When Harry Truman was president, Nancy Williams Baker came to Las Vegas to dance in a two-week show at the El Rancho, which was at the corner of Sahara and Las Vegas Boulevard. It was surrounded by open desert. They had stables in the back and a place to tie up your horse in the front.
“I thought I would be here two weeks, and here I am, still here,” Baker says.
The shows were simple but always changing, usually featuring a star such as Lena Horne or Carmen Miranda, a couple Vaudeville comedy acts and a line of eight dancing girls—they were young women but surely called “girls” back then. They were paid $75 per week; $12.50 covered room and board at the hotel.
Today, Baker shares this history at her legendary Downtown shop, Williams Costume Co., on 3rd and Colorado. On the wall outside, a mural depicts the “Dice Girls” dancers of 1949. She would go on to dance at the Thunderbird, the Last Frontier and the survivor hotel, the Flamingo.
It was a different town.
“It was like a big family,” Baker says of the old casinos. “If you needed anything, they helped you take care of it. It was a very friendly, small town, which is now a monster.” She added, though, that it’s not all good or all bad, but some of both.
Baker, who has flawless, nearly unlined skin and is wearing subtle gold lipstick the day I meet her, would go on to open a dance studio, first at 707 N. Main St., then 214 N. Main (where the California Hotel is now) and then at 226 N. 3rd, across from the old Post Office, which now houses the Mob Museum.
“The town was all mobbed up, and I taught their kids how to dance,” she quips.
She turned to costuming full time around 1970. Her husband, Newton Baker, now deceased, quit his career in the casinos—he had come to Vegas to be a dealer for Benjamin Siegel at the Flamingo—and joined her full time in the shop.
Baker and her staff—she employs six—led me through her shop, which can seem like an endless maze of fantasy. Crowns and hats and flappers and pirates and cowboys and showgirls. Masks of silver and green and gold, sequins for dresses, rhinestones for shoes. Heads of lions and tigers and bunnies and bears. English guards, monks, Robin Hoods, Swedish girls, kilts, gypsies, gorillas, mummies, astronauts. Baker’s favorite area is upstairs, in a room called “Rome” with mostly garb of the ancients: Greek, Roman and Egyptian; popes, sheiks, shepherds, harem girls and endless Cleopatras. (“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”)
There are 10,000 costumes in all, mostly sewn by Baker herself, and there’s enough variety that if you show up at a party as a Baker Cleopatra, you won’t look like the other Cleopatras.
Masqueraders are sized in a fitting room and rent their costumes, with most running $50 to $100 for a weekend. The costumes often have delicate parts and fabrics that need to be cleaned, pressed and mended by hand afterward. The casinos don’t costume their cocktail waitresses like they used to, but business has picked up in other areas. They do an Elvis and Marilyn wedding at least once a week, Baker says.
We step into an elevator, and when we step off, like magic, we’re in Baker’s three-bedroom apartment above the store. “Now I call it my condo,” she says, showing me a gorgeous rooftop deck featuring desert plants and golden lions from the old Tally-Ho.
For years, she fought the city to allow her to live where she worked. Back then, in the 1970s, we were all going to drive on superhighways to the fresh air of the suburbs, or so the thinking went. It contributed to massive urban decay.
Now, of course, much of Downtown’s revitalization rests on the principle that people should be able to live, work and play in the same place. Baker, a Downtown survivor, is seeing the new Downtown take shape. She applauds it, even as she scoffs at offers to buy her property.
“I love living Downtown,” she says.