A Dancer’s Life: Meet Sal Angelica, Part III

The John Hemmer Archive’s The History of An Era, documents lived experiences of the nightclub era. This is the third installment of a three-part series on performer Sal Angelica.

To read part I, please visit https://www.johnhemmerarchive.org/a-dancers-life-meet-sal-angelica-part-i/

To reference part II, visit https://www.johnhemmerarchive.org/a-dancers-life-meet-sal-angelica-part-ii/

Paper Program: Guys and Dolls production, The Meadows Playhouse, Las Vegas, NV, 1981. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

SA: I am happy to say the 1980s had quieted down for me a bit. I danced in the production, Celebration for Ron Ruge in Guatemala in ’80. Ron was the choreographer on The Frank Rosenthal Show that I worked on a few years earlier.

There was Guys and Dolls in Las Vegas at The Meadows Playhouse. I choreographed and danced in it. That was in ’81. Then Paul Shrier backed out and I stepped in as Harry (all the way from Brooklyn) the Horse. I did Sweet Charity and Oklahoma for the Theatre Arts Association (TASI) at Nevada Theater Guild of Las Vegas. Mary and John Knight were the co-founders of TASI. They were the money and the nicest people that you could ever meet.

I was also involved with the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) program, choreographing and giving classes. I taught dance and theatre. As I mentioned in part II of this article series, CETA was a government run program that paid artists to take dance classes to help maintain and further their careers.

So, students were actually getting paid to attend the classes and learn a trade. One incident that made me feel bad was that one of the gals, a real smart-ass, showed up for class in shorts, flip flops and her hair in curlers. She was certainly not prepared properly to take a dance class. I asked her if she had other clothes and shoes to dance in. She said, “No”. She only had what she was wearing. I excused her and told her that because of the situation, she would not be paid for the day. Of course, she didn’t like that. I felt bad about the missing out on the money, but it was a good lesson for her to learn. Always be prepared and respect what you are doing, and also the instructor and CETA program that is paying you to do it.

JHA: And following those productions you were in Hot Hawaiian Nights as Assistant Choreographer and Company Manager.

In 1984, my friend Al Gossan asked me to assist him with putting together a show. I stayed with him in Hawaii as we set Hot Hawaiian Nights with a local cast. We then took the show to Wildcoast Theatre in South Africa, which was actually just south of Margate and over a bridge into the Transkei. The government had given the land back to the black people there and gambling was allowed. We had the best time. The food (briaa) and the people were terrific. The show went over well.

Photographic print: Performers, Hot Hawaiian Nights, 1984, Las Vegas, NV, Transkei, South Africa. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

The manager from The Rennies (comparable to The Deere Co. here) had asked if we would do a show for them at their convention. I negotiated a good salary for the cast and myself. Al had hit a wall and ask me to take over the rest of the choreography and rehearsals. No problem! Unfortunately, the producer was such a jerk and made big problems that he was literally put on a plane and sent back to Hawaii.

Paper Program: Credit page, Hot Hawaiian Nights production, Wildcoast Theatre, Transkei, South Africa, 1984. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Another incident occurred when we had all Black stagehands. One day I witnessed the stage manager kick one of them as he was trying to climb the ladder to the overhead fly. Yes, I had him fired. Little did I know that when we had to leave, he was the person from the main office that we all had to deal with. It turned out that he wasn’t a big problem. The big problem was getting the money out of the country. No one knew that you could not take their money when you leave. What?!?!

Being the company manager, I had thousands of dollars that belonged to the production company. This happened on a Sunday when the banks were closed. I thought, “Who do I get in touch with and how?” I asked a security guard (with rifle in his hands) if he would contact the bank’s manager. He did and the manager showed up with his little 6-year-old son to help me. He cut me a cashier’s check, and all went well until we got back to the states. We had all the costumes with us, but had no paperwork to prove to customs that we had originally brought them with us to South Africa. After explaining everything, the custom official thought that our story was so absurd that it must be true and let us by. Whew.

What was the impetus for Paper Moon Greeting Card & Gift Shop?

Business card: Paper Moon, A Unique and Gift Shop. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

When [my partner] Max and I returned home from South Africa in 1984, he went back to work as an elementary school teacher, and I had nothing to do. No show biz jobs available.

{We purchased what would become the] Paper Moon, A Unique Card and Gift Shop in 1984. It closed in 1989. We may have initially come across the information in the newspaper. It was in a very huppie area of Green Valley. A very nice location. The realtor met us there and it looked good. It was full of old English type merchandise and cards, and lots of tea sets. We made an offer to get it going and negotiated a year’s free rent to help get us started. After selling off most of the stock at a big discount, most everything was emptied out but the fixtures and card racks. We used the huge sales as leaders. Afterwards we brought in some new merchandise and cards. We had the only XXX rated cards available in Las Vegas.

Going to the LA Mart gift shows in Los Angeles was terrific and it opened-up a whole new world to us. We were happy to know and see that our clientele liked the merchandise that we picked and chose to sell.

There was a pizza shop on one side of us and a cooking shop on the other, a beauty salon a few doors away. All of this resulted in some very heavy traffic and business for us, I’m happy to say. We built up a nice clientele and had a good rapport with them to the point that they would call up and let me know that their kids were coming in to buy gifts and had “X” amount of money to spend and that they will stop in after they get off work to pay me. Nice! And the house wrap was free with whatever you purchased. We used very obvious gift wrap – clear cellophane with colored balloons that read, “For Your Special Day”.

We soon found out that the signature wrap became a “must” for the kids to want to use and the party person was disappointed if they didn’t see our wrap on their gift. Wow.

Between all the show biz contacts I had the and roster of schoolteachers that Max worked with, we were very busy. The teachers all appreciated the discounts that we offered to them.

Business card: Bernard Brothers A Musical Comedy Act. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

When I decided to go back to do The Bernard Brother’s Act, Max thought that the shop would not be the same without me running it, so we decided to sell. What a shame. The Act was staged in both Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

So, we sold Paper Moon because I was getting back into shows. Unfortunately, we [the number within the The Bernard Brother’s Act] did not go over well in Atlantic City.

The people who hired us knew what the act was all about and still offered us the job. They put us in the show just after the opening number, which was a bad choice. The show started off in the 1940s and progressed through modern times. Our act was very ‘40s/’50s – Nelson Eddy, Jeanette McDonald, The King and I, etc. We just didn’t fit after seeing all the modern stuff and then going back to the ‘40s. C’est La Vie! That’s showbiz. In reality they should have known better.

While running Paper Moon you continued to perform and choreograph. What are some examples of your entertainment work during the remainder of the decade?

The choreographer, Rene De Haven, whose claim to fame was that he danced in the Elvis movie, Jail House Rock, was the choreographer for the Saloon Sweethearts breast cancer shows. The numbers were performed by the ladies who were bartenders. They were used as props and fill-ins.

I donated a Bob Mackie evening purse to be auctioned off. A man bought it for $500.00 and then gave it back. A woman bought it for $550.00, equaling $1050.00. Not bad.

During this time I also worked with students for the University of Las Vegas production of West Side Story. They weren’t professional dancers, but were all terrific, especially performing the Pas de Sies ballet (Somewhere dream ballet). I was so pleased with them and proud.

And what about the AIDS Benefit shows?

Newspaper Clipping: AIDS benefit Ribbon of Life show article, Breck Wall, Las Vegas Review Journal, 2003. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Thanks to Breck WallBottoms Up producer and star, [obit] I had the privilege to perform in 13 or more of the AIDS benefit shows beginning in 1989 until 2016. Breck had organized all of us and we were a hit every time we performed. No one could ever say no to Breck. He did a lot for our industry and Las Vegas entertainment.

Most of us knew each other from working together but some were new. The red, white and blue costumes were for the Elephant Walk number from The Will Rogers Follies. It was the slap number that we had the best time with learning and knowing. We would get a standing ovation all the time. Made all the practicing worth it. I’m happy to say we made a lot of money for the AIDS benefit cause.

Photograph: AIDS benefit Ribbon of Life show, cast with Breck Wall (center foreground), 2004. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

My scrapbooks indicate the following productions for Golden Rainbow, Ribbon of Life AIDS benefit shows

Paper poster: AIDS benefit True Colors show, Luxor Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, NV, 1998. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

1998 Luxor Hotel, 12th anniversary show, True Colors

1999 13th anniversary

2001 Mandalay Bay, 15th anniversary show, Our Show of Shows

2003 Paris Hotel, 17th anniversary show, The Ultimate Raffle Ticket

2004, Bally’s Hotel, 18th anniversary show, Ribbon of Life

2006, Paris Hotel, 20th anniversary show

2007, Bally’s Hotel, 21st anniversary show, A Red Carpet Affair

2008, Paris Hotel, 22nd anniversary show

2009, 23rd anniversary show

2011 Paris Hotel, 25th anniversary show

2012 The Smith Center, 26th anniversary show, Ovations

2015 Rio Hotel, 28th anniversary show

2016 Tropicana Hotel, 30th anniversary show

There were lots of different choreographers on these shows, who I worked with such as Ronnie Lewis, Jerry Jackson, Cary La Spina, Rene de Haven, among others.

You got involved in senior performers groups. the Encore Follies, Las Vegas Follies, and the Branson Follies are well known revues.

Photograph: Promotional postcard, The Encore Dancers cast, 2010. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

I started with the Rich Rizzo senior group the Las Vegas Follies in 1990. By mid-2000s it was Walter Painter’s Branson Follies. I had heard that he [Painter] was doing a show (from who I heard, I don’t remember). I called and asked when and where the auditions would be. He said, “You don’t have to audition for me. You have the job if you want it.” Yeow, Great!

Photographic print on paper: Sal Angelica in Marine costume & Carol Channing, Branson Follies, Branson, MO, 2005. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

I had worked with Painter’s wife on Broadway with Carol Burnett in Fade Out – Fade In. I knew only one other singer/dancer – Jerry Antes. He worked at the Dunes in Vive Les Girls. It was a lounge show, and I was in the big room with Casino De Paris at the time.

Lois Mazgaj is a dancer who got me connected with Mary Ann [Arcadipane] who produced, choreographed, and danced for the Encore Follies. Their production, One Broadway, Our Way, again, I knew none of the ladies except for Lois. She lives about 10 minutes from me here in Las Vegas, but I had to go all the way to Branson to meet and work with her. We became great friends. We performed at libraries, any openings and senior retirement facilities. It was a nice feeling being able to give back to the community and see the smiling faces of the retirement crowd. They loved us. It’s too bad that these wonderful days are gone, and Las Vegas is no longer what it was.

Photograph: Promotional postcards, The Encore Dancers, (left to right) MaryAnn Arcadipane, Sal Angelica, Lois Mazgaj, Las Vegas, NV, 2012. Courtesy Sal Angelica, please do not appropriate.

You also became a Dance Host for cruise ships.

I was a dance host for Holland America Line cruises starting in 2004. I was able to travel the world again doing this. Ports we harbored at on their Prinsendam cruise ships were many. My first cruise was New World Adventure. It sailed to Lisbon, Funchal and Ft. Lauderdale. In 2006, on the Grand Amazon Experience World Voyage 2006, Circle of the Sun, we sailed to Antarctica, the Amazon, Ushuaia Argentina, Rio, and Brazil. 2010, on the Ms Rotterdam the 30-day circle included Hawaii, Tahiti, Marquesas, San Diego, and Bora Bora. The next two were also on a Ms Rotterdam. One was a 30-day cruise to the Incan Empires, which stopped at Ft. Lauderale, Lima, Peru and San Diego. The last was in 2012, which went to The Netherlands, São Miguel, Portugal, Trinidad and Croatia.

Photograph: Sal Angelica, Dance Host for Holland America Line cruise ships, c2000s. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Most of the cruise guests were under the impression that we were being paid for our services. That this was our job on the ship. Wrong. The dance hosts paid To Sea With Z to get placed on the ship. It was a nominal fee (approx. $150.00). It was certainly worth it.

Photographs: Dance host, Sal Angelica and passenger, Holland America Line cruise ships, 2012. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

How could I ever be able to go to all those exotic places and have room and board for that price? Some cruises were for 30-days. The food was terrific and the buffet was open almost 24-hours a day. What a treat. I met lots of wonderful people from all over the world. Then Holland American Line (HAL) decided that the male staff that was being paid and who were just sitting around doing nothing would learn to dance and would partner the ladies. That knocked us out of our positions. Such is life. We had a great time while it lasted.

Publication page: Head Custodian voting appeal, Clark County School District, Las Vegas, NV, 1995. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image may be subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Can you give some examples of professional positions you held in more recent decades that were outside your dance and choreography career?

In 1993/94 I had been working as a limo driver for Bell Limo. I started with the night shift and a year later they put me on days. I gave my notice when I went to work for the Clark County School District as a custodian at Las Vegas High School.

A year after that I interviewed for the head custodian position at Mendoza Elementary School and stayed there for 4 years. On rainy days when the kids were kept in, I taught them line dancing in the auditorium. They loved it and so did their teachers and the parents. We had a lot of fun. I met a lot of nice people that way. One of the third-grade teachers was a Hollywood movie dancer in her younger years. Her SAG card was #2! I’m sure that Shirley Temple’s card was #1.

From 1996 through 1998, other hats I’ve worn were for Harrah’s Casino Entertainment as a Slot Clerk, Retail Warehouse Associate, and

Housekeeping Floor Supervisor. There are many more hats in the closet. You have to pay the rent.

Paper Certificate: Performance Management completion certificate, Harrah’s Casino Entertainment, 1998. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Chronologically my extracurricular jobs look something like this – and often doing to 2 to 3 jobs while performing nightly.

Airport Meet & Greet for several destination management companies.

Bartender at The Still on Boulevard Mall, and Tivoli Gardens which was owned by Liberace.

Bell Transportation as a limo driver (lots of stories there).

Black Mask in the show, Geish’erella.

Captain at Jubilation, owned by Paul Anka.

Company Manager for Hot Hawaiian Nights in the Transkei, South Africa.

Around this time is when I held the Custodian positions at Valley High School and Head Custodian at Mendoza Elementary.

Docent at Spring Mountain Ranch.

Caesars Palace and Bally’s Hotel, I was an Account Executive for Encore Productions.

At Harrah’s Hotel I was a slot clerk, retail associate, housekeeper, and floor manager.

I oversaw projects, pick-ups, and deliveries of everything at Kazar Interior. I was a long-distance semi driver, moving from New York to Las Vegas, and Las Vegas to the Midwest, and from the Midwest back to Las Vegas. After that was the Paper Moon Greeting Card and Gift Shop that we owned and operated from 1984 through 1989. Then I was a financial backer for Regency Pool Service. At the Thalians, I handled the raffle tickets and guardian of the cash. I was employed by several destination management companies as a tour guide. From about 2016 to 2019 I worked the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) for Canon camera company. As a model for people interested in trying and buying the latest, up-to-date equipment. We were filmed while tracing and cutting patterns. It was a very cushy job. There were three of us and we worked 20 minutes on and 40 minutes off. The money was terrific as well. That just about sums up all of it.

Photograph: Headshot print, Sal Angelica, New York, NY, 1960. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Turning back to your dance career, have you seen significant change in the performing arts community over time?

Las Vegas, “Home of the Showgirls and Showboys” – with all of the big shows closed. This town has laid off not only the performers but put all the musicians, stagehands and wardrobe people out of work, as well as costume designers, choreographers, dance teachers, vocal coaches, hotel staff, valet service etc.

I doubt very much if anything in the future will bring back the excitement, the stars and the entertainment that Las Vegas had once offered in the 60s and 70s. Especially the headliners. Nothing will ever compare to those glorious days.

Paper program: Page from Casino de Paris program, the Dunes Hotel & Country Club, Las Vegas, NV, 1965. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

As I’ve said, I’ve been in Las Vegas for the past 57 years. I am not up on what’s happening in New York City anymore. I do know that the industry’s show ticket prices are way out of line, even in Las Vegas.

If the public refused to pay those outrageous prices it would make sense to lower the cost and have more people enjoying the entertainment and having a nice night out. I can remember seeing a show in New York City, sitting in the first few rows for $3.50 a ticket. Not $3000.00 – Thank you, Hamilton. Just ridiculous.

With the changes in the shows in Las Vegas there is a big void in patronage. No more topless showgirls, no more oglers and money spent. All the other employees involved hurting as well. I hope that live entertainment – shows, not just headliners, makes a comeback. However, even the prices have gone way out of line here [in Las Vegas]. Why would someone pay those prices when you can put a CD or DVD on or get on the Internet and enjoy them in the comfort of your own home? You don’t have to worry about traveling or getting into an accident or paying garage fees – another bummer. You’re paying to see a show and have to pay to park your car as well. Needless to say, I have lots of CDs and DVDs.

Do you perceive the 1960s and ‘70s as a special time for performing arts? Will you describe this era further?

I can’t imagine getting the same kind of entertainment that the ’60s and ’70s gave us, and then there were also the lounge acts, which were very popular and the show biz performers and staff were able to see them between or even after they finished their second or third show.

I am so happy that I was part of all of that and do hope that some of it returns one day. Don’t get me wrong, I still do love the business and everything about it, including the memoirs.

Photographic print: Sal Angelica partnering fellow dancer, Susan, Summer Stock, Finian’s Rainbow, 1963. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

You enjoy a prolific dancer’s life, both in terms of quality and quantity of work. What wisdom from your life and profession would you offer to those just beginning their dance career?

What would I say to someone just starting? Be dedicated. If you are going after a show biz career, do and learn as much as you can from everyone. Take class from various teachers to learn different dance styles. Remember the choreographer wants you to emulate his work. Copy their style and you will get the job. Claude Thompson was very big on doing his choreography your way, not like a Tiller Rockette Line.

Also, have enough confidence in yourself to be the first to audition. I recall someone saying by the time the first 10 dancers are seen, they know who they want. Be aggressive with your talent. Remember that not all shows make it and some even close during the out-of-town tryouts, so have a back-up plan. Have another way to earn money to pay for the classes and your rent. Figure out what else you are good at and like to do to subsidize your dance career.

Photograph: Portrait, Choreographer, Claude Thompson, circa 1970s. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Try to get scholarships or the like. If a choreographer sees that you are good enough and trying hard but can’t afford classes, they will offer them. I know from experience. Thank you, Claude!

I can’t tell you how many performers I know also double as restaurant servers. Another thing is, don’t be a “know it all”, even if you are better. Remember there is always someone not as good as you or even better than you. Even if you do know more than the others, or more than the person auditioning you. They need dancers, you need the job. Do and be your best to awe them. If you are asked to the call back, wear the same clothes that you had originally auditioned in. They will remember you better by doing that.

Who and what are/were the biggest influences in your creative life?

The biggest influences where the choreographers and their work. See the dancers performing on stage and wanting to be one of them was my goal.

What about your life so far are you most grateful for?

I am grateful to all the people, coworkers, friends, and family, that believed in me and always supported me. My family didn’t support me financially. I usually worked two jobs while still going to school to earn money to pay for my [dance] classes, but I had their love behind me.

Photograph: Sal Angelica and partner, Max with terrier dogs, circa 1980s. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

I have my partner Max and Father, Jim Story (an ordained minister) at TASI to thank for convincing me to go back to school and get my high school GED diploma. He was the backbone of TASI and put everything together. I was in my 40s at the time. That helped when I was looking at another career. My advise to everyone is, “Get that piece of paper”. You may be a jerk or even an educated idiot, but they will hire you if you have the credentials.

Photograph: Headshot print, Sal Angelica, New York, NY, 1960. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

I have been very fortunate and happy with the way my professional dance career has gone, and where it took me. I am not only proud of myself for being able to do so, but I am in awe of the people (celebrities) that I have worked with and the places that my dance career has taken me. Most of them would have never met or visit if it wasn’t for the fact that I was in a show or act that not only paid me a salary but paid to take me to places (on their dime) that I would have never dreamed of going to on my own. Getting paid to do what I was extremely happy to do was a win-win scenario.

Photograph: Family members with Sal Angelica, 1944. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Growing up in the slums of Manhattan I had never dreamed that I would have left Broadway to live in Las Vegas, Nevada for the past 56 years. Las Vegas has been very good to me. I kept my two-bedroom apartment on 50th Street and Broadway for over 2 years sublet and got burned many times, but with the rent only being $72.00 a month, I could live here and still afford to maintain it.

What do you think is the biggest sacrifice a dancer makes for their profession?

As far as I’m concerned there was never any sacrifice – only pluses adding to my life. Once again, be diligent, work hard at what you do and be kind. You will then succeed.

Is there anything you would like to relay in this conversation that we haven’t yet covered?

I have been around and have worn many different hats. It is definitely a bore being retired and having lots of free time, but being a homeowner, there is always something around that needs to be done. Between taking care of all the plants, the hummingbirds (who stay year around), it keeps me pretty busy. That and all the doctor visits.

Watch Sal Angelica and Lili Belle Lopez in conversation with Head of Special Collections, UNLV, Su Kim Chung at Clark County Library District. Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter, Donn Arden, Las Vegas, and more.

I do participate in a lot of the University of Las Vegas Special Collections Department’s events. Su Kim Chung asks me to speak about working The Strip and sharing experiences. I am her go to person. Of course, I love every minute of it.

This is the final installment in this three-part article series which was edited in collaboration with Sal Angelica and the John Hemmer Archive in 2022. It is based on Sal’s lived memories and memorabilia from his career spanning many decades.

To read the first installment of this series, please visit: https://www.johnhemmerarchive.org/a-dancers-life-meet-sal-angelica-part-i/

To read the second installment of this series, please visit: https://www.johnhemmerarchive.org/a-dancers-life-meet-sal-angelica-part-ii/



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About the Author


Kirsten Larvick is a documentarian and archivist. She is influenced by interests in mid-century political and cultural history, non-fiction filmmaking and the preservation of personal heritage and cinema art legacies.