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Exclusive interview with Jennifer Castle by Steve Oxenrider

By: Steve Oxenrider
Jennifer Castle Diamonds Are Forever interview
On the 50th anniversary celebration of Diamonds Are Forever (1971), FSWL contributor Steve Oxenrider talked to former Las Vegas showgirl Jennifer Borel, who played one of Shady Tree’s two lovely ‘Acorns’. Jennifer enthusiastically shared her memories of filming alongside Sean Connery and the rest of the Bond cast and crew. Some portions of this interview were first conducted in 2014.

“I call these girls my Acorns”

Wint and Kidd. Bambi and Thumper. Double Blofelds. Shady Tree and His Acorns. Good and evil seem to come in twos in Bond’s seventh cinematic outing, Diamonds Are Forever. Bond’s mission takes him from Amsterdam to Las Vegas and the Whyte House, a casino-hotel where diamond smuggler Shady Tree works as a stand-up comedian. Tree was played by veteran comic and showbiz performer Leonard Barr, master of the fast one-liners and uncle to entertainer Dean Martin. Tree’s lovely stage partners, the Acorns, were played by real-life Vegas showgirls Pat Gill and Jennifer Castle.

The whereabouts of both women remained a mystery for several decades until I located Pat Gill (the blonde to the left of Shady), still residing in Las Vegas, in 2011. Gill’s fascinating showbiz background story was revealed in an interview in 007 MAGAZINE ARCHIVES FILES Diamonds Are Forever--File #1. And if the expression “an acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree” holds any truth, then it seemed only a matter of time tracking down the other Acorn, Jennifer Castle. It was through the investigative talents of a booking agent for a popular celebrity show in England that the Acorn in the red plumage was traced to one Jennifer Castle. For years it was wrongfully believed to be Cassandra Peterson, the Los Angeles TV horror hostess better known as ‘Elvira’. During the filming of Diamonds Are Forever in Las Vegas in April 1971 then unknown showgirl Cassandra Peterson was appearing with Jennifer Castle and Pat Gill in the popular revue Vive Les Girls. “Cassandra Peterson was a great friend of mine and we were living together at the time in Las Vegas but we lost touch over the years,” Jennifer says.

Jennifer recalls her childhood in England and her road to Las Vegas. “My mother used to take me to all the musicals when I was a little girl, and from that I was introduced to show business and wanted to be a dancer. I used to take lessons at the local dancing school in Kent. We didn't have much money when I was growing up, and it wasn't until years later that I found out my lessons were being paid for by my mother cleaning the studio. When I was 17 I was at a loose end and my mother saw an advert for a Bluebell Girls audition in London! I was very nervous at the audition and Miss Bluebell said I wasn't tall enough for the Paris shows but she said she liked my face and sent me to Vegas! My mother had to sign a consent form for me as I was under age and the next thing I knew I was in the Lido de Paris show at the Stardust Hotel Las Vegas.”

“Throughout the 60s, I also danced in the Folies Bergere at the Tropicana Las Vegas. I also found myself in Beirut in the mid 60s in the Charley Henchis show at the Casino du Liban. But Vive Les Girls was my favourite show!”

Vive Les Girls, produced by French-born Frederic Apcar, was the ground-breaking revue at The Dunes. The Dunes had already gained its fame in 1957 when it became the first hotel/casino in Nevada to feature topless shows. The production values of Les Girls rivalled those of the larger French-style revues in Vegas, with a cast of 30, but in a more intimate, lounge-sized setting. It boasted more daring choreography, with performances as late as 3 a.m. Fellow ‘Acorn’ Pat Gill was the show’s leading nude dancer. “The Dunes was like my second home and I loved working there for all those years. It had character—it was THE DUNES! Just a small dance sequence for Diamonds Are Forever was filmed at The Dunes.”

“I was in the first show of Vive Les Girls in 1961 and in the last one in the 1970s. I only missed one of them!” Castle explains with pride. Many of the elements of Les Girls winning formula—costumes, choreography, music--continue today in Las Vegas’ most popular topless cabaret shows.

News of Sean Connery’s return as James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever was announced on March 3, 1971. Meanwhile, Las Vegas geared up for seven weeks of location filming that was to commence on April 5.

“A lot of the big stars used to come and see Vive Les Girls when they were in town-- Elvis, Cary Grant, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minnelli. This is how I came to meet Ken Adam and Team 007. Ken spotted me in the show and suggested to Cubby Broccoli that I would be good as an Acorn. Mr Broccoli agreed so that's how it happened. It wasn't really an audition as such.”

“The Diamonds Are Forever scene was filmed at the Riviera Hotel which was one of my most favorite hotels in Las Vegas. Neil Sedaka was appearing in the main room of the Riviera and Ken Adam took me to see the show. We sat with Cubby Broccoli who was friends with the owners of the Riviera. This was when Ken suggested that I’d be good in the film and Mr. Broccoli replied, without even looking at me, ‘Okay, but she’ll only be paid a hundred dollars.’”
“The Riviera was very classy and elegant, as was the Tropicana. The Riviera was the Diamonds Depot—Sean and Ken Adam and Tom Mankiewicz and most of the crew stayed there. It was there that the Shady Tree sequence was filmed. Pat and I each did our own make up. We got dressed in the costumes they gave us and then we waited in a booth at the back of the lounge, watching them set up the scene. After what seemed like an eternity we were called to the set and placed either side of Leonard Barr. The director Guy Hamilton said to us, ‘Just stand there’. I was a bit disappointed that we didn't have any interaction with Shady Tree. The cameras were below us and I thought this is going to make us look huge! The whole sequence, didn't take too long at all, about an hour in total.”

Jennifer remembers the first time she saw Diamonds Are Forever and her reaction. “I was in a show at the Moulin Rouge in Paris at the time, and I saw it with my husband in a tiny cinema in a small side street close to Place Blanche. The screen looked enormous! I didn't know what to expect as I had no idea about the sequence of the film. The film had been rolling a while, then there I was. I said, ‘Wow! Is that me?’ Then the Shady Tree bit came up and I must say that I was a bit disappointed with this as there was no animation on our faces. We had followed the directions of ‘Just stand there.’ It could have been so much better!”

Castle also confirms as false the speculation of many years that her Acorn partner on stage was played by actress Valerie Perrine. “I have no knowledge of Valerie Perrine being in the film!” The other real Acorn, Pat Gill, set the record straight in 2012 (007 MAGAZINE ARCHIVES FILES Diamonds Are Forever – File #1). “Valerie Perrine was a showgirl in Lido de Paris at The Stardust from 1968-69. So she wasn’t in Vegas at the time of Diamonds Are Forever and never had anything to do with the movie.”

Cassandra ‘Elvira’ Peterson is also rumored to have appeared in Diamonds Are Forever, as a background showgirl or dancer, but her sighting in the film has never been substantiated. Peterson had begun her career at age 17 as the youngest showgirl in Las Vegas history in Vive Les Girls. “I've always watched with such delight and admiration at what Cassandra has achieved with her alter ego Elvira,” Castle remarks. “We finally got back in touch after 40 years which has been fantastic! She has recently sent me her new book Yours Cruelly, Elvira and she mentioned me in it.”

Pat Gill and Jennifer enjoyed another scene together which was subsequently deleted from the final print. There remains, however, a brief shot of the two Acorns encountering Bond in the hallway as he asks for directions to Shady Tree’s dressing room. “I like the short scene in the corridor when James Bond asks us for directions because a few of the other dancers from Vive Les Girls were in it and we were more comfortable in our own costumes - the tiger and leopard ones. The scene comes out very well considering there was such bad lighting in the corridor. I remember walking through the Riviera kitchens to film that corridor sequence. That was filmed on another day at the Riviera. We paraded through with our costumes and full stage make-up. Not an everyday occurrence for them. Sean was always a character. He joked a lot! He was very amiable and had lots of charisma.”

Jennifer seems equally enthralled with the tiger-skin costume that she was allowed to wear in that scene, an item not supplied by EON’s wardrobe department. “This is one of my most favourite costumes of all the Vive shows that I was in. I could swish and parade in that coat. Each showgirl had a different faux animal skin costume to wear and the two singers Buddy Vest and Sterling Clark sang a different song for each one as we did our routine. My song was The Look of Love. It was the finale of the show and was rather special! The hat was heavy and was a bit difficult to turn with as the brim was so wide. The coat was hot, especially with all the stage lighting! Frederic Apcar, the producer of the show, always had the same costume designer Jose Luis Vignas, who was brilliant and a lovely man.”

“Another stand out memory is when I went downtown to watch the filming of the car chase and the scene in the car park where Bond's car cruises over all the parked cars. This will always stay in my memory as it was truly amazing!!! The stuntmen were great.”

It isn’t until much later into our interview that Jennifer mentions, in a very understated manner, “Also, in the film title sequence I’m the first girl, the one with the pear-shaped diamond on my forehead right at the start and also on the Ken Adam credit. It used to be me through most of the sequence, finishing off with my eyes, but it’s been changed.” The main title design for Diamonds Are Forever, with Shirley Bassey’s haunting, dynamic background song, is easily one of the most iconic in the 007 series. Several years ago, when lyricist Don Black met legendary director Steven Spielberg, the Oscar-winning director revealed Diamonds Are Forever was his favorite film theme of all time. Black states that Spielberg was uncannily able to recite the lyrics from his song and seemed “to know every frame of that opening title sequence.”

Jennifer notes that she never met main title designer Maurice Binder nor did she do any filming back in the U.K. “It was the day that the title sequences were going to be filmed at the Dunes Hotel. A friend of mine was taking me there and-----the car broke down! In those days there were no mobile phones so we couldn't tell them we would be late. Photographer Terry O'Neill took a lot of photos of me in the Vive Les Girls dressing room which are in the title sequence. Who knows the title sequence could have been completely different. Our faces were going to be superimposed onto photos of the lights of Las Vegas which is what they have done in the Playboy article ‘Vegas Comes Up 007’. The Terry O'Neill photo of the group of showgirls in the corridor was also shot at the Dunes. I'm in the back with the wide brimmed hat.”

Despite her initial letdown, Castle admits she “appreciated the wonderful experience of being in a James Bond film. Ken Adam was lovely. I liked him a lot…a very clever man. Also Tom Mankiewicz. I remember Ken Adam and some of the production team went away for a couple of days in search of the ideal place in the Pacific where the oil rig sequence could take place. I didn't meet Harry Saltzman at all and Cubby Broccoli wasn't around too much. Guy Hamilton I only saw for the directional sequences. I remember Leonard Barr as being very thin and that he couldn’t remember his lines!”

“After Diamonds Are Forever and after the Vive Les Girls show closed, I returned to the UK and in 1972 started working at the Moulin Rouge in Paris where I met my husband, the father of my two children. Beautiful achievements for me.” Jennifer’s daughter is now a famed London-based portrait photographer. She recalls that one of her first jobs was picking up feathers from show costumes at the Moulin Rouge! “My son also picked up feathers at the Moulin Rouge and he now has a Master’s degree in Film Studies.”

Castle continues discussing her career. “While I was in the show at the Moulin Rouge, Paris, I was in another film starring Alan Bates and directed by John Frankenheimer, Story of a Love Story. In 1978 I returned to the UK from France with my children. I was working as a life model at an art college here in Portsmouth. Then in 1982 Miss Doris, the Grand Dame from the Moulin Rouge in Paris, contacted me about the Moulin Rouge show about to open in the States. A short time later I was in Reno for three months and then to Las Vegas at the Hilton Hotel where I stayed for three years! Seeing Las Vegas again after a break of ten years I found it so different. Everything had commercialised and I thought that it had lost its soul.”

Jennifer had the opportunity to reunite with her Acorn co-star Pat Gill when both attended a celebrity autograph show in Birmingham, England in September 2013. “We last saw each other when the Vive Les Girls show closed in 1971. It was wonderful to see her again and talk about our former lives and people that we knew. Pat is a lovely person. She hadn't changed a bit…still so vibrant and quite a character! I also loved meeting up with the baddy Bruce Glover.”

60 years have passed on since Diamonds Are Forever and so has a sizeable number of its stars and crew. “When I heard about Ken passing, I was very upset as I had so many memories of him and he was one of The Great Ones…he was special. It was the same with Sean. For me he is the Best Bond. Some of the others were good but he's always been my favourite. On looking back I would like to say a big, big thank you to everyone connected with Diamonds Are Forever and everyone that helped me!” For Pat Gill and Jennifer Castle, memories, like diamonds, are forever.



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