A bit of old Vegas class departs with wine goddesses

The faces that launched a thousand sips could not conjure a single smile.

It was then that I knew I was watching yet another old Las Vegas tradition wave to me in the rearview mirror of time. My whiskey was top-shelf and the scenery was vintage Vegas, but the mood just wasn't right. I had found myself in the company of the four wine goddesses who were about to lose their place in Caesars' world.

With all respect to my wife and daughter, it's not every night I find myself strolling amid goddesses of the sort who appeared before me at the bar next to the famous Bacchanal room at Caesars Palace. These were the resort's wine goddesses, and they were crying in their chianti.

They wore their harem girl getups, but the legendary wine servers were breaking character. Tears filled their eyes as they recounted the wonderful years they had spent pouring vino, peeling grapes and massaging temples for legions of Bacchanal customers.

It was enough to make the stoic centurion sing the blues.

As I listened to their stories, I thought how askance outsiders would look upon this scene. After all, where else but Las Vegas are women made to dress like exotic servant girls to earn a living as glorified cocktail waitresses? What swinging '60s, free love, Matt Helm male fantasy world was this community trapped in?

Then I snapped out of it. For Las Vegas working stiffs, the slinky belly-dancer togs were just another uniform in the craziest company town on the planet.

Perhaps knowing that closing the Bacchanal would attract rank sentimentalists like me, Caesars management downplayed that it was being replaced by a noodle bar and other surreal signs of progress.

What is lost transcends some funky Roman portraits and an overpriced menu. The Bacchanal was one of the pillars that set Caesars apart from the pack.

Although revisionist historians would have you believe the era of themed resorts in Las Vegas began only a few years ago, Jay Sarno's Caesars Palace was over-the-top from the day it opened in 1966. It maintained its magic through all its owners, and the Bacchanal symbolized its playfully hedonistic theme.

Wine goddess Leticia Savino was there from the start and vividly recalls the NBC camera zooming in on Sarno as he basked in his Vegas dream. When Sarno quickly suggested that she peel him a grape and massage his temples, the newsies went wild. And the legend of the wine goddesses was born.

In the years to come, an army of gape-mouthed gamblers made the pilgrimage to Las Vegas to the famous Bacchanal. Then came word Bacchanal was closing, and last week the ladies peeled their last grape.

"It was like being on stage," wine goddess Cindy Raft says. "We played a role, and you had to be an actress, literally. And it was fun. I felt like it was recreating the Roman days, Las Vegas style."

Adds goddess Jeanie Burress, "We were like fictional characters, there to entertain. I had a good time letting them join the fantasy world of the Bacchanal. This is like seeing Rome crumble, the fall of the Roman Empire."

After the fall, unemployed goddess Elizabeth Osenbaugh says, "God, it was hard to walk out of there that night. We sat in the room, then cried in our cars. Working there, you actually feel like you're a goddess. A goddess and a hostess. To me, the Bacchanal was as important as the fountains. It was all about fantasy. We were there toput smiles on the customers' faces."

Now they are hoping someone from the corporate netherworld will do the same for them by giving them a special duty. But Raft sums up their problem: "Once you've been a goddess, where do you go?"

True enough. You can scour the classifieds for a month and never read the words, "Help Wanted: Goddess."

Las Vegas was never shy about flashing its bosom, but it has become a raunchier place over the years. If such were possible, it has grown more exploitative of women, so much so that the Bacchanal's harem routine was wholesome family fun.

Maybe that was the problem.

The wine goddesses had too much class for the times.

John L. Smith's column appears Wednesday. His columns also appear online at www.lasvegas.com. He can be reached at Smith@lasvegas.com or 383-0295.

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