Implosion 8: The Stardust
The night I hung up my feathers, I did not look back. Sometimes I’d forget that the show kept on at the Stardust. That sucker kept pumping away six days a week until 1991. By that time, it was all recorded music up and down the Strip—big casinos don’t give a rip about musicians or dancers, even when they go on strike. Everyone’s replaceable. Not like the old days.
Of course, it was a death knell for showgirls when all the Cirque shows premiered. Who’s going to watch a topless woman parading in stilettos when you can watch a topless woman doing aerial tricks over your head? I hear there’s an X-rated Cirque where two women bathe naked in an enormous champagne glass. Bugle beads and feathers no longer suffice.
When I heard the Stardust was next up for implosion, I told Angelo to drive us past that sign for one last look. They’d changed the lettering from Sinbad-style to something boring. Damn shame. I didn’t want to see it go down. Why would I? I had the Lido in my bones. I had the Lido under my ribcage, beating its raunchy sap all night, every night. I could time my heartbeat to the way those diamonds would travel up the stem of that sign, freeze, then blink their little asses off.
The first time I saw the Lido show, I was all of 19. I talked the maitre’d into a front row seat. Maybe it was my charm, or maybe my desperation. In those days, I gave him a smile and the twenty some Midwest big spender had tucked in my bird costume the night before. These days, it’s probably a hundred dollar bill or a hand job. I was hoofing it over at the Circus Circus, but that Stardust stage was my magnet.
Opening number: you’re in Paris—the music rises; they’re singing Paris Toujours! Toujours Lido—feathers & fur—followed by an Eastern number. The cast arrives in waves: market girls selling garlands, then the dancers half-dressed like harem girls, followed by an ice skater, and then the standing nudes perched on a full-blown waterfall rising center stage. That kind of continuous number with constant girls and their naked tits is what made the Lido famous. At the crescendo, when a couple kisses on the lip of the waterfall, I pushed back my seat with everyone else, laughing, holding my contraband cocktail, trying not to get wet. I was hooked: that’s where I wanted to be—transported.
Eventually, that’s where you could find me. A scrim will rise: we’re standing topless in gondolas stroked by black-masked gondoliers in the moat surrounding the stage. A Venetian cityscape appears on a backdrop. At the end of the number, some will enter stage left, some stage right. Music complicates with a throng of violins. The dancing and the music swell the stage with drama. We’ll enter with larger and more impossible headdresses. Each string of dancers more resplendent than the last. There’s always a thin narrative: the masquerade, two lovers parted after the ball. Scenes, stories, and costumes change, but we’ll tease you beyond reason as we shed our clothes, our body stockings lit with jewels, cut high to show our asses.
Donn Arden wanted our breasts small. Never one for compliments, Max, the stage director, said to me after I passed try-outs: Your breasts will do. That doesn’t mean some don’t get work done. Just never overdo it, he told me. Round them out and silicone them tightly to your chest. That’s before we were friends, before we told each other everything.
I’ll never forget when we flew to Paris sitting next to each other, gossiping. Every other year we’d jet over to the City of Light to rehearse the new edition of the show, the entire cast getting fitted for wardrobe updates. The girls would all catch taxis to a walk-up on Rue this or Rue that. I never quite knew where we went because it was eat, sleep, rehearse, over and again. But the seamstresses—wry, stick-thin women wearing black—would clap their two palms over my breasts and that was it. They were that experienced; they knew my size just by feeling my rack. And when we got the costumes back, they fit perfectly.
Imported from Paris with its original cast, the marquee read. Hardly, mon Cherie. We were imported back home on a charter plane after we rehearsed the new show, damn straight, but we were from everywhere. Most of the girls were from the U.K., Liverpool mostly, no posh accents, trained just like I was at some corner dance school. We made hardly a dime, but it wasn’t about the money, it was the joy of dancing; it was the joy of being there for everyone to see. Donn often brought in new singers, but if you got a spot, if you were a Bluebell girl, you hung on for dear life. Or you rose to the top like I did: to be a principal nude dancer. They got to be my family: the cast, the crew, and the musicians. Eventually marrying one of them: my second husband, the music director, Angelo.
There were plenty of glorious years before I lived in fear. Before Romy was born, and even after. There was even that year that I danced stage right, which meant right into the bed of a man who didn’t want to own me. I suppose I liked it when the man was tied down—that’s what we called married then—what we did together was purely for fun. Recreational, Romy says they call it these days, which gives me a laugh. We’d take each other in his dressing room between shows. He was dark and European, a brand of action I’d never had before. After, we could walk by each other with just our secret. Max knew, of course, and maybe some of the other girls knew. Before Romy was old enough for school, the other dancers would watch her or she’d be playing with the horde of kids running backstage. Like I said, we were family. We looked out for each other.
But nobody could look out for me or protect me from what happened next. His wife found out. And so did the man who wouldn’t let me go. Backstage, Romy runs into my dressing room, sees my terror. She’s only four. And then, her strange episode of blindness. Her father in the shadows. And though he was the only one who tried, Max couldn’t protect me either. My lost Max.
The show goes on. Don’t dwell on it, Baby Doll, Max used to tell me between scene changes. So he disappeared forever, never found again, and I danced on, learned that when I floated out onto the stage maybe that wasn’t really me, that was another me. There was the face that faced the crowd, and there was the body they saw, but I was way deep inside, far enough away they couldn’t devour me again.
When I left that place, I thought I left it for good. I won’t be watching the news the night the Stardust goes up in a toxic cloud. Sometimes I hear Max telling me the truth, straight, the way he always did: there’s no going back, Joy.
I watched from backstage when I was a kid, but I couldn’t see much. Finally, it was my eighth birthday, and my mom’s present that year was to plunk me in the orchestra pit at the Lido with Angelo, my new stepfather, as the conductor. One after another, the women entered stage left or stage right, crossed paths, but my mother was always the centerpiece. All the lovely half-dead girls moved aside in waves, so that my mother could rise from a pool of dark water, so she could glide down a staircase in enormous heels with the largest, most fantastical headdress. One headdress had a riot of long snaky feathers. Another dripped with iridescent baubles. My mother’s breasts were high, and her face an unblinking mask, her stare so unfocused, so expressionless that I sat frozen in my seat. This is your treat, she had said, to sit up in the orchestra—jutting over stage—with my stepfather. I wore the crisp, smocked dress she bought for me.
She swung on a swing twined with roses, wearing a tall white wig, her entire body powdered white, breasts tipped with red jewels. A man swung opposite her in rhinestone-studded tights; they crossed center stage.
Maybe her face was not even hers because I didn’t exist, sitting high above in my false dress. Their swings rose higher and higher, as two dancers entered from stage right, slithered under them like dark fairies, pointing up and mocking my mother. They gestured to the man on the swing, struggling in their dance. My stepfather wagged the baton, so that the furious music rose. A large bed covered with leaves and flowers folded down, a mirror suspended from the ceiling. The baton in my stepfather’s hand halted and the man and my mother leapt from their swings, sailing through the air in silence, only to land on the bed. Everyone gasped. I didn’t understand why the other women leapt on the bed or why they struggled, my mother and the man clinging.
I thought they must hate each other, but the soundtrack began again, accompanied by the wind instruments. Women’s voices sighed loudly. My mother moved to the center of the bed; she moaned in time with the orchestra, adding to the soundtrack. The two dark fairies knelt before my mother, opening their mouths and swiping at her powder-white body. The man was powerful, glistening, held her as she raised her arms. They all stroked her. The orchestra kept on sighing, Angelo’s mouth pleated in concentration, punctuating the air with his baton. He was the one making those sighing sounds happen and happen again.
With each touch, and then with each feigned lick, for their mouths were on her now, my mother’s true flesh was uncovered: the white going crustacean-pink. She clutched her face, her mouth in a wide O. I covered my eyes because it was the worst part. All of them colluding on that flowered bed to expose her.
When I looked down, my yellow dress assaulted my eyes--the color of urine. My legs were slicked with sweat in the tights, my whole body shivering. My mother was almost taken apart by demons, but she raised her hands as if with pleasure. The music built to a crescendo, but I closed my eyes—remembering that milky gray interior life—the blindness that protected me, slipped me into a pocket of nothing. When I opened my eyes again, I was still shaking, but the scenery had changed.
Carnival in Venice. The panic passed. For the rest of the show, my mother looked both resplendent and dead-eyed. Maybe what happened on the bed had taken something from her. Despite it all, she paraded on, unaffected by what had happened in that one dark scene that would crop up in my dreams.
I was 10, I was 15, I was 18, waking from the dream, bathed in sweat. A long period of forgetting. Then 31—the year they took the Stardust down. When had my mother changed? In the dream, when she stood amid the demons, her eyes had no pupils, her mind unloosed. The dancers had pawed her away to the essential mother. That mother, the one stripped of everything, frightened me most.
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