LAS VEGAS -- Sure, we can quibble about what's tastefully done here. You might think the Mirage, with its outdoor volcano that blows pina colada-perfumed natural-gas flames into the night sky every 15 minutes (except during high wind conditions for fear they'll singe several hundred potential customers who stand and gape), is excessive. Or you might think the soon-to-open Excalibur, a forbidding architectural concept that looks like Disneyland leverage-brokered by Howard Johnson's, with its gigantic red, teal and gold medieval spires and knights jousting on real horses in the dirt-floor showroom, is excessive. Or you might think the Flamingo Hilton, with its facade of about 72,000 neon pink flamingos, each 12 feet high, blinking in syncopation like some sort of thermonuclear chorus line, is excessive. You might even think that Caesars Palace, with its grotesquely inappropriate but anatomically accurate Roman statuary and its helpful staff's lobby directions like "Go straight to the naked Nubian slave barge, then take a left," is excessive. As I said, we can quibble.
But surely we can agree on the quintessential Las Vegas Revue, by which I mean, of course, the long-running "Nudes on Ice," which combines the two critical elements of a Las Vegas revue: a room with chairs and nudes. In a pinch, you can make do without the chairs.
2 Live Crew? Bad.
Nudes on Ice? Kowabunga! ("Barbara and I go every time we're in town.")
Nudes on Ice -- okay, they're not fully nude, just topless; Vegas has standards, you know -- is performed twice nightly at the downtown Union Plaza hotel and casino (downtown Vegas being somewhat less refined than the Strip, which itself is to refined what two tin cans and a string is to C&P) in a red-carpeted, red-curtained, red-tableclothed showroom that seems to be somebody's idea of a great party in 1880.
(Before I elaborate on "Nudes on Ice," let me relate a personal story. I arrived here in the evening, tired from the travel. And like most people on an East Coast body clock, I awoke quite early the next morning and flipped on the TV to the pre-dawn news. Though groggy, imagine how quickly I snapped to upon hearing the newscaster giggling that "an underground nuclear explosion of more than 100 kilotons" -- which sure sounded like it could pop me out of a toaster -- "will be detonated around 9 a.m., so if you're on a high floor, you might want to hold on to something solid." I stared at my room key: 2207, plenty high enough, considering a hotel maintenance worker informed me that the tallest building in the whole state of Nevada was 30 stories. Welcome to Las Vegas. Can I get you anything -- coffee, tea, space in a fallout shelter? Needless to say, at 9 a.m. I was on the ground floor.)
Okay, to "Nudes on Ice."
So named, as executive producer Paul Szigety recalls, because "we were thinking about what to call the show, and one of the owners said, 'We got nudes and we got ice, let's go with Nudes on Ice.' " And you wondered where the next flash of creative genius would come from.
It opens with 10 female skaters, four of them bare-bosomed; believe me, in this cold you can tell which four. But if you needed a hint, the bare-bosomed ones were the ones standing on platform steps at the back of the stage. Oh sure, they're wearing skates, and once in a while they actually go on the ice so they can glide to the platform steps at the front side of the stage, but skating is not why they were hired. "Skaters are easy to find, nudes aren't," said Szigety, who confessed he's happy "just as long as the nudes don't fall down."
Two lead skaters are bare-bosomed as well, particularly "the sexsational" Kelly Hagen, who does stylish minor jumps on the small rink, but not too many spins, since turning her back to the audience would diminish the marquee appeal. Hagen used to be an aerialist at Circus Circus, but grew tired of hand burns and became a skater. How did Szigety persuade her to skate topless?
"Money," he explained.
This isn't a complicated town.
Not that breasts are the entire show. There's a weak comedian and two terrific novelties: a kid juggler and a wild, randy gaucho act. But now that Ed Sullivan's dead, where do you go with those routines? You'll notice they didn't name the show "A Comedian, a Juggler, Two Gauchos and Some Skaters, All Clothed." Nudes on Ice knows where its bread's buttered.
So you get nudes on ice in a Ziegfeld number, and nudes on ice in a Russian Palace number, and nudes on ice in a Brazilian Carnival number -- wearing costumes quite similar to the Russian ones except the nudes are wearing fruit baskets on their heads -- and nudes in "A Chorus Line" finale, this time with headdresses that look like the Chrysler Building. I could tell you that after a while you don't notice the nudes, but who's kidding who?
Nudes on Ice has been running for 2 1/2 years; Szigety says 500,000 people have seen it. It's hard to say how many nude skaters got their big break through this show, but you wouldn't believe some of the stuff they run on cable these days. It occurred to me that Nudes on Ice might really go over the top if a big-name skater like Dorothy Hamill agreed to star, but Szigety shook his head unconvinced. "It all depends," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "How big are her boobs?"