Vegas, Baby, Vegas – part two of four
by Summer Burkes

“Dilettante” column originally published in the SF Bay Guardian at the turn of the century on 04.27.1998. Re-intro 5.2.2018 here.


TWO SYNCHRONIZED swimmers in skimpy, tattered outfits flit and tumble in a 20-foot tank of uplit, turquoise water at the rear of a stage. The stage itself, fashioned to look like the undersea home of Neptune and his kin is flanked by jetting fountains and rain-pipes synchronized to pulsating, Enya-ish harp music. Some ‘mermaids’ fan out from behind the tank in bell-bottomed, it’s-mermaid-theme-night-at-the-Tri-Delt-House pantsuits to perform a series of poses that showcase and enhance their ample breasts.

The swimmers continue to somersault until the serene music abruptly shifts gears to very loud, very bad hair-farm “rock” as strobe-lit minions in Atlantis-style S&M gear do glorified cheerleading routines and line dances.

No, this is not some teenage boy’s fantasy gone horribly awry. This is Splash, (allegedly) Las Vegas’ #1 variety show, a self-proclaimed “aquacade of music and dance.”

splash! aaaaah. they'll tit-clap every one of us!

splash! aaaaah. they’ll tit-clap every one of us!

1996’s cinematic debacle Showgirls provided America with an excruciating account of the short, hard road from stripper/prostitute to Vegas dancer and the ferocity with which showgirls allegedly defend their big-fish-in-small-pond status. What we didn’t learn from Ezsterhas 101, however, is that once the showgirls appear on-stage in between the ankle-breaking dance numbers we might be subjected to mediocre star-mimicry, sexless sex shows, baffling non-sequiturs, and humorless vaudeville.

I wanted to see two Girlie Shows during my stay in Vegas (an expensive one and a cheap one) and I had decided to spend my money on “the one with the mermaids.” What I got instead was something with Michael and Janet Jackson, Madonna, a bird-fondling magician, a Dirty Dancing tribute, Mariachi jugglers, topless leather-lesbian Barbies on motorcycles, and a dancing alien Cyclops.

if we had seen this flyer instead of the other one, maybe we'd have been better prepared for the relentless non sequiturs from oceania

if we had seen this flyer instead of the other one, maybe we’d have been better prepared for the relentless non sequiturs from oceania

Not that the folks who make their living participating in Splash are by any means untalented, or that every show in Vegas is mind-numbingly unentertaining …

When the Mexican drummers in tap shoes broke out the Double-Nine-Parts whips (my favorite Shaolin Kung Fu weapon) and did a synchronized dance number, I found myself smiling. When the Mariachi jugglers tumbled and laughed their way through a 20-minute set, I laughed too. When the four (yes, four) dirt-bike stuntmen drove their bikes around a tiny circular cage at the same time, I was breathless.

But the rest of the time, I was horrified.

I realize the whole world can’t live in a big city and love the opera or Incredibly Strange Wrestling. I know performance art and robot wars are not everyone’s idea of a good time. But I see the superstars of my youth being mimicked before their careers are even finished.

I see a Will Smith wannabe’s posturing around a cartoon alien during the finale “Men In Black” sequence, and I see so many overplayed songs squished into medley ‘revue’ monstrosities, that I wonder why they haven’t covered “Happy Birthday to You” as well. It makes me want to firebomb the whole town.

Splash is NOT “an aquacade of music and dance,” it’s a flashy means to birdfeed Moms and Pops the same narrow, tinny old schlock they’ve been swallowing for years, and an excuse for the more critical ones to reassure themselves that after them and theirs (Frank, Dean, Elvis), it was all downhill to this.

and then, even more downhill to this

and then, even more downhill to this

I know from the bare-assed billboards around town that the next show, the Crazy Girls Revue, is a nudie show. Set on a stage 1/8th the size of Splash and costing one-fourth the ticket price, the show consists of about 8 to 10 choreographed, topless, lip-synched songs, performed by 8 to 10 skinny, surgically enhanced women in really bad wigs.

Pole dancing, can-can with chair, floor-wallowing, and a rotating bed solo piece — enough said. The music, at times, is far more tolerable than most: in addition to warmed-over medleys, painful originals, and disco tripe, we get Eartha Kitt, En Vogue, Tom Waits, and a song from Gypsy Rose Lee. And in between the synchronized ass-shakings, a comedian even drops some sly feminist science on the unsuspecting droolers.

The high point of the show is a hilarious song called “You Gotta Have Boobs,” [it’s just called “Boobs,” by Ruth Wallis -ed.] made all the more satisfying when my friend realizes early on that the woman singing it (the most buxom of the Crazy Girls) is actually a very, very successful transsexual. Irony?

plus there was the whole Flashdance vibe ... Flashdance, the glamorous shadow side to good-girl 80s children

plus there was the whole Flashdance vibe … Flashdance, the glamorous shadow side to good-girl 80s children

So the shows of Las Vegas are on par with the tastelessness of the rest of the joint, and clichéd nudity is an integral part of tastelessness. We know this. But why in the world are topless women an integral part of an uninspired rendition of “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina,” a Janet Jackson rap, or an otherwise graceful waltz?

And how could the male element of sexuality be entirely absent at shows equally populated by middle-aged men AND THEIR WIVES?

Have these women given up on their love lives, or do they secretly find silicone and Baby Jane makeup erotic? Or do they have some sort of boobie-filter that allows them to view hours of pretty songs and not see all the jiggling? And, finally, how much would it affect ticket sales if the weekend playboys and mustachioed voyeurs in the audience knew that half the body parts they were drooling over were on MEN?*

[*EMPHATIC NOTE: My most heartfelt apologies for my trans insensitivity in this column; in 1998 I was young, well-meaning, and thought I was accepting of all, but hadn’t quite understood transgendered people yet, or what was hurtful to say. Nor did my editors, obviously, or this line would’ve been cut. I leave it in now, so I can apologize and encourage others to educate themselves. We’re all growing and changing for the better, hopefully. I could’ve learned a lot from this transgender FAQ 20 years ago and I’m so sorry, to my trans friends and everyone else – ed.]

Crazy Girls' Revue is now the longest-running variety show on the Strip. Perhaps because it's the most honest thing there.

Crazy Girls’ Revue is now the longest-running variety show on the Strip. Perhaps because it’s the most honest thing there.

No wonder people shell out almost 100 bucks to go see Siegfried and Roy. Besides the white tigers, there’s not much else to see in Vegas besides tits and ass. Las Vegas entertainment IS past Frank and Dean and Elvis. It’s imploding, choking on its own silicone and flash.

But maybe my standards are too high. As the woman seated behind me at Splash said, “Well, that John Travolta was good, but he’s no Patrick Swayze…”


This is the sixth piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; this post’s intro here, and Dilettante’s first installment is here

Oh and ten years after this article, on 4.29.2008, the SFBG‘s next nightlife columnist Marke B talks about regional youth’s electro future-blaps

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an unnecessary but conciliatory portrait of the true Lord of the Dance



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