Video Vault | Midcentury Las Vegas Stage exhibit

LAS VEGAS (KSNV An important piece of Las Vegas's showbiz past was chosen for an exhibit at the Charleston Heights Arts Center to run from Dec. 4 through Feb. 15.

The concept came about during discussions between the City, the Las Vegas News Bureau and the Nevada State Museum.

"My specialty is entertainment costumes. So we landed on the 'Midcentury Las Vegas Stage,' " explains Karan Feder.

Feder is the Nevada State Museum's curator of costumes and textiles, and one act in particular "Marie Cannon and the Las Vegas Revue" caught her eye.

"It has this sort of Arabian Nights Harem theme," says Feder, gesturing to a the costume on a mannequin in the center of the gallery. "This was worn by the chorus, a troupe of four girls. And Marie Cannon, the lead performer, she had a more extravagant costume. And the harem pants instead of made out of silk chiffon were made out of draped pearls."

If that act was obscure, the one on the exhibit's poster was anything but.

"My father was the first lounge act, you know, that popped up in Vegas that garnered attention," says Louis Prima Jr.

Louis Prima brought something new to the stage, partnering with Sam Butera on sax, Keely Smith on vocals, and later Gia Manione Louis Prima Jr.'s mother.

"They were up there having a ball," says Prima. "It was comedy, it was brilliant musicians. It was ballads. It was a little bit of dancing. It was like having your best friends play in your back yard."

There were plenty of others. At one point, even future president Ronald Reagan brought an act to the Last Frontier.

A film called "Playground USA" produced by the Las Vegas News Bureau in 1956 captures the feel.

"From sunset to sunrise, there is continuous entertainment in the lounge of every major hotel," intones the narrator over footage of lounges and acts.

"Because there were comedians, there was Vaudeville type acts all throughout the city that really gave everybody a lot of choices no matter what hotel they went into," says Prima. "To see a brilliant act, whether it was a headliner or it was the lounges."

"And also it turns out that they would entertain other entertainers once they got off work," adds Karan.

The exhibit also includes showroom acts: Mae West surrounded by scantily clad, muscle-bound hunks ... getting the jump on "Thunder Down Under" by a few decades.

"In 1954 at the Sahara, she brought all of these boys with her," explains Feder. "And one of the guys is a Mister America."

Judy Garland losing a shoe by accident. Or that's what Feder thought until talking to one of the exhibit's visitors.

"And she said, 'Oh no, I used to wait tables at the New Frontier, and I remember Judy Garland always performing with her shoes off. She was more comfortable that way,' " recounts Feder.

Today, Louis Prima Jr. creates an updated version of the lounge scene with his own band, which carries the same name as his father's: "The Witnesses." He's also optimistic about what he sees elsewhere.

"I mean, you've got the Santa Fe Fat City horns. You've got Lon Bronson and his band. Every time they play, it's a crowd. You have bands like Phoenix on the rock end that play Mandalay Bay and some things. There's a lot of quality entertainment out there."

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