By ERIKA KINETZ
LAS VEGAS (US) - PAULA ALLEN radiates the kind of sweetness one might associate with an unusually content librarian in some wholesome precinct of the heartland. But Ms. Allen, blond, leggy and 32, is a showgirl in Sin City. She is a principal dancer in Donn Arden's ''Jubilee!'' at Bally's, arguably the last true showgirl show in Las Vegas, which celebrated its 25th anniversary two weeks ago. This position, officially speaking, makes Ms. Allen a symbol of the city, a figure of living history. Feathered, rouged, high-heeled, headdressed, rhinestone-brassiered history.
At 7:20 on the big night, just 10 minutes to curtain, however, she is wearing baggy pants and fat walrus slippers. ''Plain Paula to showgirl Paula,'' she said, applying long flourishes of liquid eyeliner. ''You can't get any plainer than me.''
All around the dressing rooms, false eyelashes are being glued in place. Blush brushes are flying. A woman is trotting around holding her breasts in her hands: ''Is there a man in here?'' she demands. And then the loudspeaker crackles: ''Happy anniversary, Jubileers! Have a good show.'' And a great female cry rises up from the sea of naked flesh: ''Woooh!''
In the 1960's nearly every casino on the Strip had a big production number on one of its stages. ''Jubilee!,'' which came along in 1981, was late to the scene. Now 25, the show is older than many of the women who dance in it, remarkable longevity in a town that so frequently dynamites its cherished landmarks.
Just as in the old days, the show features 3,000 gallons of water spilling from a sinking Titanic; a hypersexed Samson and Delilah doing a balletic duet in G-strings; girls in baroque but brief costumes floating down from the ceiling on platforms above the audience's head. The show culminates with a ''Presentation of Our Grand and Glorious Beauties,'' who plume with ostrich- or pheasant-feather headdresses, some on scaffolds as wide as their arm spans. They walk up and down silvery stairs with the rolling stroll that is essential to the showgirl's mystique. (''Les Folies Bergere,'' at the Tropicana hotel, also bills itself as a preserve of the endangered showgirl, but the show, now in its 19th iteration, no longer achieves that level of high-density glam.)
In an era when the Strip is ablaze with Broadway musicals on one end of the spectrum and sexually explicit female revues on the other, the ''Jubilee!'' dancers are the last of their kind: the youngest, freshest and most beautiful dinosaurs on the planet.
''This is the only show in Las Vegas I'd do,'' Ms. Allen said. ''I'm not a contortionist. I'm a dancer. I don't want to hip-hop topless. I want my tatas to stay where they are.''
Ffolliott LeCoque, the company manager of ''Jubilee!,'' is at 83 still intimidatingly elegant: perfect lipstick, unassailable brown curls and more grace in high heels than many women a quarter her age. When she offers a pronouncement, there isn't much room for debate. ''The art of the showgirl is to be mysterious,'' said Ms. LeCoque (pronounced le-KO), who is generally known by her nickname, Fluff. ''She has a certain mystique about her,'' she declares. ''The true showgirl does not sell.''
Las Vegas, however, does. Aggressively. The newest shows reach out and grab their audiences. At ''Love,'' Cirque du Soleil's latest show, a huge white sheet wafts over the audience before being sucked down into the floor. At ''Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular'' the famous crashing chandelier nearly nails the audience.
By contrast with these high-tech extravaganzas, said Peter Michel, the director of special collections at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, '' 'Jubilee!' is almost a museum piece now.'' His department is working on a historic exhibition about them, which is due to open soon.
TRUE showgirls made their way from Europe to Las Vegas in the late 1950's. The purest of them did not dance; it was enough to be tall and alluring. Chief among their talents was the ability to parade around topless, in heels, up and down stairs, with lavish headdresses and elaborate decorations strapped to their backs.
Gradually dancing became more important, which necessitated less elaborate costumings and, some argue, precipitated the long loss of glamour. By the 1970's, showgirls were frequently referred to as ''dancing nudes.'' Which didn't mean they were ''Live! Dancing! Nudes!'' That sort of thing remains the preserve of so-called gentlemen's clubs, rather than casinos. It simply meant they had to both dance and go topless, sometimes at the same time. ''You got more value out of them,'' Ms. LeCoque explained.
Today many women who bear little resemblance to the remote, glittering mannequins of old call themselves showgirls. Some of the men who snap lewd business cards at passers-by (accompanied by entreaties like: ''I can get you a real beautiful girl, dog'') purport to be trafficking in showgirls. And the free, full-color publication called Adult Informer: Deja Vu Showgirls News features women advertising their phone numbers and sexual predilections.
This is a source of endless aggravation for ''Jubliee!'' girls. ''A lot of people grab the name because it has class and glamour associated with it,'' said Diane Palm, the show's assistant company manager. ''It's annoying. It's our pet peeve here.'' Compared with the sexy revues, what these dancers do is nearly Victorian. ''The first time I had to wear a G-string, I was dancing on a cruise ship,'' Ms. Allen said. ''I almost had a heart attack. I was, like, 'My mother is going to kill me.' I am very modest.''
These days the show's fortunes seem modest too. There are now 85 cast members, down from 127 at the end of the 80's. The show hasn't had live accompaniment since a musicians' strike in 1989. The majority of ''Jubilee!'' dancers have second jobs and make less than dancers in other big shows on the Strip, most of whom have base salaries of at least $1,000 to $1,400 a week. And the ticket price for ''Folies'' is about half of that for the newest Cirque show, said Angela Santangelo, who dances in the ''Folies'' by night and works for a mortgage company by day. ''It's hard for us at times to fill the house. I hope we don't go anywhere. I think we need to keep changing things up and keeping it fresh, and hopefully we'll get the crowds back.''
Even the 25th anniversary of ''Jubilee!'' was fairly muted. Tyra Banks and one of the ''Queer Eye'' guys made guest appearances earlier this year, but star could be found for the celebratory performance.
The show instead marked its anniversary with a modest cast party and by doing a ''covered'' show, at which the performers were somewhat less exposed than usual. That meant friends and relations under 18 could attend, a source of great excitement for the mothers in the cast. Sarah Sutter, a ''Jubilee!'' dancer, brought along her 5-year-old, Ethan, who has trouble recognizing his mom when she is done up in full ''Jubilee!'' regalia. ''He loved it,'' she said. ''He fell asleep, though.''
After the show Alexa Fabbri, who said she used to dance for Nevada Ballet Theater, stood by her mother, Silvija, and signed autographs for two awestruck 7-year-old girls. Ms. Fabbri's mom said she had expected her daughter to grow up to be a ballerina. ''Jubilee!'' struck her as dubious at first. ''I thought it was just another strip show,'' she said. ''This is different. It takes talent and perseverance and beauty.''
''She used to be a stripper in the 70's,'' said Ms. Fabbri, from behind her false eyelashes.
''Shhhh,'' said her mother.
Every six months more newcomers show up for the show's auditions. Some arrive in Las Vegas fresh from gigs at Disney World and on cruise ships; others are fed up with even leaner salaries at regional ballet companies or simply want to escape small towns. At each audition 20 or so new women join the troupe, and they have four weeks to rehearse the show.
As when it made its debut, ''Jubilee!'' is a series of themed tableaus, interspersed with variety acts like juggling and tumbling. And though there are principal roles, the real appeal of the showgirl lies not in her individuality but in the way she is multiplied and refracted across the stage. ''Jubilee!'' at its best is a mass display of long legs and baroque costumes, of women repeating simple choreographed kicks and steps in kaleidoscopic geometries. There is also a kick line set to ''Yankee Doodle Dandy'' and tributes to Vernon and Irene Castle (once the stars of ballroom dancing), Jerome Kern and George Gershwin.
The show is still using its original sets, which feature running water, a catwalk that descends above the audience's head, pyrotechnics, all powered by hand or hydraulics. In 1981 it was state of the art. Today it's opulent but dated. Cirque, by comparison, has gone digital: its show ''KA,'' for example, has more than 325 computer-generated technical cues.
More than show-biz technology, however, what's changed since the show's early days are attitudes toward women's bodies, naked bodies in particular. Once upon a time the chance to gaze at these inaccessible beauties was rare enough to be titillating, while still respectable enough to bring the missus to. Today, however, the sight of topless women is no longer so shocking: they are a common enough sight in movies and on cable television. (Even Cirque's ''Zumanity'' is far more daring, with men kissing other men, two fat women in G-strings, a transvestite M.C. and a soaring love duet with a midget.) A few new burlesque shows have opened, and more than one old Las Vegas hand has suggested that it's these sweet and skimpily clad women who strip at Forty Deuce, the Pussycat Doll Lounge and Tangerine who might be the true next generation of showgirls. Even when they're down to G-strings and pasties, which is the farthest the most daring of them go, these skilled dancers are otherworldly, untouchable, too beautiful, too quick and too much in the light for the mere mortals watching them.
''People aren't necessarily interested in watching a parade of pretty girls,'' said Scott Zeiger, an executive producer of the Las Vegas ''Phantom of the Opera'' who is developing a new burlesque show to open this month. ''They'd much rather have a $350 bottle of vodka on their table and be sitting around with a bunch of pals from their law firm or fraternity and partying.''
Still, not everyone is ready for the provocations of ''Zumanity,'' and some viewers pick themselves up and walk right out the door. And what's more, Las Vegas has always had a way of recycling old trends and making them new for middle-management types from Middle America. ''Everything old is new again,'' said Julie McDonald of McDonald/Selznick Associates, a Los Angeles talent agency that represents dancers and choreographers. ''I'm sure at some point someone will do something brilliant with showgirls.''
Gilles Ste-Croix, the senior vice president for creative content at Cirque, said: ''Myself, I would love to put my hands on a revue show. I have a dream of doing something like this one day.''
''Josephine Baker, cabaret in Berlin and 'Jubilee!,' '' he continued, ''all these are inspirations I would pull from to create a new product.''
For now, however, the show, and to some extent the showgirls, are living off the glories of the past. Next month there will be a showgirl reunion at the Stardust Resort and Casino, where Las Vegas's first showgirl spectacular, ''Lido de Paris,'' made its debut in 1958. Then in January the Stardust will be imploded to make way for a new $4 billion casino and shopping complex.