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Donn Arden, 79, Producer of Las Vegas Shows

November 03, 1994|MARK I. PINSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MISSION VIEJO — Donn Arden, who staged musical extravaganzas from Las Vegas to Paris for more than six decades, died Wednesday at age 79.

"Donn was the one who gave Las Vegas the glamour look that Vegas had," said his lifetime companion, Walter Craig. "He was a much larger-than-life person."

In nightclubs throughout the world, Arden incorporated into his floor shows such events as the sinking of the Titanic, the burning of San Francisco, the crash of the Hindenburg and Samson toppling the temple.

"I'm famous for beautiful girls and major disasters," Arden told Los Angeles Times columnist Joe Bell in 1988.

But when Arden tried to re-create the burning of Atlanta for the opening of the Las Vegas MGM Grand in the 1980s, the estate of "Gone With the Wind" author Margaret Mitchell refused permission.

Born in 1915 in St. Louis, Arden said he got his show business start in his early teens, tap dancing for quarters in local speak-easies to help support his widowed mother. By the early 1930s, Arden's dancing was good enough to win a Charleston contest, along with another young St. Louis dancer named Ginger Rogers.

A diminutive man, Arden added an extra "n" to his first name and joined the vaudeville circuit as a solo act, ultimately adding two sets of twin sisters to his act, called "Donn Arden and the Artists Models."

"That's when I first got into the staging and choreographing," Arden said in the earlier interview. "We had to change costumes and routines when we were held over. Staying in one place felt so good that I figured, why not add 10 more girls and be a house line? So we did that, and sometimes we'd stay three or four years at a time at the same vaudeville house."

A contemporary of Fred Astaire, Arden's own dance career was eclipsed by his choreography.

"I once had 12 shows running at the same time in the U.S.," Arden said. In New York, he "cornered the girl market--before modeling came in. I wanted 'em tall and leggy. I wouldn't hire anyone under 5-foot-9 for a dance line. If a girl was beautiful, she knew I'd dress her better than anyone else. I'd spend $50 on shoes for my girls in those Depression days."

He died of emphysema at 10:30 a.m. at his Mission Viejo home.

Arden will be cremated and a memorial service probably will be held in Las Vegas, Craig said.

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