Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008 | 2 a.m.
- Members of the Red Hat Society discuss their scarlet group.
If you go
- What: “Hats! The Musical”
- When: 6 p.m. Monday-Thursday and Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday
- Where: Harrah’s Las Vegas
- Tickets: $49.95 plus tax and fee ($39.95 for RHS members with Purple Perks); (800) 392-9002, Harrahs.com
Red Hat Society Chorus Line
- Who: 1,700 high-kickers including Exalted Queen Mother Sue Ellen Cooper, Harrah’s headliner Rita Rudner and “Hats!” cast members
- When: 11 a.m. Saturday, run-through attempt; 11:30 a.m., world record attempt
- Where: The Strip, starting at Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and concluding near Carnaval Court at Harrah’s Las Vegas.
We approach slowly, stealthily, hoping to observe them in their natural habitat, a local watering hole.
We’re lucky today: Here are nine splendid specimens in full cry -- startlingly vivid with their variegated crimson and purple plumage, their exuberant vocalizing. The photographer signals to stay hidden behind a nearby palm so as not to startle our subjects. We watch in silent awe and wonder as these wild, wonderful creatures go about their rituals of eating, drinking and communicating.
We’re in the presence of the Red Hat Ladies.
Surely you’ve seen them out and about and maybe wondered who -- and what -- they were. More than 1 million women around the world -- all of them past their 50th birthday -- pledge allegiance to the Red Hat Society. There are nearly 40,000 chapters, in all 50 states and in 25 countries.
Las Vegas is home to more than 150 chapters -- groups with names like the Sin City Sweethearts, the Desert Bloomers, the Royal Red Divas and the Hot Flash Hatties. Figuring about 20 ladies to a chapter, that adds up to more than 3,000 scarlet women living here.
Get ready to see a lot more of them: Today kicks off a big Vegas weekend for the Red Hatters. Tonight is the official opening of “Hats! The Musical!” at Harrah’s, the fourth franchise of a revue that will compete with the long-running “Menopause: The Musical” for this underserved but loyal demographic group of 50-plus females.
Tomorrow, Hatters by the hundreds arrive in Las Vegas for a regional convention as part of a yearlong 10th birthday celebration, crowned by a Saturday morning attempt to break a Guinness world record for most people in a chorus line. (The record was set in 2004 by America Sings, with 1,628 participants. The Red Hat Society says it expects 1,700 high-kickers.)
Having spotted and warmly welcomed their documentary crew, nine Red Hatters tuck enthusiastically into big plates of deep-fried hors d’oeuvres, midday martinis and tropically hued cocktails at the Cafe at Harrah’s.
With all the energetic hand gestures and talk of “wearing your colors” going on at this table, it sounds kind of like a gang. A great big maternal red and purple all-girl gang.
Determinedly nonpolitical, nonreligious and perhaps America’s only true monarchy, the Red Hat Society was founded in Fullerton, Calif., in 1998 by Exalted Queen Mother Sue Cooper, who started with a group of five girlfriends and now reaches more than 125,000 women each week with her “Friday Broadcast” e-mail update.
The point of the Red Hat Society, says the group’s Web site, www.redhatsociety.com, is “to connect like-minded women around the world and to encourage them to have fun together ... at the same time raising the respect and visibility of women who are entering their next stage in life.”
At this convention, there are no meetings, no business, no rules aside from one inflexible law: You must be a woman of 50 or over (or you may be a Pink Hatter under 50), and you must attend functions in full regalia (usually red hat, purple outfit for women 50 and over, or pink hat and lavender outfit for women under 50).
“We have spent all of our lives doing for others,” says Pat Hickok, one of the most outgoing of this already extroverted group. “Maybe it was just being the wife and mother we said we wanted to be, or for our careers, but it has always been to help somebody else.
“This is not to help the crippled children, it’s not to help the Boy Scouts or the Veterans of Foreign Wars,” Hickok says. “It doesn’t mean that we’ve given up those activities, our church and family. But this is my time. And it’s time to have fun. And fun without a purpose.”
Hickok’s oration receives a round of applause from her tablemates, who have a lifetime of caretaking among them:
• Pat Hickok, 61, wife, teacher, nanny, queen of the Sin City Sweethearts.
• Rosalind “Roz” Fisher, 67, three husbands, two sons.
• Judy Deaton, 67, “a few husbands,” a son, various relatives, queen of the Red Hat Toppers.
• Edye Farran, 78, former Broadway dancer and Pentagon employee.
• Anita Burchard, 56, two kids, still working, queen of the Royal Red Divas.
• Lynda Pepitone, 62, husband, three children, extended-family caretaker.
• Mary Stopa, 67, five children, businesswoman for 40 years.
• Arlene Gretz, 63, queen mother of the Desert Bloomers in Henderson.
• Mary Cuadra, 87, counts Arlene among her five children.
Like most Red Hatters, these women gather at least once a month for a luncheon, or to go see a show, or to go on a cruise. The social dice game bunco is popular. Recent adventures and escapades included chartering double-decker buses hosted by Elvis impersonators and a field trip to a brothel in Pahrump.
“It’s a license to have fun, do things you would never do,” Fisher says.
“There’s courage in numbers,” Hickok says. “It’s not just things like going to a brothel. It may be something as simple as wearing clothes that you know don’t suit you and don’t necessarily become you, and yet you go out in public and you’ve never looked better in your whole life.” “You feel very conspicuous in the beginning,” Pepitone says. “Now I’ll even go to Wal-Mart like this. My sister makes fun of us, but I’m not sitting home doing nothing.”
“And the longer we’re in it, the less conservative we become,” says Burchard, who confesses to a collection of 17 hats (so far), some costing up to $200.
It’s hard to see the trees for the colorful forest, but a closer look at the group reveals layers and layers of detail beyond the obvious purple clothing and red hats: Fedoras and picture hats, beaded shrugs and feathered boas, fringes and leather and lace, spangled purses, rings and more sparkling rings.
“You have to have a lot of room in your closet,” Queen Mum Cuadra observes.
“I am not showing you my red bra,” Hickok jokes when asked how far the red and purple theme goes in a typical Hatter’s wardrobe. “We had one girl who just loved her purple panties,” Gretz says. “And she just loved to show them.”
“Believe me, these ladies are not even dressed up right now,” says Hickok, noting that many Hatters are saving the big guns for Thursday’s musical opening and Saturday’s kick line. “It’s not too much bling until you topple over -- and there will be women here this weekend who almost topple over. But there also will be women who dress very plainly, who don’t costume.” There are Red Hat chapters, she says, of only ladies from a church choir, or teachers, or Culinary workers at Caesars Palace, or ladies who have met while bowling, even ladies in convalescent homes.
This particular sampling of Hatters sure knows how to enjoy a cocktail. They sound as boastful as any frat boy (“We had 16 gals and 16 bottles of champagne,” Gretz says) as they tote up how many drinks they downed on a recent front-row excursion to the Chippendales male revue.
“People tell us what to do all the time, all our lives,” says Burchard, savoring the cocktails and the company. “And in the Red Hatters, for once in your life you’re not told what to do, other than to get together, dress up in our funny-lookin’ clothes and our beautiful hats and go out and have fun.”
“We don’t want to talk about politics, we don’t want to talk about religion and we don’t want to talk about your aches and pains,” Rosalind says.
(The Hatters will, however, spare a moment to discuss Sen. Hillary Clinton, who was in town for the Democratic caucus just before the Hatters convention. “She’s automatically a Red Hatter,” says Hickok, “because she’s a female over 50. But whether she would join I don’t know, because I don’t know whether she would find the right group.”)
One particularly important commandment is shared by the Hatters: Play nice. No catfighting, no backbiting.
“And leave the men at home,” Gretz says firmly. By all accounts, their husbands, boyfriends, sons and co-workers are happy to let the women do their thing. “They can join us only on special occasions, and then they have to wear their purple and red hats.”
“Most men that are secure in their marriage see how happy (the Red Hat Society) makes their wives, and what’s to argue with that? When I come home, I am in such a good mood that I’m almost willing to do anything,” Hickok says, pausing -- like a nightclub comic -- before delivering the punch line.
“Like the dishes or the laundry.”
When they’re not together and armored in their defiant outfits, the women say they sometimes feel invisible.
“Look around this restaurant -- you don’t see anybody in this room but us,” Hickok says. “That’s one of the reasons the Red Hat Society is so popular. Because we’re not invisible anymore.”