Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Lynda Allan remembers being terrified the first night she had to slink onto a casino floor to serve drinks in a mini skirt and low-cut blouse.
"I was in tears," Allan recalled. "I'm in this skimpy outfit, not knowing what I'm doing. It was really hard. But I made it, and then I just kept doing it."
She kept doing it for the next 34 years, in fact, working mostly at the same bar at Palace Station. Allan got to know her customers' names and drink preferences and grew to love her job.
Waitressing in any other city would likely be considered a dead-end job. But here in Las Vegas, cocktail servers are crucial to the local tourism economy. They have the most contact with casino customers, and their performance can mean the difference between a satisfied visitor and one who won't come back.
Perhaps that's why many local cocktail waitresses earn $50,000 or more a year, placing them among the nation's highest-paid service workers.
"They are incredibly valuable," said Luann Gambuto, director of food and beverage for Palace Station. "I've watched at Christmastime guests bring in gifts to our cocktail servers. They bring in their children to meet them when they're in town. It's heartwarming, really. They mean so much to this person that they want them to meet their family."
Allan didn't have to make her career in cocktail waitressing. She had plenty of work experience on her résumé — she worked for the public school system in Niagara Falls, N.Y., before moving here as a single mother — and came to Las Vegas when jobs were plentiful. But once she got over that nervous first night at Palace Station, she wanted no other job.
"I never could sit behind a desk," she said. "This is really more of who I am."
She raised two children off her tip money. She bought a house and saved money with a 401(k), which allowed her to retire this year.
"I've made a comfortable living," she said.
For three decades, Allan ordered drinks from Henry Gauger, the bartender who hired her. They worked together at the same Palace Station bar for 28 years.
"It really does become like a family," Gauger said.
Many casinos, however, especially on the Strip, overlook experience as a selling point for cocktail waitresses. Instead, they flaunt young hires in flashy outfits and promote their servers as sex kittens who can't wait to serve stiff drinks to older businessmen.
But experts say that stereotype may be outdated since the people who spend, and lose, the most money at casinos are slot players, most of whom are women older than 45.
"I think this is why the locals casinos do so well, because they don't adhere to that same kind of thinking," said Christian Hardigree, assistant president and chair of hotel management at UNLV.
That's not to say the career cocktail waitresses aren't attractive. Allan continued to turn heads until she retired.
"This is a job where you'll overcome your shyness pretty quickly, and I got comfortable in this outfit," she said.
Even after decades serving drinks, the waitresses still describe the job as glamorous.
"It's really like being on stage," said Pamela Moore, who has worked at Arizona Charlie's Decatur since the casino opened in 1988. "I fix up my hair, put on my makeup and I go out on the floor. I feel pretty and sexy."
Whether they know it or not, the servers play an important role in dispelling myths about beauty and age that persist in Las Vegas, said Cortney Warren, an assistant professor of psychology at UNLV.
"Our culture doesn't know what to do with the sexy 60-year-old because that's not the image of beauty we promote in our society," said Warren, who studies how women react to media images of beauty.
Warren noted the young, thin, leggy, white women who dominate billboards across the city.
"The truth is attractiveness comes in all ages, shapes and sizes," Warren said. "These women are hot, and they have also worked their way to the top of their professions."
The trend of the young cocktail waitress wearing practically nothing emerged recently, in the past decade, after the Rio began hiring "bevertainers," who serve drinks, sing and dance, Hardigree said. Other resorts followed suit, hiring cocktail "beverage models."
Describing waitresses as models or entertainers allows casinos to skirt labor laws and place age and appearance restrictions on the women. Most entertainer-servers also aren't represented by a union.
"The Rio started becoming known for having smoking-hot cocktail waitresses, and at first they saw a 30 percent bump in their gaming revenue, which they credited to that," Hardigree said. "Then other casinos on the Strip followed."
But the image has a price. Several casinos, including the Mirage and Imperial Palace, have paid large sums of money to cocktail waitresses over lawsuits claiming sexual discrimination and sexual harassment.
The Culinary Union represents most cocktail waitresses. (That's part of the reason they and other tipped workers make the highest base salary in the United States, starting at $9 an hour plus tips, with free health insurance.)
“We represent women of all ages in the cocktails department. It’s not about their looks or age. It’s about their ability to do their job,” union boss D. Taylor said.
Of the nearly 3,300 cocktail servers in the local union, one in four has served 15 years or more.
Karen Crawford said her seniority is valued at the Riviera, where she has served drinks since 1977. But she doubts she could land another cocktail job on the Strip.
"They would probably tell me I'm too old, even though I could run circles around all the younger girls," Crawford said.
Neither of the Strip's biggest casino companies, MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment, would allow its waitresses to be interviewed.
Still, officials with both companies said they depend on repeat business and that the service longtime employees provide builds customer loyalty. Caesars Palace has cocktail waitresses who have been with the company since the 1970s. Many are lauded for their efficiency and often are assigned to the high roller rooms, Caesars executives said.
"The best thing you can hear is, 'I keep coming back because of you,'" said Maria Elena Reveles, a cocktail waitress at the California since 1984.
Some customers come back for generations.
"A lot of my customers, when I started in '74, would start bringing their children when they turned 21 and were old enough to come into the casinos," said Gloria Harris, who works at the Golden Gate. "Now they're bringing their grandchildren. Now they're bringing their great-grandchildren. They become family. You see them year after year after year. They become a part of you."
Most of the servers who have worked in casinos for decades share that sentiment.
"Aside from just taking their orders, we bond with them," said June Drao, who has worked at Sam's Town since 1985. "Whether they're winning or losing, you make sure they're having a good time. You want them coming back here. They have many choices and they could go anywhere, but they come back here because of us."