A couple of years ago, I penned an article for Travel + Leisure magazine on one of my favourite subjects, old-time Las Vegas. It revolved around how my interest had developed after acquiring my prized 1963 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and discovering the original owner’s name amongst a mountain of paperwork that came with the car.
The article remains one of my favourites, more so because of the opening line: “It started, as these things so often do, with a cardboard box full of crap.” The editor kept that line in, unmolested by decorum, when many others would have tossed it aside.
The Cadillac, a Detroit steel monster in gleaming Silver Mink paint, measures almost 5.7 metres long, weighs in at just over two tonnes, and has bucket seats and an interior of the most indulgent red leather. It was delivered new to its Las Vegas address in May 1963 and the name listed in the owner’s manual was Frederic Apcar.
For some reason, it took me a while to Google the owner’s name but, when I did, a surprise awaited. Apcar was a legend in Las Vegas, a producer of tits-and-ass showgirl extravaganzas at the famed Dunes Hotel and Casino; in 2006, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Nevada Entertainer/Artist Hall of Fame.
The Dunes opened in 1955 on a 35 hectare site at the southern end of the Strip, diagonally across the road from the Flamingo. With 200 rooms and a 28-metre pool, the largest in the country, the hotel was dominated by a 10-metre-tall fibreglass statue of a Middle Eastern Sultan. The Dunes’ initial investors included East Coast Mob money and was later expanded with funds from the Teamsters Union Credit Fund run by Jimmy Hoffa.
In its early years, The Dunes staggered from one misfortune to another but, by the early 60s, was on the rise. General Manager, Major Arteburn Riddle, knowing the value of entertainment in luring gamblers through the doors, hired Apcar to devise an only-in-Vegas drawcard.
Born in Paris, Apcar was a chorus boy in the famed Folies Bergere at the age of 16. By the time he came to Vegas, he was 46 years old and a respected dancer and choreographer. He drew on what he knew – beautiful women, glamorous costumes, naughty-but-nice dance numbers and variety acts. His first production at The Dunes, Viva Le Girls! opened in the Parisian Room Lounge in 1961. With a budget of $US165,000, it became one of the longest-running shows in Vegas.
His ambition, however, didn’t stop there. He negotiated with the owner and producer of the Casino de Paris to license the first official show outside France. It was already synonymous with glamour; Maurice Chevalier and Josephine Baker had both performed with the Casino de Paris and, in the 1970s, Yves Saint Laurent would design costumes for the show.
In December 1963, just a few months after Apcar took delivery of my silver Cadillac, the Casino de Paris show opened in a new custom-built theatre at The Dunes. It was an immediate success; by the mid-60s, the production cost $US75,000 a week to run and had a cast of 100 dancers and performers who cycled through 518 costumes, 250 hats and 500 wigs.
Apcar remained producer and director of the Casino de Paris well into the 80s but, as the years progressed, The Dunes had trouble competing with its upstart neighbours. That it occupied such a prime position on the Las Vegas Strip only hastened its demise. Steve Wynn bought the property in 1992 for $US75 million and closed The Dunes the following year. He imploded the high-rise 60s accommodation tower in spectacular style in October that year and began construction of the $US1.6 billion Bellagio.
Apcar lived to witness the changing fortunes of The Dunes and Las Vegas and died in 2008, aged 93.
Words © David Latta. Photos from Casino de Paris programs from the 1960s from the author’s own collection. Additional information from the excellent www.classiclasvegas.com website.
47 thoughts on “A Classic Link To Old-Time Las Vegas: The Dunes, Frederic Apcar and the Casino de Paris”
Frederic Apcar, a fantastic producer and a wonderful family man. He is greatly missed!
yes he was great!! I came to vegas as a dancer for the lido stardust 1963 and then danced at the dunes, worked in both shows with heather! great memories….
Thanks, Christel, for dropping by. Hope it brings back some fond memories.
Thanks, Susan, for visiting the site. Are you related to Mr Apcar?
I just found this site.I LOVE IT.I worked at the Dunes Hotel 1967-1993.In fact we have a Dunes Employee Reunion every year in January. Actually Jan 25. I also knew Frederic Apcar.My Aunt was Major Riddle’s secretary for many years.My Mother worked in the Publicity department.
Hi Christy. Do you remember Violetta Villas? We are trying to find out all the informations we can about her career at Dunes.
Where is the Dunes reunion? Would love to go and meet some ex employees. I’m fascinated by the Dunes and old Las Vegas.
Anybody know when the next Dunes reunion would be?
Hey Christy – thanks for your comments. A Dunes reunion would be a blast; lots of great stories that would never make it into print, I imagine. BTW – have you heard of any similar employee reunions for the Tropicana? I’m trying to trace an Australian showgirl from the 50s and 60s by the name of Felicia Atkins – she’s mentioned in my post Hitting The Jackpot At The Casino House. Thanks again – David
In “Casino de Paris” sing a big star and beautiful woman with fantastic voice in 4 octaves – Violetta Villas. She is very great singer !!!
Look : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violetta_Villas
Thanks for your note. Although I knew nothing about Violetta, the wonder that is Google opened my eyes. Violetta sang with the Casino de Paris from 1966 to 1969 and, from the numerous YouTube videos that are available on-line, she had a wonderful style and amazing voice. She appeared in such movies as Paint Your Wagon (1969) and recorded many albums although, sadly, there seems little available these days. Violetta’s life is worthy of further documentation and she died, aged 73, in December last year. Obits at http://news-briefs.ew.com/2011/12/06/polish-opera-star-violetta-villas-dead-at-73/ and http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/violetta-villas-6273107.html.
Seeing these photos gives me great pleasure…..I danced for Mr. Apcar between 1978 and 1982 and they are some of my fondest memories . The framed posters still cover my living room. I went to the last “Casino de Paris” reunion on September 9 2001 and would be on the first plane from NY for the next one.
Thanks, Eileen. There’s so much Las Vegas history that doesn’t get the full attention it deserves and I’m sure there’s a book in Frederick Apcar and the Casino de Paris. As the participants get older and the years march on, the quicker the better. Shame I’m so far from the action.
Eileen Woods has passed on already quite some years ago. We danced together in Reno HARRAH’S Hotel lounge.
That doesn’t exist any longer since long ago either. No more music acts nor dance shows.
Fréderic Apcar passed away in 2009 I think. He was a wonderful producer and great man. He and Ron Lewis the choreographer were the BEST IN LV FOR THE LONGEST TIME.
IN THE MEANTIME RON LEWIS PASSED AWAY AND THERE WAS A GRAND MEMORIAL FOR HIM JULY 2021. DANCERS FLEW IN FROM EVERYWHERE. THEY ARE DEEPLY MISSED.
I just saw this site and want to thank you for your work. My father worked for Frederic doing construction and electrical work at his home and his warehouse, and I would go with him on occasion. I was there when he was inducted into the Artist/Entertainer Hall of Fame. There needs to be more done to document his work and honor his influence on Vegas.
Thanks, Jerry. Although my link with Mr Apcar is rather tenuous (I live on the other side of the world and just happen to own one of the many Cadillacs he would have purchased in his lifetime), I have a fascination with old-time Las Vegas so it all dovetails quite nicely. I agree that there’s much more to write about and, from previous comments by people who also knew him, much to draw on. Thanks again for taking the time to read my blog and post a comment.
Hi Davidlatta, I life in Poland and I very love Violetta Villas. I am her fan long time. She have a lot young fans in Poland.
I thank so much for informations. Mass of fan has still world-wide Violetta Villas and in Poland particularly. We are wanted to inform as maximally about her life and projections in USA, but to Las Vegas particularly. If you can help as?
Thousand people still loves her.
I thank you. Best regards
This is four videos with Violetta :
This is great! I’m Frederic’s daughter and I really enjoyed reading about the 1963 Cadillac Coupe de Ville story. A book is soon to come….
A book on your father? Great idea! From the comments I’ve received (and just heard from Frederic as well), there certainly seems to be more than enough stories to tell. And so much of Las Vegas history goes unrecorded and neglected. Please keep me informed on its progress.
Nice page, Carry on the wonderful job. Regards!
Wonderful to see the Dunes. I worked in the first Vive Les Girls. It was in the Dunes Lounge and was a sensation. Later I worked in the first Casino De Paris show. We rehearsed in Milan for six weeks where the fabulous costumes were made. Wonderful happy days. Great to see Tanya the baby elephant, what happened to her?
Paula Vandegrift / Colchester in Las Vegas
Hey Paula. Thanks for your comments. I picked up my Casino de Paris memorabilia at various antique stores and malls in Vegas during my visits but there’s still lots I’d love to find out about Frederic Apcar and his shows. His son, also Frederic, lives in Vegas and maintains a showbiz connection. Hopefully, on my next visit, I’ll get a chance to interview him.
oh I remember Tanya have photo sitting in her….that was when I danced in the lido, we had a circus number….
Christel was a kind and caring mother at Luna am See circa 1975… for me, she was in dreams, so sweet…thanks.
I also worked for Frederick Apcar in Atlantic City,I am an Australian acrobatic dancer,and have never worked with such a Gentleman Producer in my 30 year career.He was the best.
Thanks for your comments, Marlene. There’s been quite a few views of this article in the last few days, plus the comment above, so I figure someone has been circulating it to interested parties. Regrettably, I only knew of Frederic second-hand but I’m sure there’s lots of great stories worth retelling of those glamour days. Feel free to drop me a line if you’d like to chat.
Looking at the photo`s brought back wonderful memories. I worked in Casino show 1963 Chor. was Ronnie Lewis He is great and so was Frederic Apcar I am greatful to have worked with them. I was a dancer in the show .My name is Bob Ellis on facebook I am Bob Jedierowski
Bob Jedierowski aka Bob Ellis Sorry but I have a correction, I danced in Casino in 1965 not 1963. A great time for me and a great time for Las Vegas. Thank you again 1000 times over Ron Lewis and Frederic Apcar and all the people in the show for the chance to be part of you .
Thanks, Bob. It’s great to hear from personnel from the old days. I know Mr Apcar’s family read this as well and I’m sure they are pleased their father continues to be held in such high regard.
I worked in the first Vive Les Girls in the Dunes Lounge with Ron Lewis Frederic and his then wife Florence. this was 1961. Then in the Casino de Paris show in 1963. My name was Paula Colchester or Spassmacher as I was married to Teddy the drummer. I would so love to hear from any one in the shows. Especially Achilles Brown from Argentina. Hears hoping.
Paula Van de grift.
Thanks, Paula, and welcome to the gradually increasing ranks of ex-Apcar employees. There would be so many great stories out there that deserve to be collected before they are lost forever. As a writer who has spent most of the last 35 years writing about some aspect of history, I know how important it is to future generations that these stories not be forgotten. If any of you would like to contact me, I’d love the opportunity to explore old Vegas history in more detail.
Some Violetta Villas’s promos:
J’ai lu votre article avec attention. Quand le Casino de Paris s’est associé au Dunes, le spectacle était accompagné de la vedette française Line Renaud qui est restée à Las Vegas durant plusieurs années. L’affiche que vous montrez est celle de la revue de Paris, Plaisirs, qui a été jouée de 1959 à 1963. Comme le dit Paula le spectacle a été répété à Milan où se faisaient les costumes de José Luis Vinas avant de s’installer au Dunes.
I love Frederick so much:) In 1980 he allowed Pat Mckecknie to hire me in my youth at 16yo, gave me $600.00 to get settled into an apt,. and that was plenty. Hector Nunez taught me the show and I was on in 5 days later:)
Thanks, Mic. This is becoming quite the contact point for Frederic’s old employees, family and friends. It’s always good to hear the stories behind the scenes.
Do any of you former Vive Les Girls have any pictures or stories about the period when Bill Chase was leading the band and performing on stage as part of the act?
Does any one know Sonja Henie
A friend of mine dated her a short time in the 1960’s and would love to know how she is, any info would be appreciated.
I was one of the Rudas Dancers and worked in the Apcar shows at the Dunes from 64 to 66 I was only 16 yrs and it was a big eye opener for a young girl from Australia.
I loved Ron Lewis ‘s choreography.I went to Milan to rehearse the show and it was a great experience,I have great friends and memories of my performing days.
Worked Dunes headliner with Caesar Romero, 3 shows a night, great times, loved Major Riddle and Jackie Fields at Tropicana… always took care of their girls.
Must been 1965. Can’t remember….going to write a book about my life as showgirl and beyond.
Hey Shirl – a book sounds like a great idea. So much of history gets lost over time and Vegas from a showgirl’s perspective would make a great read.
I would love to learn more about Ron Lewis’s background and see more of his choreography. I know him through his protégée, Betsy Haug, with whom I took classes in New York. We are working on reviving her choreography and would love to revive his as well. I would also like information on the shows that she staged in Tahoe, Reno and Las Vegas.
Saul- Apcar shows with Ron Lewis: crazy ladies (Harrah’s Reno 1979-80), Heats On (Harrah’s Reno 1980-82), hotter and hotter (harrah’s tahoe ca. 1980),
Regarding Vive Les Girls, circa summer 1969. Actress Cassandra Peterson, AKA Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, has said on hundreds of occasions she was part of Vive Les Girls in 1969-70. I can find no evidence she was ever part of the show. Can anyone confirm if she was a dancer, and at times singer, in the show between May 1969 and September 1970? Thank you.
Yet another with fond memories of Frederic, Vive les Girls at Tahoe (with Heather) summer ’65, then on to Paris with Florence Apcar & Line Renaud for Desir de Paris at the Casino de Paris ’66. It was quite a time.
A correction ,please, on entry for Philippahner May 12,2017… it should read Lunz am See, not Luna am See…it is amazing to see how this link still attaches me to this dear friend from long ago!