Father of the Feathers
Growing up, Donn Arden wanted to be Fred Astaire. Instead, he became the Busby Berkeley of Las Vegas.
The producer and choreographer gave Las Vegas one of its most durable images-the statuesque showgirl in sequins, feathers and impossibly tall headpiece. He also was responsible for some of its most memorable stage disasters: Floods. Battles. Samson bringing down the house. The Titanic taking its final plunge.
The producer's Las Vegas legacy dates back to 1950, when his troupe of dancers opened the Desert Inn. His Lido de Paris ran at the Stardust from 1958 to 1991 and his Jubilee show at Bally's continues to run indefinitely. Arden remained active up to two weeks before his death in October of 1994.
When the Lido closed in early 1991, Arden was less optimistic about the future of Jubilee and fatalistic about the larger entertainment picture in Las Vegas. "I don't work cheap, so that spells the end of Donn Arden," he said, frustrated at being unable to convince hotel executives at either Bally's or the Stardust to invest in new editions of his shows. "This town is changing so."
He recalled meeting with Boyd Group officials after they had taken over the Stardust in the early 1980s. "Budget, budget. It's always budget," he said. Following a week of meetings, the Boyd Group offered $5 million for a new edition of the Lido. "Well, already I had done this Jubilee for $10 million two years before, and prices don't get cheaper....They came to [his second home in] Palm Springs to see me [and said], "Donn, we can't afford you.'"
At the time, Arden believed the Mirage show starring Siegfried and Roy--once his specialty act in the MGM Grand's Hallelujah Hollywood -- was the "last of the big money" to be spent on Strip revues. He lived long enough to see the pendulum swing back, with the Las Vegas Hilton spending $12 million on Starlight Express and the new MGM spending several million on its big show EFX.
Jubilee, Arden's last show is a fitting signature piece for him; pulling together all his trademark touches: rows of bejeweled chorus girls -- many of them topless -- vamping on grandiose stairways, musical production numbers recalling the heyday of MGM; epic special effects to tell the mini-sagas of the Titanic and Samson and Delilah.
It's the movie spectacle that influenced a young Arlyle Arden Peterson, who grew up in St. Louis during the golden age of the movie musical. He studied to be a dancer with Robert Alton (who went on to direct Broadway shows), but "I finally decided, "You ain't got it kid. You're not going to be Fred Astaire or Ray Bolger."
He decided his greater talent was organizing and directing, eventually staging floor shows in Cleveland clubs operated by "entrepreneurs" such as Moe Dalitz. "My success was due to...I hate to use the word "mafia,"" Arden said, 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."
With Wilbur Clark serving as frontman for the Cleveland investors, the Desert Inn opened in 1950, with the Donn Arden Dancers part of the entertainment roster. By the late 1950s, Arden had found his way to Paris and the original Lido de Paris when Dalitz sent entertainment director Frank Sennes in search of something new to christen the Stardust hotel. The hotel bought the rights to the show but gave Arden creative freedom to restyle the show for U.S. 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 swimming pool. But most sensational was the female upper nudity -- not previously seen on a Las Vegas stage outside of 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 1970s. "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."
Arden also loved spectacle, and took his cue from historic disasters -- the flooding of a French village for the Lido, the crashing of the Hindenburg for "Hello, Hollywood,Hello" in Reno. "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 able to re-create the parting of the Red Sea. "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?"