couple of months after the phone fiasco, I auditioned for and got a place in “Casino de Paris” and stayed for four years. Pierre was often around and at some point I fessed up to being the crazy girl on the phone call. Unperturbed, he just laughed and commented, “Ah, you are the one.”

Looking back, although I’d initially been devastated to lose a job because I was too tall (a rarity, I discovered), I was lucky to spend the next four years in “Casino de Paris.” I’ve often commented that “Casino de Paris” was the best dance show I ever did and that if I’d known I was starting with the best, I’d have retired after that. That’s not quite true, of course, because I subsequently spent three years traveling overseas to places I’d most certainly never have had the opportunity to see otherwise but, forty years later, “Casino de Paris” remains my favorite.

Transformation – Conservative to Liberal

63f44bf5df433d698abb349de3018b08I can only speak to my own transformation but I think it was my three years of traveling overseas that turned me from a semi-conservative to a liberal. Prior to travel, I had no reason to pay any attention at all to anyone else’s customs, hopes and difficulties. My thinking changed by interacting with various cultures and realizing the things we had in common. The little things might differ – what we wore, our food preferences, where we worshipped – but the big things were the same. We all want happiness and a measure of success. If you look at the billions of people on the earth, I’d wager that most of them are working to survive, not working at something they love. What, then, determines what makes their lives good ones?

My thinking had progressed a little bit when I moved from small town Texas to big city Washington, D.C. and then to international Las Vegas. It was not a big city when I first got here but it had an international base in the casinos and I worked with many of them in the show I danced in for my first four years here – French, Canadian, Czech, Italian. I watched their approaches to American norms and heard stories of what it took to adapt to our ways. Although I didn’t have to accept the differences, I found myself thinking about them. What did it take to leave everything behind to come here? I wasn’t sure I would’ve had the courage to do that. And the little differences became apparent as well. Who thought fast food was awful? More important, who survived on fruits and vegetables … and preferred them? Really?

And then I got the chance to travel to South Africa for a show that was beginning rehearsals in Bophuthatswana. I had found the stories of travels from the military people I had met in Washington interesting and they had opened my mind to even more options once I drove across country to Las Vegas on my own and found that I was perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I guess that was the beginning, because I would not have imagined such a thing in high school. In fact, I remember that my mother had once told me that although not a rich family, if I wanted to do something like go to school in Switzerland, they would find a way to get me there. I was horrified at the thought of being that far away. I couldn’t really tell you why. Perhaps it was that I was young and had always had relatives close by that I could depend on to take care of me and although I longed for the independence that all teenagers do, I didn’t want to push it too far.

So I arrived in South Africa, where I spent ten and a half months, and loved the adventure. To this day, I have great stories to tell. But more important, I saw firsthand what apartheid was like and wondered how people could treat each other that way. I saw people who had to be taught what a knife and fork were before they could work as waiters in the resort’s restaurants. That people could be so different was eye-opening and it made me take stock of the sheltered little world I’d left. It also made me put things in a bigger perspective.

I worked in Cairo where women who wore pants of any type (that includes jeans) were suspect as being loose and ran the risk of being followed, and maybe worse, if they dared to walk alone. I had a boyfriend there and learned that, by law, women were second-class citizens. It was not appropriate for me to hug him in public. Unimaginable.

When one of the shows I worked in overseas took me to Ito, Japan, I was particularly fascinated by the plethora of “rules” the Japanese lived by. When I questioned some of them, the answers almost always came back to “tradition.” I realized that in many of the countries I visited, the people I met had no reason to question. They had grown up in one place and much like me before I left Texas, knew nothing else. To them, it was entirely normal and my views were seen as radical. I got a taste of what it’s like to be the outsider with different ways that are frowned upon.

So I came back to the States having loved my travels but sporting a liberalism about what other people could and should be allowed when they come to my country that appalled my conservative mother. Too late. I’ve discovered that once you start thinking a bit more liberally, it’s impossible to back up. And I wouldn’t want to because the most important lesson for me was that if you look at the big picture, everyone simply wants to be valued, loved and to live life to his or her fullest.

Looking Back at the Forks in the Road

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From time to time I see comments from people who say they don’t regret anything they’ve done in their lives. I often want to say, “Really? Just wait.” How can you not look back at some of the forks in the road and try to imagine how different (always assuming better, of course) your life might be.

One of those forks in the road for me began the day I decided to continue a relationship with a man that I’d begun dating before I moved to Las Vegas and before he decided to marry someone else while I was working overseas. His job required a lot of travel – Secret Service – and so I saw the separations as a normal part of our relationship. In my mind, he only married her because, as he’d told me, the agency encouraged its agents to marry. Surely he settled for second best under pressure but just couldn’t tear himself away from me. (Yeah, I know. Don’t laugh). It took me a long time to understand that love is not necessarily reciprocated. That’s a hard lesson because we like to think if we’ve vetted the other person and found them worthy of our love, they must love us, too. How could our love be so misplaced?

In this particular case, our meetings lasted on and off for almost 20 years. Stupid, you say? Why yes. I remain mystified that I could’ve thought someone who only saw me once every year or couple of years would actually be in love with me. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I convinced myself that he didn’t really love the person he married or he wouldn’t still be coming to see me. I told myself that he was just too chicken to face her.

Here was the defining moment that made me look at our relationship realistically: Over the years, he drank more and more and I had eventually told him I thought he was an alcoholic and I didn’t want him calling me again as long as he was still drinking. Two years later, he was in town, called, said he’d made some changes in his life and could we have dinner. Well, of course I relented because it sometimes takes a whole lot of water to extinguish the fire and clearly I’d only tossed a sprinkle or two when I’d needed a fire hose. I noticed that although he didn’t drink as much at dinner, he still drank. Hmmm. Then when he told me he loved me, I didn’t want to rock the boat by bringing up the booze issue.

So the next time he came to town, I decided to broach the subject of our long-term relationship and where, if anywhere, it was going (and yes, he drank at dinner). I don’t remember much of the conversation. The only thing I remember clearly is that when I told him he’d said he loved me the last time he’d been here, his eyebrows shot up and he laughingly said, “Jesus, was I drunk?”

Cue anvil between the eyes. Boy, that was a show stopper, I’ll tell ya’! It was also the end of the relationship. My regret is my stupidity. On the other hand, I’ve always believed we learn something from the bad as well as the good so I’ve long since put it in perspective. Even so, I sometimes look back and wonder what the hell I was thinking.

Then … and Now

Back in my dancing days, I had several opportunities to meet some pretty big stars. I was exhilarated, thrilled that a small-town Texas girl could be in a position to meet famous people and, of course, I wanted a photo with every one of them to commemorate the moment. I’m glad I did because looking at me now, you’d never suspect that show business side of me and it makes for wonderful conversation.

One of my photos, taken backstage at “Casino de Paris” in Las Vegas, is probably my favorite. It was during the show that we all noticed Cary Grant sitting in the King’s Row booth center stage. I was told he held stock in the hotel and was a friend of our comedian and frequently showed up but it was the first time I’d seen him in the audience.

After the show, word spread fast that he was backstage and in our comedian’s dressing room. Everyone dawdled, wasting time that would normally see us racing to the coffee shop for a bite to eat. Someone even called the camera girl to come backstage so those who were lucky enough to be there when he came out could perhaps persuade him to take a photo or two. Finally, I was dared (and of course took it) to knock on the dressing room door and ask if a few of us could get a picture. He couldn’t have been kinder. When he came out, cast members lined up for a photo and he stood there and humored each and every one of us.

Cary Grant

Think the story stops there? Of course not. A little over a dozen years later, I had retired from dancing and was working in a law firm. I wanted to put at least one something in the office that would remind me of the career I’d had for 13 years that had provided me with tons of great memories and dozens of great stories. I chose to frame my photo with Cary Grant and put it on the bookshelf across from my desk.

How ironic that when I put something up to make me think I wasn’t the has-been I sometimes felt like, a younger co-worker walked in one day, examined the photo carefully, then turned to me and said, “Very nice. Is that your boyfriend?” Incredulous, I said, “Cary Grant?” She shook her head with incomprehension and asked me if he was famous. I mentioned several movies – North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, Charade, Houseboat, Father Goose – and to my utter amazement, she didn’t know any of them.

Nothing like a younger generation to put things in perspective, is it?

Vegas – the Early Years

In 1977, a year after graduating from college with a BFA in Drama/Dance, I headed for Vegas. I had spent that first post-school year living with relatives in Burke, Virginia and teaching various and sundry dance classes all over Virginia and Washington, D.C. – and I had hated it. So I drove across country by myself, settled in to a one-room apartment near The Strip and quickly secured a cocktail waitress position by the pool at the Circus-Circus Hotel. I also scoured the local paper for audition notices. It took me three months to land my first show in Las Vegas and little did I know that I started with the best – “Casino de Paris” at the Dunes Hotel. It remains the best show I ever did.

In the course of the show, we had a large lion that sashayed onstage for a brief appearance and then spent the remainder of the show lazily napping in a giant cage backstage. Between shows, his handlers would take him out for a walk in the back hallways. Most of us thought of Caesar as a sweet, harmless feline.

And that leads me the photo that I sent to my mother. New to the show, new to Las Vegas, new to the glitz and glamor, I was entranced with being a part of a lavish Vegas production where we had gorgeous costumes, fantastic choreography by Ron Lewis and exotic animals within reach. Like many others, I asked if I could get a picture with him. His handler, Ferco, assured me that he was approachable and when I kneeled down behind him (well out of his reach), he encouraged me to get up close and personal. So I did.

Lisa, Caesar and Ferco

I then sent the developed photo to my mother (well actually to everyone I knew who might be impressed) and waited for her response.  None came. I finally asked her if she’d received the photo. Her response was something like, “Yes and that’s so cute. Of course, I’d be concerned if I thought he was real.” It was great fun telling her he was, in fact, real and listening to the gasp.

I pooh-poohed her concern about being that close to a “wild animal” and assured her that “everyone did it.” Some of that bravado disappeared the night one of our male backstage dressers – I’ll call him Jim – came in the back door slightly inebriated (as I was told) and, like many of us, stopped to reach in the cage and greet Caesar. Most of us would ruffle his fur or pat him on the head but Jim apparently chose to scratch him on the nose. Caesar very calmly bit off the end of his finger. Gives a whole different feel to the photo, doesn’t it?

And I can’t say that any of us ever reached in the cage again or posed for up close and personal photos.

Lisa and Caesar