Legends of the Stage Show Spectaculars
Those special people who created the Glitz & Glamour.
Born in St. Louis, MO in 1915, Arden Carlyle Peterson began dancing at an early age. As a young boy, he took dance lessons from St. Louis theatre director, Robert Alton, who would later go on to become one of Hollywood's most noted choreographers (Pal Joey, Showboat, Easter Parade). He would remain Arden's primary inspiration throughout his career....
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Shortly after high school, Arden Peterson changed his name to Donn Arden, adding the extra "N" on the advice of a numerologist who felt that 9 was a lucky number. In the early 1930s, young Arden danced by himself in a number of shows in the Midwest but was soon advised by his agent to add girls to his act; he started with four, then six, and eventually ended up with 12. With this many girls, Arden easily fell into doing the choreography work -- producing and directing soon followed. By the end of the decade, his success in staging shows led him to stop dancing altogether and at one point, he had put together house chorus lines for 12 theaters across the US.
Arden spent much of World War II staging shows for American troops. Following the war, he ended up in Paris, and in 1947, began his long and successful collaboration at the Lido with producers Pierre Louis-Guerin and Rene Fraday. Buoyed by his trademark American tempo and spice, the Lido shows were wildly successful, and Arden would be associated with them for the remainder of his life. It was during his work at the Paris Lido that Arden also met the woman who would become his lifelong friend and collaborator -- Margaret Kelly. Known to legions of dancers over the years as the formidable Madame Bluebell, only those girls who fit her exacting dancing and height requirements were admitted to the ranks of the world-famous "Bluebell Girls".
The 1950s and 1960s saw Arden, a consummate workaholic, constantly traveling between coasts and continents to check up on shows he had running (concurrently) in Paris, New York, New Jersey, Miami, Los Angeles, and of course, Las Vegas. In New York and Miami, his work was featured at the Latin Quarter, in Los Angeles, the Moulin Rouge. It was during this time that Arden worked closely with producer Frank Sennes both at the Moulin Rouge and the Desert Inn.
In the early 1950s, Arden was partnered with fellow dancer and choreographer Ron Fletcher -- together they created the Arden-Fletcher Dancers who graced a number of Desert Inn, Moulin Rouge and Latin Quarter productions. After ending his partnership with Fletcher, Arden’s directed his distinctive "Donn Arden Dancers" at the Desert Inn who danced behind the headliner of the moment, be it Betty Hutton, Danny Kaye, Jack Benny or Betty Grable. These early shows differed from the extravaganzas of later years as they generally featured lines of girls -- exquisitely costumed and gracefully elegant -- but without the special effects that would characterize his later work.
In 1958, in collaboration with Sennes and the Paris Lido, Arden brought his Paris Lido show (girls, costumes, sets and all) to the newly-opened Stardust on the north end of the Las Vegas Strip. The topless showgirls were a sensation and the show went through eleven successful editions (all staged by Arden) until it closed for good in 1991.
Arden's other Las Vegas spectaculars included Hello America, a wholesome (no nudity) tribute to America that received accolades in the Congressional Record for its positive portrayal of the United States, and the dynamic Pzazz! 68 and Pzazz! 70. In the 1970s, Arden brought his talents to the MGM Grand Hotels, producing his long-running tributes to classic Hollywood -- Hallelujah Hollywood and Hello Hollywood Hello -- in Las Vegas and Reno respectively. The two shows combined ran almost 17 years.
In November 1980 Arden was two weeks from opening his newest creation, Jubilee!, when fire swept through the MGM Grand Hotel killing 85 people, and destroying all of the sets and costumes for the show. Despite this setback, Jubilee, with its sinking Titanic and collapsing Samson's temple, opened in July 1981, and entertained audiences for nearly 35 years before closing in February 2016.
A demanding taskmaster, Arden required perfection from his performers, and could often be sarcastic and cruel to those who did not live up to his exacting standards. One of his most infamous lines was reputed to be "Get that fat cow off my stage". Despite these eccentricities, he was well-loved by many of the performers who worked for him. Throughout his career, he never had a flop, and never had a show close prematurely. His employers never doubted his abilities and readily supplied him with the millions of dollars needed to design and execute shows that would live up to his expectations. It says something about both the changing values of Las Vegas entertainment and the lack of a producer of Arden's stature that no hotel today would ever entrust this kind of money and control to a single individual.
Arden died in November 1994 after a lifetime of cigarette and alcohol consumption; at his death, the lights on the Las Vegas Strip were dimmed. Although all of his shows are now closed, Arden's work lives on in the archives of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas University Libraries Special Collections where programs, photos, costume drawings, set designs and more provide visual documentation of his colorful legacy as master of the Las Vegas production show.
Su Kim Chung Ph.D. | Head, Special Collections Public Services