John Gurzinski / The New York Times
Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015 | 8:30 p.m.
One of the great tales involving the great dancer and choreographer Ffolliott “Fluff” LeCoque, who died today at age 92, did not take place on a stage.
It happened beneath one.
The grand stage show “Jubilee” was in its last rehearsals at the old MGM Grand when that hotel’s tragic fire tore through the building on Nov. 21, 1980. This was about two weeks before the topless revue was to open at what was then called the Ziegfeld Theater at what is now known as Bally’s.
The 30-foot pit beneath the theater was unique in that it was furnished with a sprinkler system. It also was rare for its inventory — about 1,000 costumes, laden with colored feathers and hand-beaded with Swarovski crystals for the lavish new production. Ash from that fire and the resulting stream of water from the sprinklers overhead turned that underground storage area into a great, black pond.
As employees were allowed back into the hotel, LeCoque entered that space wearing waders and trudging through 3 feet of befouled water attempting to rescue that priceless wardrobe. She helped workers stuff plastic bags, but rescuing any of them proved futile. All had to be replaced, and that event pushed the opening of “Jubilee” back to the following summer and finally premiered on July 31, 1981.
Herself a topnotch dancer in her performing career, LeCoque was associate producer to the show’s original producer, Donn Arden, and of course the musical has been staged in that theater — subsequently renamed Jubilee Theater — ever since. Up until about three years ago, LeCoque worked regular shifts at the theater. She witnessed more than 9,000 performances, and to say she was a showgirl purist would be putting it mildly.
No official cause of death has been announced for LeCoque, though she suffered from respiratory illness over the past several years and had to miss the show’s 30th anniversary because of that condition.
But LeCoque was still a feisty conversationalist even up to a year ago. She was reliably rigid in her description of her art and steadfastly proud of the show that carried on that tradition.
“I don’t think you’ll see a show that uses showgirls the way ‘Jubilee’ does ever again,” LeCoque said in a 2014 interview. “The attraction of Cirque du Soleil has taken over. It used to be so many shows here were filled with wonderful dancers and showgirls. Now almost all of the showgirls are in ‘Jubilee.’ Not everyone who is in a show is a showgirl.”
She said that the demands upon, and skills developed by, the showgirl increased over time.
“Over the decades, they’ve changed from tall and glamorous mannequins to classically trained dancers,” LeCoque said. “It is a very demanding form of dance.”
LeCoque spoke from experience. As noted in a 2009 story in the Los Angeles Times, she moved to the city in 1947, making $35 a week to dance in Liberace’s show at the Riviera. A graduate of the University of Washington with a degree in theater, she spent a few months dancing in Paris at a “syndicate” club and also performed for a time in Cincinnati before moving back to Las Vegas.
In 1958, LeCoque was hired by Arden to perform in the imported version of “Lido de Paris” at the just-opened Thunderbird Hotel. It was the first topless show ever in Las Vegas, and LeCoque was dubbed Miss Thunderbird and the show’s most bankable star. She spent the bulk of her career dancing and working for Arden, retiring from the stage at age 43 after appearing in “Hello Hollywood,” “Hello Hollywood Hello” and “Halleluljah Hollywood!,” which preceded “Jubilee” at MGM Grand.
As recalled in a statement by Bally’s posted on the hotel’s Facebook page, LeCoque appeared in the movie “Casino” in 1995 and worked with such entertainment luminaries as Danny Kaye, Maurice Chevalier, Helen Traubel, Katherine Grayson, Nat King Cole, Andy Williams, Sammy Davis Jr., Sophie Tucker, Jimmy Durante and Red Skelton.
LeCoque’s imprint is still evident at “Jubilee.” During her years as stage manager for the production at Bally’s, she trained a similarly dedicated performer and choreographer, Diane Palm, as her replacement. “Jubilee” has undergone a recent refreshing, and it has been a sluggish and even painful process. But the show does survive, the last of the genuine showgirl productions.
When asked last year if there would be another “Lido,” “Folies Bergere” or “Jubilee” on the Strip, LeCoque said:
“My sense is they will never produce another show like it. You might have shows with four or six, but not the same show as we used to have, with dozens and dozens of showgirls.”
After hearing from one who waded through the murk to help rescue the show, it’s hard to argue.