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

Hello Spilotro?

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If you’ve seen the movie Casino, you have an idea of the mob influence in Las Vegas in the 70s and 80s. A major player at the time was Tony Spilotro and whether you’d ever met him or seen him in person, you knew his name … and you knew the rumors: Tony Spilotro was a mob enforcer and someone you didn’t want to cross. It didn’t matter that my crowd was a bunch of showgirls and dancers on the Strip. We didn’t want to cross him either, even if that meant catching his attention and having to decline a dinner invitation or say no to a request to have drinks with one of his friends. No one wanted to be anywhere near his circle – not even on the fringe. There were too many stories about girls who, flattered, accepted an invitation for a drink or a dinner date with a mobster or mobster associate and then found herself in an unwanted relationship that she couldn’t see her way out of later. No one knew what would happen if you turned down the invitation in the first place, but who wanted to be the first to find out? (That leads to a totally different influence at the time – Lefty Rosenthal – but that’s another story).

If you read up on his history, Tony Spilotro was brought to Las Vegas to help the syndicate embezzle profits from the casinos but that wasn’t enough for Tony. He formed his own illicit group – the Hole in the Wall Gang – and his team of burglars would break into hotel rooms, wealthy homes and high-end stores to steal merchandise. Spilotro was a ruthless, violent man who gained notoriety for an infamous interrogation where he put his victim’s head in a vice grip and tightened it until the man’s eye popped out. So, really, would you want to be in a position to have to say no to this man for any reason at all?

So there we were on a nice summer evening after having finished two shows of Casino de Paris at The Dunes Hotel, two dancers who’d decided to head over to the latest hotspot – Paul Anka’s club Jubilation.

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The moment we walked in the door, my friend was stopped by a man I didn’t know who invited us to join him and a group of his friends at a table near the back. We walked up to a long L-shaped set-up with somewhere close to 20 people sitting the length of the table and a couple of people at the head of the L shape. The revelers made room for us and asked what we’d like to eat. We knew the kitchen was closed at this late hour but somehow the table was full of food with even more being served. Odd. Someone must have clout.

I turned to my friend and said, “Who are all these people?” She replied that she didn’t know and leaned across to ask her male friend who everyone was and why we were able to order dinner. He responded that he didn’t know everyone because it was a mixture of dancers from various shows but, pointing to the head of the table, said, “And that’s Tony Spilotro.” Bloody hell! I don’t remember staying long and although it may have been rude, I figured there were so many people in the party that one defector wouldn’t be noticed so I didn’t stop by the head of the table to thank him for his hospitality.

Within the next few years, Tony Spilotro was lured back to Chicago for a meeting and he and his brother were brutally beaten and killed and then buried in a cornfield in Indiana.

It’s funny how it takes a little distance to look back at snapshots in your life and realize how extraordinary they were. At the time, nothing seemed particularly unusual about ending up at a table in Paul Anka’s nightclub in Las Vegas with a notorious mobster but it makes for a great story now, especially considering his demise.