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THE MEN WHO MADE LAS VEGAS - DONN ARDEN

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BY BYRON CRAFT

He wanted to be Fred Astaire.  Instead, he became the Busby Berkeley of Las Vegas. 

He was the producer and choreographer who gave Las Vegas one of its most durable images:  the statuesque showgirls in sequins, feathers and impossibly tall headpieces.  He was responsible, as well, for some of its most unforgettable stage disasters:  floods, battles, Samson bringing down the house, and the Titanic taking its final plunge.

Donn Arden was born in either 1916 or 1917;  there is a conflict in the historical records, to a railway executive and a housewife.  His birth name was Arlyle Arden Peterson.  By the age of 9 he was making money dancing for dollars in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.  “I’d pick up five dollars on weekends doing shows at movie theaters while I was in grammar school,” Donn once said.  In due course, Arden studied dancing with Robert Alton, who would move on to directing many Broadway shows like Gene Kelly’s first break in “Pal Joey” and choreographing Hollywood musicals such as “Showboat” and “Easter Parade”.  Donn, in the interim, tap danced his way through his teens, and by the age of 20, he was running small dance troupes that performed in clubs in many cities.  He changed his name for showbiz effect, later adding the additional “n” in Donn on counsel of a numerologist who said a nine-letter name would assure his success.

Donn Arden decided he was better suited to organize and direct dance shows rather than perform in them.  He got his first break in Cleveland, where he staged floor shows in clubs operated by racketeer Moe Dalitz. “My success was due to…I hate to use the word… ‘Mafia’,” Arden later recalled, but they shared his vision of female beauty and were willing to finance it.  “Moe was a great guy to work for.  He believed in spending money.”  In 1950, “the boys” who ran the clubs in Cleveland told Arden about a new property they had invested in;  it was the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.  The owner of the Desert Inn, Wilbur Clark, brought in former racketeers Moe Dalitz, Morris Kleinman and Sam Tucker when his construction funds ran low.  “I felt obliged to go,” Arden would say years later.  “They were ‘the boys’ and they paid well.”  The mobsters had plenty of cash to spare, allowing Arden the luxury of buying the best costumes available.  “It had to be real ermine,” he remembered.  “I wouldn’t dare to go to Lerner’s and buy shows.  Oh no, they had to be custom made and all that sort of thing, which I loved.”

With Wilbur Clark serving as the front man for the Cleveland investors, the Desert Inn opened in 1950, with the Donn Arden Dancers part of the entertainment roster.  By the latter part of the decade, Arden had found his way to France and the original Lido de Paris.  Dalitz sent entertainment director Frank Sennes and Donn Arden in search of something new to christen the opening of the Stardust Hotel.  The hotel bought the rights to the show but gave Arden creative freedom to restyle it for American audiences.  “Because I was working for them already, there was no point in them hiring me through Paris.”

Arden’s revue featured an on-stage waterfall, six hydraulic stages, an ice rink and a swimming pool.  But most sensational was the female upper nudity not previously seen on a Las Vegas stage outside of obscure burlesque shows.  The showgirl remains a postcard image synonymous with Las Vegas, a fact the Chamber of Commerce recognized when it presented Arden with its first Entertainment Personality of the Year award in the 1970’s.  “It had become a signature for Las Vegas...everything was feathers and sequins and ‘Ooh la la!’  It was the place to really go and see pizzazz.  “I was so flattered,” he said of the award.  “The second year, Sinatra got it, but I got it the first year.”

The Mob’s carte blanche allowed Arden to design all manner of gargantuan and movable set pieces.  Donn Arden dared to do things that had never been tried on a stage before.  Some of the fantasies he devised, conventional wisdom of the times didn’t deem possible – such spectacles as having a DC-9 rev its engines as it appeared to prepare for takeoff…right through the audience.  Then there was collapsing Delilah’s temple in a heap of columns.  That was surpassed by the sinking of the Titanic live in front of a gaping audience in the show known as the “Jubilee”, or in another grand deception, was the flooding of a French village for the Lido on the stage with thousands of gallons of water from a bursting dam.  Arden loved the spectacle, and took his cue from historic disasters.  “They expect it from me,” he said, noting it was, “a contrast to the beauty and the feathers.  You can’t do beauty all the time.”  His only regrets were that he never was allowed to burn Atlanta in tribute to “Gone With The Wind” (Margaret Mitchell’s estate wouldn’t authorize it) nor was he able to recreate the parting of the Red Sea.

Donn Arden didn’t invent topless showgirls parading sensually, wearing heavy feathered headdresses, glittering costumes and omnipresent smiles.  He wasn’t the first in showbiz to employ quirky novelty acts, handsome lead singers and winsome chorus dancers and then surround them with massive stage sets and mindboggling special effects.  But he was the first to fuse these elements into such creative, over-the-top presentations that would become known worldwide as Las Vegas showroom spectaculars.  His flair for blending beauty and good old song-and-dance, with amazing re-stagings of catastrophes, earned Arden the title of the “Master of Disaster.”

Donn Arden’s impact is still felt today, nearly eighteen years after his death and over fifty years since Arden’s showgirls and boys performed with headlining ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (with dummy Charlie McCarthy) and singer Vivian Blaine at the April 24, 1950 opening of Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn.  Some Donn Arden shows have been running ever since.  Bally’s “Jubilee”, a bare-flesh laden spectacle that has sunk the Titanic more than 15,000 times since it opened in 1981, is the last living testament to Arden’s genius.  It will probably be the last show of its kind in this increasingly high-tech era. 

Donn Arden shook up the entertainment world, not to mention American morals, when he imported his version of “Lido de Paris” to the Stardust.  The concept of a showgirl dates back to the 1869 Paris premiere of “Folies Bergère”;  an adaptation has been in residence at the Tropicana Hotel since 1959, making it the longest-running Las Vegas production show; and American producer Flo Ziegfeld brought covered showgirls to Broadway in the 1920’s in his self-named “Ziegfeld Folies”.  Bared breasts had barely been seen in America, but Arden changed all of that when the first topless showgirl paced across the Stardust stage, displaying her breasts as well as the sensual “showgirl walk” that he patented and demanded of his females.  “There’s a certain way a girl can walk, particularly when you’re going across the stage,” Arden said in an interview.  “By simply twisting the foot, it swings the pelvis forward, which is suggestive and sensual.  If you twist right and swing that torso, you get a revolve going in there that’s just right.  It isn’t the way a woman should walk, necessarily, unless she’s a hooker.  You’re selling the pelvis;  that’s the Arden Walk.” 

Las Vegas producer Breck Wall fondly recalled seeing the groundbreaking nudes at the Stardust.  “It was just magical,” said the longtime producer.  “I was just a boy from Texas, and I’m sure my jaw must have dropped from the shock of just seeing these beautiful young women exposed like never before.  But there was nothing tasteless about it.  It was really quite beautiful.”

Arden was notorious, as well as infamous, for requiring the right kind of bodies in his spectaculars, such as “Hello America”, “Hello, Hollywood, Hello!” and “Hallelujah Hollywood”.  “We specify no girls under 5-foot-8,” Arden said. “I can’t tell you how many girls 5-foot-4 showed up.  But we have to audition them (under equal rights laws) even when there’s no chance of us hiring them.  They’re wasting their time, but they just enjoy having fun at our expense.  So you finally have to say, ‘I hope you grow up one of these days,’ or ‘Eat more potatoes.’”  Donn Arden demanded “small and firm” breasts for his women;  “tight and firm” butts on his male dancers.  Fluff LeCoque, a longtime company manager of the show “Jubilee” and a former covered dancer for Arden, said the producer wanted to stimulate audiences without degrading the women on display.  She recalled, “The nudity still carries a shock value, even today, and you can’t say it’s not for sexual attraction.  But it’s not meant to be pornographic like a strip club.  What he wanted to do was beautify them, like it was a painting that had come to life.”  That meant looking, dancing or sounding just right.  Donn Arden could be brutal to would-be cast members during open auditions.  “He would rant and rave all the time,” recalled producer Wall, “but he really knew what he was doing.  He had an eye for talent and everybody else was just wasting his time.”

“I think I can be very nice, and I think I can be very mean,” Arden once said. “But you know within the first eight bars whether they can sing or not.  Sometimes you can tell in two.  And the same thing applies to dancers.”  Actress and model Valerie Perrine started her career with Arden.  He remembered her as “a secretary from Scottsdale with a lisp.”  Actress Goldie Hawn is reputed to have been part of his troupe at the Desert Inn, but was fired by Arden after only a few weeks.  He remembered her as “a skinny fruitcake.”

Amazons, waterfalls, spaceships, celestial goddesses, can-can girls, Argentine gauchos, magicians, and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers clones all combined with smoke, fire, spangles, stand-up comics and Crooners.  The show itself was the star and wasn’t dependent on financially risky headliners.  Production costs, while hefty, were mostly fixed as were profits.  Many casino owners and managers wanted to give Arden a lump sum for his efforts, but he always declined.  “With my drinking and gambling, I never believed in that,” he once said.  “I’d rather have the security of a weekly paycheck.”  Donn Arden’s steady cash flow enabled him to buy homes in Palm Springs and Mission Viejo, California, both easy bases for jaunts to Las Vegas for periodic check-ups on his creations.

Arden pushed the limits in his recreations of famous disasters, such as the burning of the Hindenburg with stuntmen falling from the loft in flames.  On the contrary, if anyone complained about turning human misery into a glitzy Vegas crowd pleaser, he could have cited his own experience in a disaster.  It was in Nov. 21, 1980, when the fire that raced through the MGM Grand Hotel (now Bally’s), killing 84 people and injuring another 700, became the worst disaster in Las Vegas history.  Arden was nearly ready to unveil “Jubilee”, his follow-up to “Hallelujah Hollywood”, when the fire started.  “Around 7 a.m., all hell broke loose,” he recalled.  “I looked out in the hall and all I saw was smoke.”  He rounded up friends and attempted to escape down a stairwell, only to be turned back by a crowd coming up the other way.  The whole group dashed back to Arden’s suite, where he began directing them like a cast, slapping some of those turning hysterical and taking control of the crowd.

The rescue ladders only reached to the ninth floor, but a well positioned ramp on one side of the burning building allowed some of the party to be lowered to safety.  Donn Arden and the remaining group eventually were led to safety by a firefighter, covering their mouths with towels soaked in vodka, because they were out of club soda.  “If it taught me anything, it’s to live for today,” he told a reporter in 1984.  “If you live for tomorrow, before you know it, you’re dead.”  The fire also claimed all of Arden’s scenery and costumes for “Jubilee”, and it took nine months of retooling before it finally made its debut.

Although surrounded by beautiful women his entire life, Arden never married, saying he’d been engaged maybe six times early in his dance career and now couldn’t be bothered.  Over the years there were fewer shows offering topless showgirls and Donn Arden’s ten million dollar jobs began to seem like financial burdens.  “My business, it seems like it’s going out of fashion,” he once said, unaware of the 100 million dollar plus productions to come, such as Cirque du Soleil’s “O” at Bellagio. “I’m known to be an expensive guy, and it just costs money to put these shows on.  You spend money, you make money.  Of course, I could put them out there in a bikini and stick a feather in their head and one bracelet on the arm and little earrings, but that isn’t the glamorous show that I do.  The things that make my show look right are expensive.”

“I hate to see it all disappear,” he said in 1991. “My show (Jubilee) doesn’t look like it once did,” because of gradual cast reductions over the years.  “Thank God, I overproduced it to begin with, because if I hadn’t, there’d be nobody on stage now,” he said with a laugh.  But even in its diminished form, “There’s nothing like it on the Strip,” he maintained.  “Where else do you see even this?”

There is currently a version of Jubilee! performing at the Jubilee Theatre in Bally’s.  The show celebrated its 30th anniversary last July of 2011; it ran through the one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic on April 15th of this year, and let’s hope, for all of us who truly appreciate the extravaganza, it runs for another 30.  There will never be another showman like Donn Arden.  He was a genius and his style will never be duplicated.  Donn Arden shows always had a certain air of fantasy and escapism about them and he opened the doors for the mega-shows to come. 

Arden’s health began to fail in the early 1990’s, and he became a less frequent visitor to Las Vegas.  Years of chain-smoking and the showbiz life began to take a toll on his body.  When he died on Nov. 2, 1994, at his Los Angeles home, the lights on the Strip were dimmed in memory of the 78-year-old producer.  

The Men Who Made Las Vegas is a series by Byron Craft 

chronicling the growth of Sin City and the men who made it possible.

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