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Las Vegas Showgirls Oral Histories

By Michelle Light on December 17, 2012 12:00 AM | Permalink

Submitted by Claytee White, Director of the Oral History Research Center

The Oral History Project of Las Vegas Showgirls began with the work of Joyce Marshall Moore in the mid to late 1990s. As part of the project, Women in Gaming and Entertainment directed by Joanne Goodwin, Joyce interviewed a series of ex-showgirls. The Oral History Research Center added several interviews to Joyce’s initial list.

We are presenting a sample of the project that includes the Kim Sister’s Sook-Ja Kim interviewed by our own Myoung-Ja Lee Kwon; Betty Bunch interviewed by Joyce Moore; Carol Baker interviewed by Nancy Davis; and Virginia James and Anna Bailey interviewed by Claytee D. White.

Enjoy the beauty and artistry of these captivating women.

Anna Bailey

Anna Bailey arrived in Las Vegas in 1955 to perform as a dancer for the opening of the Moulin Rouge Hotel and Casino. Six months later the Rouge closed, leaving both Anna and her husband Bob, the house singer and emcee at the Hotel, without work. Nevertheless, Anna and Bob decided to make Las Vegas their home, convinced in the growth potential of the city. Anna, however, was not ready to give up dancing, and went on the road, dancing a starring role in a Larry Steele production, and later as lead dancer in Pearl Bailey's troupe. Tiring of the road after five years, Anna began applying for positions in the Las Vegas clubs. After many auditions, the Flamingo Hotel hired her as the first African American to dance in a "house" chorus line on the Strip. From the beginning, she enjoyed the work. The dancers and management were sincerely friendly, and she was able to live at home with her family in the Bonanza Village section of the Westside. When Anna decided to end her career as a dancer, she became one of the first black women in Nevada to hold a gambling license, owning and operating several small nightclubs. Anna's career spanned from her pre-teen years in New York, to Los Angeles and the stages of Europe. While performing in smaller venues in the South, she and other troupe members had to knock on strangers' doors to find rooms for the night. It is fitting that she ended her career in Las Vegas, the entertainment capital of the world. She is truly a class act.


Carol Baker

Audio transcript .mp3 format:

Audio Tape #1 (30,126 KB)

Audio Tape #2 (30,215 KB)

Audio Tape #3 (6,454 KB)

Betty Bunch

Betty [Rosenthal] Bunch began dancing as a child. By the time she was nine years old she decided she would have a dancing career. At 18 years she began to work in stock theatre productions, and within a short time she had joined the Moro-Landis dancers. She began working in Las Vegas in 1956 at the Sahara Hotel as part of the opening line for Donald O'Connor. Following the Sahara, she worked as a dancer at the Riveria, and then returned to the Moulin Rouge in Hollywood. In 1961 while vacationing in Las Vegas, she landed a job dancing at the Dunes. She continued to dance, sing, and do comedy until after the birth of her second child. At that time, she retired from the Las Vegas showroom, but not from show business. Her involvement in both film and stage has remained rich and varied.

This interview focuses on the time Betty spent performing on the Las Vegas Strip, including her long involvement with the acclaimed afternoon show Bottoms Up. The interview provides information on working conditions and the racial integration of the showrooms. Betty exemplifies the energy and talent that was so prevalent in showroom entertainment during the 1950s and 1960s.


The Kim Sisters

The Kim sisters, composed of three sisters, Sook-ja, Ai-ja, and Mia, came from Korea to Las Vegas in February, 1959. Their first contract in American was to perform at the Thunderbird Hotel for four weeks as part of the China Doll Revue, the main showroom program. This engagement led them to a successful career. Their popularity was at its height at the end of the 1960s, when they performed throughout the United States and Europe. Sook-ja Kim is the oldest of the Kim Sisters. After her sister Ai-ja died in 1987, Sook-ja teamed up with her two brothers and continued to perform until 1989. Now semi-retired from show business, with occasional performances in Korea, she is working as a real estate agent. In this interview, she talked about her childhood, her career, and the family she has built since coming to America.

She was born in 1941 in Seoul, Korea, as the third child of seven in a musical family. Her father was a conductor, and her mother, a popular singer. After the Korean War, her mother arranged to send the Kim Sisters to America. When they came to Las Vegas, there were virtually no Koreans in the area. They depended on each other to take care of themselves. Some of the difficulties they had to adjust to in America were language, food, and cultural differences. Over the span of almost forty years in America, Sook-ja became acculturated without discarding her ethnic identity or family priorities. Her life-long guiding principle has been to combine certain American values while continuing to keep cherished Korean ethnic values.

Through their performances, the Kim Sisters informed the audience about Koreans and their culture. As the oldest of the group, Sook-ja was entrusted the care of her sisters, and later her brothers, the Kim Brothers. Once she settled in Las Vegas, she brought more than 40 members of her extended family, contributing to the growth of the Las Vegas Korean community.


Virginia James

Video Part 1 | Video Part 2

Audio Part 1 | Audio Part 2 | Audio Part 3 | Audio Part 4