Terry Moore is the hall-of-fame Hollywood hottie who tamed a big gorilla and billionaire Howard Hughes, but she counts climbing onto center stage at the Fabulous Flamingo as one of the greatest challenges of her remarkable career.
She's an actress, after all, not a showroom singer. Although Moore says she's always been light on her feet, she laughs as she adds that she sings with a limp. That is to say, a touch off-key.
But her success in Hollywood, friendship with Hughes, not to mention the way she filled out an evening gown, enabled her to star on the Strip in the early 1950s and again downtown in the 1970s.
"When I look back on myself I can't believe all I did," Moore says during a brief stop in Las Vegas on her way from her home in Santa Monica to the Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City in the company of her longtime friend, Dick Taylor.
Although these days a Google search of Moore's name is likely to turn up the Hughes connection and some sizzling magazine cover shots " she was the unofficial "MVP" (Most Viewed Pinup) of the Korean War and posed nude for Playboy in August 1984 at age 55 " Moore's acting career spans six decades and is loaded with memorable moments.
She starred as Jill Young in the original version of "Mighty Joe Young." No doubt the experience taught her to fend off big apes of lesser pedigrees in Hollywood.
Moore was nominated for an Academy Award for best Supporting Actress in 1952 for her role in "Come Back, Little Sheba."
But it was during a 1951 divorce from Army football legend Glenn Davis that found her on the outskirts of Las Vegas at what is now Floyd Lamb Park. Back then it was a dude ranch for divorcees sitting out Nevada's six-week residency law. Hughes, a Las Vegas denizen for many years, had exquisite taste in Hollywood sirens and passionately pursued Moore.
"He chased me for months," she says.
With her acting career rolling along, she was a cinch to pack a Las Vegas showroom. Trouble was, she says she had a slight problem with her voice. So Hughes hired songwriter Mack Gordon to script a nightclub act expressly for Moore " including prompts for the orchestra to play just a little off-key. The act was a hit with everyone, even hit men the caliber of Frank Costello.
Off stage, her romance with Hughes blossomed. While she was waiting for her divorce to become final, the two would picnic in Kyle Canyon and hit the gaming tables after dark.
"Howard loved Mount Charleston," Moore says. "He loved to gamble, but just for fun. He would play twenty dollars. He liked to gamble downtown at the Golden Nugget."
Although her secret marriage to Hughes was once a point of controversy, Moore was one of the billionaire's heirs. She defends his memory.
"I was madly in love with Howard," she says. "I never knew him to have bad days. He was very congenial, very tall, and very Texan. He was a gracious man."
It seems impossible that more than half a century has passed since her nights on stage at the Flamingo. Moore recalls the time with great affection.
"Vegas was so glamorous in those days," she says, smiling at the memory. "And everything was hush-hush. You dressed every night for Vegas. I had to have huge suitcases for everything."
On stage for a week, she packed an evening gown for each night on the town and was pals with Gus Greenbaum, Toni and Wilbur Clark, and the characters who became known as "The Rat Pack."
Studying Moore's career, it becomes clear that she didn't always receive the opportunity to appear in blockbuster films. She made her share of B movies. But whenever a chance to shine came her way, as in "Come Back, Little Sheba," she distinguished herself.
There's a lesson in that, whether you're a budding actress or an apprentice carpenter. It's not the size of life's breaks, but what you do with them that count.
Moore has made the most of every moment. She tamed beasts on and off the big screen, and even made golden-era Vegas sing her tune.
Terry Moore travels lighter these days, but she's still hot stuff.
- John L. Smith's column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal's Opinion page. E-mail him at email@example.com or call (702) 383-0295.