“Nescafé society” – as Noel Coward dubbed those who frequented Las Vegas – was introduced to “the most glamorous star in the world – the woman and the legend”, Marlene, when Dietrich made her cabaret début at the Sahara Hotel's Congo Room in December 1953.
“They worked on me for two years and kept upping the salary until I could no longer refuse,” she explained to the press about her record $ 30 000 per week fee (for a three week season: three shows a night).
“I had to come out here to Las Vegas and see the place first. I came here twice before I really decided.
“I was really convinced when I came to see Tallulah Bankhead. She did a serious dramatic bit – a Dorothy Parker piece – and you could hear a pin drop. You could never do a thing like that in a New York night club, or in a night club anywhere else.”
On her opening night, Marlene appeared in a flash of sequins and a waft of fur, purred “hello” to an appreciative audience (including Billy Wilder, Van Heflin, Mercedes McCambridge, Louella Parsons, and Jimmy McHugh) and appropriately crooned “Baubles Bangles and Beads” to Buddy Cole's accompaniment.
The “glitter and gleam” promised in the lyric was supplied by designer Jean Louis, who had gathered some sparkle clusters onto a barely-there foundation – a so-called “nude dress”. Marlene insisted that it lived up to its name: “The only thing underneath” the $ 8 000 “revue costume”, she said, was “a gaiter belt to hold the stockings, period.”
The Dress caused a press sensation when the opening night's photos made it into newspapers. “It's the most daring gown I've ever seen on a stage,” gushed one longtime newspaper man.
That the photos revealed more than even Dietrich professed to have intended, only added additional sizzle.
“These photographs were shot from a low angle, and these rhinestones didn't even register,” Marlene half-heartedly protested, pointing to strategically placed beads at the costume's bust-line. It “wasn't designed to be photographed up close, or to be looked at up close,” she explained. Besides – “this is Las Vegas. If you can't wear it here, you can't wear it anywhere. I have several costumes like this. I will alternate them. I would not want to disappoint any individual audience.”
The show was brief. She sang “The Boys in the Back Room”, “La Vie en Rose”, “You've Got That Look”, “The Laziest Gal in Town”, “Lili Marlene”, “Jonny”, “Lola” and the “inevitable” “Falling in Love Again”.
For the finalé, Marlene changed into her circus ringmaster costume. Max Colpet had written a special lyric for her, “The Beast in Me” (set to “The Entrance of the Gladiators”). With whip in hand, and while show girls in animal costume moved around in and about cages, she sang:
“Lions, tigers, small cats, tall cats
You just name them – I will tame them …
“There is one beast that was never tamed
And that beast ... that beast is me!
Many men have tried their chance in vain,
One went nuts – two died in France and Spain ...
Do or die, I must discover
My superman, my only lover.
Then I skip my boots and whip
And flip ... and flip ... and flip
Where is that man?”
During the run, Marlene celebrated her (officially, 48th) birthday with a six-tiered, four-hundred pound birthday cake. There were no candles on the cake, jested the staff of the Sahara Hotel, because they “couldn't afford it after paying her that money”. (Not that they had reason to complain – 1,937 people had seen Dietrich perform the previous evening, which had set a Vegas attendance record.)
Working in Las Vegas was “fun” – “and much easier than making films,” but “different than when I sang for the troops during the war. If there'd been servicemen out there when I sang 'Lili Marlene' they would have brought the house down."
“I'd like to come back to Las Vegas,” she said near the end of her season. “I don't think any other place can pay the money.”
The town was “a funny place”, though: “I always thought that when you're a success, you're held over. Here, the next act is already here, waiting for me to get out. Donald O'Connor has been hanging around for days. I came in here yesterday, and the girls in the line were rehearsing – not for me, but for Donald O'Connor's show.
“It gave me a strange feeling.”