Donn Arden and the Nightclub

Group portrait of Donn Arden Dancers

Donn Arden started in his trade as a dancer in St. Louis, learning ballet, modern dance, acrobatic, and jazz. He staged small shows at small clubs in cities around the country, designing the costumes and sets himself. The new strip hotels were built and run by men who liked the nightclub scene and wanted to recreate it in their new desert spa. When the Desert Inn opened, Donn Arden was hired to produce its stage shows and its line of dancers, who became well known in town as the Donn Arden dancers. Meanwhile Donn was branching out, working with his long-time associate, producer Frank Sennes. Arden staged shows for the major nightclubs across the nation, including the Sennes’ Moulin Rouge in Hollywood (named after the famous Parisian dancehall immortalized by Toulouse-Lautrec), and the famous Latin Quarter (not Latin American, but named for the famous bohemian section of Paris, on the Left Bank) in New York and later in Miami. Moe Dalitz wanted a New York nightclub in Las Vegas. So did Bugsy Siegel and all the others.

The entertainment that visitors to Las Vegas saw in the ’50s were nightclub acts and shows that they would see in New York or Hollywood: headliners like Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Lena Horne, Jimmy Durante, Milton Berle, and Danny Thomas, interspersed with magicians, comics, specialty dancers, and animal acts. What held the show together—creating a “revue” in the French theatrical sense— were the lavish line productions, the dancers in elaborate costumes in a series of themed tableaux, in a sense, a mini version of the French music hall revue. This is the revue which people like Arden created to fit the cramped stage of a nightclub, a scaled down French show. And it was the creator of this type of Americanized nightclub revue who was hired to create the big show at the Lido in Paris, bringing this theatrical thread full circle.

 

All Las Vegas strip hotel showrooms had their own “lines” of dancers who performed around the headliners: in 1951 the El Rancho had the June Taylor dancers; the Last Frontier, the Jean Devlyn dancers; the Flamingo, the Josephine Earl Dancers; the Desert Inn had the Arden-Fletcher dancers (Donn Arden was working with a partner, dancer turned choreographer Ron Fletcher); and the Thunderbird, the Katherine Duffy Dansations. Donn Arden recalled later, “In those days I was running a girl factory. I was doing shows in Cincinnati, St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and Montreal. At the Desert Inn we didn’t do big production numbers. What we did was an opening, a center production, and a finale, and we had a couple of acts in between. We were basically book covers for the shows.”