Food Feature: Bottom of the barrel

The worst show in Vegas

Before we went to Las Vegas, my publisher explained my assignment for the next week. I was prepared for the worst. I wish travel writing was all about deciding which Riviera suite has the best view or screaming at the concierge for another bottle of Dom. More often than not, you end up timing bus routes or counting people in line at hot dog stands.

"Your Vegas assignment," said my publisher, with real pity in his eyes, "is to see all the topless shows on the Strip and downtown, and rate them."

I won't bother trying to justify myself here. I took the job.

By my calculations, I saw well over 50 live, bare breasts in five days. That's an unusually high breast-per-day ratio for me. There were topless magic shows and topless impressionist shows. I watched topless dancing, topless bathing, topless comedy routines, even some topless cooking. There were large breasts, small breasts, fake breasts and natural breasts. There were breasts with glitter or feathers or little faces painted on them, even breasts that represented eyeballs bugging out of full-body foam-rubber costumes.

Believe me, I'm a devoted fan of breasts. But by the end of the week, I was beginning to understand my publisher's pity. I was losing my appreciation for breasts in general. I found myself paying more attention to the bad monologues or the pervasive use of Sting's "Desert Rose" in the music mix. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that the last show I saw was Bottoms Up at the Flamingo.

Many times when I'm reviewing entertainment, I have to suspend my personal judgment and pay more attention to crowd reaction. A fatigued travel writer is likely to be more crabby and less forgiving than a typical showgoer. This was not one of those times. Even at my most generous and diplomatic, there is no way I could describe Bottoms Up as anything less than an abomination, a fiasco of biblical proportions. Fire and brimstone are what's called for here. Old Testament fury.

This show has been around since 1964 in various forms, and its main instigator, alleged funnyman Breck Wall, has performed it at almost every venue in Las Vegas at one time or another. It's currently the only afternoon topless show in town, and it's by far the cheapest. Those dubious distinctions have allowed this hideous zombie to stagger into the 21st century, not unlike the bleary-eyed gamblers who stagger into Bugsy's Theatre to see it. What else have they got to do at 2 p.m. on Sunday in Las Vegas?

Not that any of this is an excuse. Bottoms Up is a giant, seeping hairball of the most corny, unfunny, dated and mind-blowingly offensive comedy material you are likely to see anywhere. Please, please don't take this as some kind of reverse endorsement — that "it's so bad it's good." Trust me, it is just very, very bad. The main culprits are star and co-producer Wall, hairpiece conveyance vehicle David Harris, fourth-string Bette Midler rip-off Sue Motsinger, and an ancient, mute mummy called Billy Smith (who might be the only object in the show older than the jokes).

The sketch comedy, songs, vaudeville and burlesque routines that make up the material are liberally dosed with Benny Hill-style titty-flashes. This and the show's inexplicable longevity are supposed to earn Bottoms Up the standing of a Las Vegas classic, but it plays more like a lesson in abject humiliation for performers and audience alike. The elderly men who headline the show simply leer and fondle the young showgirls, sometimes belting out lyrics (or lip-synching) about their vampiric lust for nubile flesh. Most of the jokes are stale enough to sound like puzzling, unintelligible artifacts from another culture, which in a sense they are. Many are directly ripped off from grade-school dirty jokes or omnipresent e-mail forwards (the priceless gem about the genealogy of the Schitt family, for example).

The apex of this horror occurs when the wizened Smith shuffles onstage costumed as a young woman, literally barefoot and pregnant. "He" lip-synchs a non-funny song about a manly stud who loved "him" and left "him," then at the conclusion, pops the pregnancy balloon under "his" dress and drops a baby doll from between "his" legs. The show-stopper is that the baby doll is black! Get it? She's an unwed mother of a mixed-race child! Now that's comedy!

Perhaps the most serious and least-performed duty of a travel writer is to warn people away from something that is just gut-wrenchingly wrong. It would be easy to give Bottoms Up a pass for its cheap ticket, time of day or Vegas nostalgia factor. But if that's what you're after, go watch a Sinatra movie, hit the buffet again or throw your $13 at the slots. You'll have a much better time, and you won't need a mid-afternoon shower to wash this stinker off your soul.


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