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October 30, 2014

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Q+A: Frank Gatson Jr., the man behind the makeover of 32-year-old ‘Jubilee!’ at Bally’s

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Denise Truscello/DeniseTruscello.net

Jubilee! at Bally’s photographed by Denise Truscello in May and June of 2011.

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New “Jubilee!” creative consultant Frank Gatson Jr.

Jubilee! 30th Anniversary Exhibit by Denise Truscello

Jubilee! at Bally's photographed by Denise Truscello in May and June of 2011 for the show's 30th anniversary on The Strip. Launch slideshow »

Jubilee! 30th Anniversary Pink Carpet and Show

The 30th anniversary performance of Jubilee! at Bally's Las Vegas on July 30, 2011. Launch slideshow »

The final audience for “Jubilee!” at Bally’s last Thursday night included former (and soon-to-be-again?) Strip headliner Holly Madison, current headliner Claire Sinclair (“Pin Up” at Stratosphere) and their friends.

Before curtain up, I sat with Frank Gatson Jr., who has been charged with transforming the legendary 32-year-old spectacular and bringing it up to date for a new generation of fans.

Frank plans to stay true to the legacy of the original production by Donn Arden, but also give it a brand new and fresh twist.

“It’s like coming in to fix someone’s house, named Donn Arden, and you want to respect what you know,” Frank told me. “That is probably the most difficult thing, but the great thing is while I’m staying on the Strip side of the hotel, I feel like he’s talking to me, man. It’s weird, and yet it isn’t.”

Is he talking to you like the way he used to always to people? Yelling, screaming, ranting?

Well, I think I’m doing enough of that for the both of us! I really feel like that. I’m lucky enough that I have seen the show “Hello, Hollywood, Hello” in Reno, and I saw the 737 airplane come onstage. I was traveling with Up With People, and I just happened to see this show. I was so amazed that these dancers came out of a 737, so that’s where I first saw his work. I think it was in 1984.

Yeah, he was the original Cirque du Soleil.

Of course! And that’s so weird you say that because I’ve seen all the shows, trying to do my research while I’m here in Las Vegas, and I say that he gave them the framework for what they do. They do a little dancing, then they do a side act, they do this, they do a little side act. It’s definitely the blue print, no doubt about it. I just know that he’s helping me; I can’t say that enough.

Does this last show have some sense of sadness, but also tinged with joy?

Well, tonight is sad because it’s a show that’s been in this theater for 32 years, and it’s a major thing that I have to accomplish. Here the show is closing, and then I’m responsible for reopening it and keeping this man’s legacy alive, but yet giving it a fresh new twist.

So in a sense that doesn’t make you the most beloved man in the world, does it?

Exactly, but I know that I’m going to be honest about it, I know that I don’t mean any harm, I want to respect his family, I want to respect his name, I want to respect great dancers. I truly believe, and I want to say this, if the dancers are great and the singers are great, I have no problem with making the show great because the messenger is the dancers and the singers and what I’m doing. I love classic things, I grew up loving Fred Astaire movies. I don’t understand why movie stars aren’t like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers.

It’s sad that the stars today are reality TV people and not the Rita Hayworths and the Gene Kellys of yesterday.

What happened to the days where a dancer could be a star? Something happened, and that’s my selfish reason for wanting to do this. I want to make sure that I can do something so great that people start thinking, “Wow, those dancers are really great.” I think that working with an artist like Beyonce, she’s a triple threat, and she and I always talk about that.

She says, “Frank, you know we should always try to make things that are great better.” That’s something that we’ve done throughout my 15 years of working with her. So here I am again. She’s giving her blessing on this and says, “Frank, just make it better. It’s great already; make it better.”

Three awkward questions that you must face. You have 85 showgirls and showboys, you have the Titanic, you have Samson & Delilah. How much of that stays?

I’m connecting the thread through all the things that you just mentioned. Making that relevant because you can’t get a set like that Delilah set, you can’t get a set like the Titanic set. Titanic is probably my favorite number in the show. It’s kind of like my mother had an avocado green refrigerator and stove, and she had a gold one.

And the Titanic was green on the stage here.

Exactly, and now it’s stainless steel. So I’m renovating the kitchen. Titanic is like a kitchen that needs to be brought up to today’s time, but that refrigerator and stove still do the same thing. So basically I’m renovating the Titanic as much as I can, and I’m renovating sets in Delilah as much as I can.

How long is this going to take you?

I’ve been dealing with it since August.

How many times do you think you’ve seen “Jubilee!”?

Twenty-eight, 29, 30 times.

You’re counting?

Oh, yes. Tonight will be 29, 30, 31. I saw it last night too, so tonight will be 30. The magic number 3-0. I think that’s a good thing.

Does the cast get larger or smaller?

I wish I could go back to 100; everything is budget. I respect that Donn Arden liked to do things big. I like big numbers. … This theater is like half a football field. … We’re going through budgets to see if I can add 10 more people.

Cee Lo Green and ‘Jubilee!’ at Hollywood and Highland

Cee Lo Green and Launch slideshow »

‘Jubilee!’ Auditions

Women perform high kicks during auditions for the show Jubilee! at Bally's Las Vegas on Monday, July 23, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Why does it take so long from tonight to the day that you reopen in April? And do you know the date yet?

I think it’s late spring.

You don’t have a fixed date?

I can’t. I just know I said to them that I will have the show ready by late spring. It’s a lot of work. We have to bring in the new little pieces that I want to add to the show, we want to renovate some lights, we want to bring a few projectors in here. We thought about using LED screens, everybody is using LED screens, but that wouldn’t fit; that’s too futuristic.

I have to stay with that classic. When you saw the first “Hollywood Hello” show and the first ‘Halleluiah’ show and then the opening of ‘Jubilee!’ here, they had projection. So that fits in with Donn Arden’s theme. And then projection today is more advanced.

Like the Britney Spears show over there, I think they’ve got 54 projectors. Projection is something that has come back, and now everybody is late because they have these brilliant LED screens in Times Square. They have all these brilliant LED screens on Las Vegas Boulevard.

In Britney’s show, they use projections on LED screens.

Right, but I don’t think I need that for this. I think there’s something about that that makes it cold. I still need to keep it warm and classic.

Now the costumes are from the original dance routines 32 years ago. Are you going to get a new wardrobe?

Just to be very clear, I am so lucky to have these Bob Mackie outfits that have been here forever. You can’t make costumes like that, man. I know some of the beading is welded together. Now they glue stuff together, the boas, the feathers.

I am going to be honest. I am tweaking some of the men’s costumes. We need classic things that transcend time. I’m the person who wore a light blue tuxedo to my prom. I wish I had never done that!

I would have had on a white dinner jacket or black dinner jacket because that would have transcended time. I’m tweaking the men’s costumes so that they will last another 30 years. I’m a male dancer, and I want to look sexy in my pants, I want to look sexy in my jacket, I want it to fit. … I want to give the guys that little polish.

So we still get a late-night topless show and an early clothed show?

We’re still discussing that. Definitely a topless show because I think that’s something that’s classic. It’s so weird that people always look at this as something that’s not tasteful. I had some of Beyonce’s background singers come and see the show when she was in town, and they said, “Frank, those costumes were so beautiful that I never even noticed that they were topless.”

Mostly we are going to try to get people to understand that this is the last Mohican, this is the last showgirl show. So I have a heavy load to carry. I want to make sure that when they come to see this show that other hotels want to bring back the showgirl.

Click to enlarge photo

Jubilee! at Bally's photographed by Denise Truscello in May and June of 2011 for the show's 30th anniversary on The Strip.

Click to enlarge photo

Jubilee! at Bally's photographed by Denise Truscello in May and June of 2011 for the show's 30th anniversary on The Strip.

Click to enlarge photo

Jubilee! at Bally's photographed by Denise Truscello in May and June of 2011 for the show's 30th anniversary on The Strip.

You want elegance.

I want the real stuff, and I think the showgirls in our show are proud of what they stand for.

We keep the 35-pound headdresses?

Yes, for sure. You can’t beat that.

We live in an MTV age, although MTV doesn’t do much dancing today. You come out of the MTV Video Music Awards …

Yeah, I have seven MTV Awards in choreography. I’m really lucky.

There’s a guy I met here in Las Vegas who has a museum with the old wardrobes. He gave me a tour, and it was like I stepped back in time. He said to me as we were leaving his place, “You know, my followers on Facebook and I are really scared of what you’re going to do. Do you understand that ‘Jubilee!’ is what makes us exist? It’s the last showgirl on the strip; it’s what I do, and all my followers are scared that you’re going to make this a hip-hop show.”

I looked that man straight in the eye and said, “I am not hip-hop. I come from the group En Vogue. I was their choreographer, they were a glamorous girl group. “Dreamgirls” on Broadway, not the movie. Broadway.”

When I worked with Michael Jackson on “Smooth Criminal,” that was one of my first professional jobs as a dancer, and to sit there and watch how Michael wanted everything to be classic and transit in time, that’s what I’m bringing to “Jubilee!” So it’s not about hip-hop, it’s about really good movement that just has a little more snap, crackle and pop.

Higher energy.

Exactly. I think Beyonce is an example of that; she’s a classic. She loves classic things. Like “Single Ladies,” of course we’re not doing “Single Ladies” in our show, but we watched Gwen Verdon on “Ed Sullivan,” that inspired “Single Ladies.” Many people don’t know that.

So we get a little updated music.

Yes, and a new sound system.

And new dance routines energy-wise? What else is new? Would you bring a 737 onstage?

I wish! I’m trying to get something that I can’t talk about, and I hope I get it. It’s a new little gag that I think fits perfectly into the show. I hope that I get it.

Anything I’ve missed?

I just want people to know that this is probably one of the most difficult things I’ve done in my life because it’s such a classic. I always think about that time Coca-Cola made a new Coke, and it was sweeter and lighter or something, but they had to bring that classic back. I think that’s what this is. I don’t want to make the show sweeter and lighter; I want to make it better.

I want to hold on to Donn’s legacy, I want people to enjoy dancing again, I want the men to come to the show and respect the women because this is not a strip show. I want the women to come to the show and scream a little bit at my hot showboys. That’s what I would get out of this because women are a little more aggressive today than they used to be 30 years ago.

No kidding! You’ve noticed!

Yes!

Well, good luck. It’s a challenge. You’re taking on probably the worst assignment that anybody could get.

Yes, but I’m taking it on. There’s a girl who I met when I was in Up With People. She made me move to L.A. She said that if you move to L.A., Frank, you will make it. I met this girl 30 years ago, and I recently called her and said, “You know, this is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life.” You know what she said to me? She said, “You’ve been preparing for this all your life, Frank, you’re going to be alright.”

That’s what I keep in my mind. I’m excited, and I’m scared. I’m scared because I want to be the best that is possible; I want to be the best I can be. Tonight’s going to be so interesting to see the alumni of people who’ve been in the cast. I was here last night, and there were a lot of cheers. The cast gets’s it; they know that this man knows what he’s talking about.

Now if my vision comes to life, that’s a whole other thing. I just want positive people around me, and I’m trying to keep the cast positive.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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