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Portraits

Donn Arden's Art: Beauty, Disasters Wrapped in Extravagance

July 15, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

Donn Arden's ultimate triumph, the capper of a 60-year career in show business, is still on the drawing board--and, he admits wistfully, will probably stay there.

When Arden was hired by MGM to do the biggest, most expensive club show in history for the opening of the Las Vegas MGM Grand, he spent several months reviewing MGM's entire film library for ideas. The most spectacular idea he could conceive came from MGM's most spectacular movie, "Gone With the Wind."

"I was going to burn Atlanta on the stage," he said almost reverently in his plush Mission Viejo home last week. "I had approval from MGM and the money to stage it. All I needed was permission from the Margaret Mitchell estate. And they wouldn't give it to me."

In creating and producing the extravaganzas that carry his name in Las Vegas and Paris--and before that in nightclubs in virtually every major city in the world--Arden hasn't given up often, or easily. Among other things, he's sunk the Titanic (twice), burned San Francisco, crashed the Hindenburg and brought down Samson's temple. "I'm famous," he says matter-of-factly, "for beautiful girls and major disasters."

But besides the burning of Atlanta, there's one major disaster he'll never touch on stage: the tragic fire at the MGM hotel in Las Vegas.

Arden was there, sleeping in a suite on the 10th floor when the fire broke out early in the morning of Nov. 20, 1980. He had been creating and rehearsing the current MGM (now Bally's) show, "Jubilee" for 18 months and was only two weeks away from opening. At midnight, he had driven to the airport to pick up his producing associate, Margaret Kelly (known professionally as Madame Bluebell) who had just flown in from Paris. They talked until 3:30, and Arden was in a deep sleep when a hammering on his door awakened him about 7 a.m. "Someone was shouting, 'There's a fire!' over and over. Bluebell was in the next suite with a connecting door, and it took me a long time of beating on it to wake her. She put a mink coat over her nightgown, and I put a bathrobe over my shorts and we went out into the hall."

They found pandemonium, people milling about in the smoke, stumbling toward the elevators. Then they met a surge of people coming back, saying there was no escape in that direction. By that time, loudspeakers outside were telling guests to stay in their rooms and plug up cracks with wet towels.

"Most of these people had run into the hall without keys and their doors had locked behind them," recalls Arden. "But I had my key, so I herded about 30 or 40 people into my suite."

He recalls oddments of detail of the next chaotic hour with the eye of a showman. The enormously fat lady who sat in a chair and suggested they just stay calm and call room service. The man he caught rifling the drawers in his bedroom and pocketing his jewelry. Breaking out Scotch and gin from his bar to soak the towels they all wore over their faces when the water taps no longer worked. A man crashing a chair through Arden's bedroom window when he couldn't get the sliding glass door open. Whenever panic started to appear, Arden assigned people to tasks, just as he did every night on stage. "A few times," he says, "I had to slap hysterical women, but for the most part, people were remarkably calm. That was partly because for a while, at least, we didn't know how bad it was."

When they saw the flames licking out from the building below them, they stood on the balcony and watched the ladders snake upward. "They were only supposed to go nine stories," Arden says, "but somehow they got up to us." The man who had been stealing Arden's jewelry went down first and Arden never saw him again. "After that, the people with the most guts went first. You think awhile before you climb down 10 floors on a ladder."

Finally, there were only four people left: Arden, Bluebell, the fat lady ("who couldn't possibly have gone down that ladder") and a young man. That's when a fireman burst into the room and led them to a stairway fire exit "They had strung light bulbs every 20 feet," says Arden, "and we plunged into this black hole with towels wrapped around our faces and felt our way down the cord, from light to light, for 10 floors. When I got to the bottom, I was numb, and I remember standing on the street and watching the smoke pour out of my theater and wondering if there was anything left."

There wasn't much. Although the theater structure was intact, all of the sets and costumes burned, and the interior had to be gutted and restored. After making it through "the worst Christmas holiday in my life," Arden took his staff to Paris to put together a new Lido show, expecting it to be at least a year before the MGM theater was back in business. Instead, he was called in late April to start the whole "Jubilee" process over again. That was almost seven years ago, and the show is still selling out nightly.

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