Q&A: Anita Mann
Anita Mann oversees a team of 12 of the most beautiful, talented and sensual dancers in Las Vegas, if not the world, at Fantasy, the topless review at the Luxor with a two-decade history. The Emmy-winning choreographer wants Fantasy to last beyond her active participation, and could easily see someone in the current ranks taking her place as den mother and creative overseer. Right now, she tells Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen, she’s having too much fun dancing as fast as she can.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Fantasy. Does it feel special yet or have things been business as usual?
I wish it were business as usual. I’m very excited about this year. We’re planning a lot of different events and some surprising and things for Media Night (in early October) to celebrate. We’re gonna be very busy this year.
You’re already planning for October?
We do the show every night, seven nights a week, 52 weeks a year, and we rehearse during the day while they’re doing the show at night. And then I have to get it ready and relight it and so forth and so on. We do it in gradual steps. I won’t start meeting with the cast, but I have to get it all ready—write it, choreograph it. So yes, I am planning, to answer your question. Day to day remains constant. Every night to me is opening night because it’s a new audience.
Have you calculated how many performances there will have been by the night of the 20th Anniversary?
I just emailed Beverly Jeanne and asked her to calculate that. She’s the executive producer of the show. She’s been with me for decades. We’re in the thousands and thousands of shows because we opened Nov. 1, 1999. When we started we did two shows a night, every other night, but we were dark one night per week and we started moving to more shows seven nights a week. Then when Carrot Top came in we did one show a night seven nights a week. There’s not an easy formula.
I read some articles from last year that said you had passed the 7,000 mark. Have you reached 8,000 performances yet, or are you heading towards that? You’re talking about 350 shows per year.
I think we’re probably heading towards that. We have very few dark days. We did have 9/11 and the Oct. 1st situation. Obviously those were dark days, and we maybe had one week off for some theater work. Mathematically, we’re close. There were nights we did two shows.
I think it’s safe to say you rounded third base and are heading towards a home plate of 10,000 shows. Would that make sense?
(laughs) Oh, we are. Definitely, that’s our goal. We will not give up. That’s a great analogy, thank you.
I don’t know if a lot of people realize that the show is on seven days a week. The dancers never drop their smiles. They make the choreography seem effortless.
We have 12, actually. We have eight dancers onstage every night, and then we have a team that’s rotated in. Mariah (Rivera), who’s my company manager—actually, this year she’s become associate producer because she’s doing so much. She schedules the ladies … I just got an email from Bev. It was approximately 7,600 as of Dec. 31, 2018 and we’re definitely moving toward that 8,000 mark.
What’s key to keeping it going seven nights a week? You have a company manager and a dance captain. Do you have any other people in positions that help keep things moving?
Absolutely. Thank you for that question, because I really like to give everyone the credit for all of their work but the company manager, Mariah, has really been key for me. She’s my Vegas contact for the hotel, and personal appearances and charities. Now she’s associate producer. My dance captain, Yesi (Burgess), is just brilliant. She’s been moved up to resident choreographer. We have a show next week in which I literally edited the music. I went out for one night last week and worked out the routines, and then she’ll teach it and make it better. If she can make it better, there’s no ego. We work as a team. The silk performers, they’re a very important part of the show, and my singer is really the key to holding the show together each night. Lorena Peril is my key. She’s in six nights a week, but we have wonderful swing singers in Vegas and they do the seventh night, and I have a comedian that’s been with me a long time, Sean E. Cooper. He’s in six nights a week, but I have a swing performer (for him) as well. The key for me is the strength of my cast and the team, and I also have an incredible PR department with Wicked Creative, and Penny Levin, who handles Thunder From Down Under. We do a lot of joint things with Thunder from Down Under, and I have Sally Dewhurst, who is a consultant for me in Vegas as well, who handles a lot of our appearances, and just helps with a lot of logistics. We have a team: the cast; the performers obviously are critical; the company manager, now associate producer, the dance captain and PR. So that’s our team, and my office in Los Angeles goes back and forth, and that’s Beverly Jean. She’s executive producer, and I have Shannon. She does all of our ads, media placement and works with everyone. And then the last part of that is the Luxor. So we have just an amazing team of kind of really dedicated people who focus on Fantasy, and you think, “OK, it’s just one show,” but it’s not. It’s every night. It’s costumes, it’s stage, it’s ticket brokers, it’s accounting, it’s personal appearances everywhere. It’s charity events. It’s really a team, so I kind of gave you a big overview, but it takes that many people, and I’m just so grateful for everyone.
The dancers I’ve interviewed in the past always say they don’t want to leave. They feel like they can come back and it’s unlike any other place they’ve worked. Have you purposely created a different working environment, or did it evolve? Or is it from being a dancer and having that kind of empathy?
You just hit the nail on the head. The fact that I was a dancer and lived through so many jobs, and there were either the painful ones or the delightful ones. I always vowed, decades ago when I became a choreographer in the early ’70s, I just said to all the dancers, who were all my friends, “Guys, when I become a choreographer and you all work for me I will never treat you poorly.” I had been through so much as a dancer and I just wanted to pay it forward, and make sure all my cast knows I respect them and admire them, and respect their talent and understand that it’s not an easy job. Anything we can do to make their lives better is my goal. Obviously my No. 1 purpose is to entertain people who have a ticket, but along with that comes the happiness and joy of people onstage, because that shows. If you’re not happy it’s harder to do your job with joy.
Did you look at the current era of female empowerment as it evolved and go, “We’re already there.”
(laughs) No, actually it was embedded in me, I think from birth. I was one of the first female choreographers for network television, and film and stage. … It’s just embedded in me that I’m able to do what a man is able to do, and my mother is a very, very smart and influential person. She was my drama coach in high school. Most of my dance instructors were women. Lucille Ball was my mentor. She owned the studio, so there were never any glass ceilings to shatter with her. She was there, and she was my mentor for six years. I just think I was blessed to be in an environment that taught me to have confidence, and that women are equal and the same, so to speak. So I’ve never thought about it. It was just part of my life. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have problems, I don’t mean to say it that way. My thinking was always to make everyone happy, whether it was a male cast or a female cast, or a mixed cast. My job is to respect the performers and make their job as peaceful and as healthy as I possibly could.
The old Vegas was a very tightly wound place backstage.
Yeah! (laughs) I started dancing in Vegas in 1964. I’ve seen a lot of changes. I’ve seen it all and I was one of those dancers who … sometimes we’d have to go sit in the bar after work. It was a different time, but I was always in love with Vegas. Obviously television and film was a steady job for me in Los Angeles, but I started going to Vegas with my family in 1956, sneaking into every show I could possibly see when I was a little girl, so I just loved Vegas. It’s always been like a second home to me.
This was shortly after the family moved from Detroit to California?
No, actually we went from Detroit to St. Louis. I was dancing in both places, but we left St. Louis in 1956. That’s when we started driving to Vegas for our vacations when we came out to Los Angeles. That was like the most exciting place on Earth for us, besides Disneyland.
Which came first, working in Elvis films or (1964-66 musical variety show) Shindig?
Actually, it was Shindig, but my first job was in 1958. I was one of the Chucko the Clown dancers. I was also in Bye Bye Birdie. I did get paid for that film while I was still in high school, but my first big job, my first TV gig as a dancer, which started my career, was that one at CBS. I was lucky to dance with people who lived in other places. My dance teachers did, so I was lucky so have that exposure.
I imagine Shindig was a dream job for dancers back the ’60s even if it wasn’t that way once you got the job. I think it looked, for teenagers, like the ultimate thing you can do. I checked to see if you were on the Little Richard episode when he performed “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and saw that you were on a lot of shows.
Oh my Gosh. We were so blessed. Shindig was a dream job. Every day it was a dream job. We’re still all friends, the four of us that were on the floor, the front four dancers: Maria (Ghava), Gina (Trikonis), Pam (Freeman) and myself. We just had a party in January to celebrate Gina’s birthday. We’re all still connected. We’re still all friends with the Righteous Brothers’ Bill Medley. I remained in contact with Glen Campbell, with everyone.
Do you see future producers among the cast that could take Fantasy into the post-Anita era?
I feel that we’ve mentored some really incredible talent in our current cast. I think they have a future in business, in production, in choreography. There’s a real exiting future for some of these women. I would hire almost every one of these women to do other jobs should that happen in life. They’re so talented.