Las Vegas, Its Dancers and Opiates

Sometimes a problem can be right before your eyes and you don’t see it. That may have been the case with the opiate epidemic. Gaming veteran Richard Schuetz recounts the early days of Las Vegas when showgirls and performers used drugs to get through their routines. And therefore it became a problem.

Las Vegas, Its Dancers and Opiates

“Everything Hurts.”—Michelangelo

A common topic in the news these days has to do with opiates, and opiates are in the news for two particular reasons. The first of these reasons is that many people in America are in pain, both physically and emotionally, and opiates are incredibly efficient at numbing that pain. The second reason is that opiates are terribly addictive, and even possess that great catch-22 in that the act of quitting opiates can be painful in and of itself, thus pushing the person back into the trap he or she is trying to escape. What all of this means is that opiates can and do ruin lives, and they ruin way too many lives in America today.

As the topic of opiates recently became part of the public discourse in our country, it reminded me of a time many years ago, during the decades of the 1980s and 90s, when I was involved in running casinos on the Las Vegas Strip. Back then we had an opioid crisis too, but it was carefully hidden and largely ignored. I was aware of this issue then, as this article should demonstrate. I am writing this piece, in part, in an effort to come to grips with being one of the many in a long line of people who did little about a problem that was right before their eyes. I do not know what I could have done, but I would feel better about myself today had I done something. I was young, I was the beneficiary of all of what it meant to be a senior executive on the Las Vegas Strip during this era, I was well into myself, and it took me a while in life to finally get around to growing up.

One goal of this story is that I hope some of the younger people reading it may come to understand that as they age in this business the titles they held and how much money they have made will become of lesser importance; who they are and how they have handled themselves will become more important. When I was younger I wanted to be like Sinatra and do it my way. As I aged it became much more important to do it the right way.

Back in the day along the Las Vegas Strip, the shows were the thing. The Frontier had Siegfried & Roy, the Stardust had Lido de Paris, the Trop had Folies Bergere, Jubilee was at Bally’s, and on it went. These were called production shows for a reason, that being they were huge productions. They had big casts, fascinating acts, incredible costumes, towering headdresses, feathers everywhere, great sets, wonderful effects, and excellent music. Many of the cast members were dancers and there were two basic classifications for the female dancers, covered and uncovered. To accentuate the obvious, uncovered meant they performed while exposing their breasts, albeit often with pasties.

The quality of the dancers in these shows was amazing. These dancers were not some folks who had rhythm and could move well like those who are a part of every local dance scene. These people were typically professionally trained and had spent many years perfecting their art. A call for dancers would generate hundreds of requests to audition, and I once sat through a portion of an audition that featured over 50 dancers, even though there were only two positions being filled. Aside from being able to dance, there were requirements placed on them regarding height, weight, figures, skin tone, and the like; plus, the uncovered dancers also had a separate set of qualifications, of which I am sure the reader can speculate. But all of these requirements were tolerated for there was little choice. The jobs paid well, and one advantage of dancing in Las Vegas was that the talent did not have to tour, giving the dancers a better chance of having something that resembled a normal life.

It is hard to describe the spectacle of these shows. As an executive VP of the Frontier, I attended the Siegfried & Roy show well over 100 times in four years while hosting high-end customers and guests. I was as amazed by it all on the 100th show as I was on the first. So too it was with the Lido show when I was an executive with the Stardust. I was even closer to the Lido show for we had a raft of management issues with the stagehands, one of the animal acts became a huge problem, and other challenges permeated the production. As I result, I was spending a fair amount of time back stage and around the dressing rooms during the evenings, trying to figure out just what was going on.

Before moving on, I want to take a short break here to address what the HIV/AIDs epidemic meant to the Las Vegas shows during this time. We lost too many wonderful people, especially among our male dancers, and that was an incredible trauma for the people in and around the shows. Everyone involved in these shows worked very hard together, night after night, to keep the shows spectacular, and to have the HIV/AIDS epidemic running through the ranks was something that was nothing short of a full-blown tragedy. People would hear the sad news about a friend or colleague in one of the shows, be brought to tears, and then go out and be amazing on stage. The people involved in these shows were professional. They were committed, and they were the best you will ever find. They helped make Las Vegas what it is today, but the HIV/AIDS issue was so terribly sad during this time and many outside of the showroom environment, especially the politicians, just didn’t understand it or were indifferent to what was happening.

Getting back to the point, for all the grandeur of these shows, it was not all wonderful behind the scenes of the productions throughout Las Vegas. There was an objectification of women in these shows that I now understand was clearly not healthy. Misogyny permeated many aspects of the work environment and culture. In visiting with dancers throughout Las Vegas, I came to understand that many were often on notice about their appearance and the standards of evaluation made growing older the enemy. The dancers would suggest that many of the responses to their workplace complaints was “tough,” and “if you don’t like it, go dance somewhere else,” and the show schedules were grueling–two shows a night, six nights a week. These were tough work environments and these people just wanted to do what the “normies” of the world did by trying to have a life, raise their families, and enjoy their existence.

Throughout the showroom world there were many stories told of how demands were made of some of the dancers that went well beyond the work environment, and if these requests were not honored the perception was that the dancer’s future could be threatened. One only needs to have followed the Wynn story of late to understand that the range of job expectations on women can potentially be quite wide, that men of power and importance often are not aware of the sexual harassment policies put in place to protect employees, and it appears there were managers who were in key positions who felt it was not their job to become involved in looking to protect their colleagues from potential sexual improprieties. I would suggest that this type of thing did not start with Wynn. One would have to be a fool to understand Las Vegas at this time and think that sexual abuse and inappropriate contact was not a reality within the showroom world.

Being a dancer for two shows a night, six nights a week takes a toll on the body. Injuries happen, both on and off the job, muscles tear and cramp, joints are strained, and well, stuff happens to the body. In order to stay in the cast, and keep what most considered were good jobs, many dancers had to play through the pain. Much is made of our modern male athletes with their millions in salaries, who play through pain, and what real men they are for it. Nobody ever said that about a woman dancer who was certainly not paid millions, who strained an ACL, and went out and put on two shows a night, six nights a week, week after week – and was working to maintain a family during the day.

I suspect now that the reader gets the point. Opiates were a drug that could get many a dancer through the next show, the next week, and the next month. The rest of the story is probably obvious. There were cooperative doctors and other channels that guaranteed a robust supply-chain for pain medications. People got hooked, and that seldom ended well. They lost their jobs, and what many had to do to stay in the supply-chain of the drugs was not pleasant.

Today in America there is great alarm at the opioid epidemic and many are making statements that something must be done. Many, many years ago in Las Vegas, this epidemic wove its way through the showrooms. It was seldom talked about and little was done. I believe it needs to be remembered for it is an important part of the Las Vegas story. It has also become an important part of mine.

Articles by Author: Richard Schuetz

Richard Schuetz started dealing blackjack for Bill Harrah 47 years ago, and has traveled the world as a casino executive, educator and regulator. He is sincerely appreciative of the help he received from his friends and colleagues throughout the gaming world in developing this article, understanding that any and all errors are his own.