Choreographer, producer, and director Donn Arden was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1915 as Arden Carlyle Peterson. He began dancing at an early age. As a young boy, he took dance lessons from St. Louis theatre director Robert Alton, who would go on to become one of Hollywood's most noted choreographers for shows including Pal Joey, Showboat, and Easter Parade. He would remain Arden's primary inspiration throughout his career. Shortly after high school, Arden Peterson changed his name to Donn Arden. In the early 1930s, young Arden danced by himself in a number of shows in the Midwest but was advised by his agent to add female dancers to his act; he started with four, then six, and eventually ended up with twelve. Arden easily fell into doing the choreography, producing, and directing work. 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 twelve theaters across the United States.
Arden spent much of World War II staging shows for American troops and following the war he stayed in Paris. In 1947, he began his long and successful collaboration at the Lido cabaret with producers Pierre-Louis Guerin and Rene Fraday. Buoyed by his trademark American tempo and spice, the Lido shows were 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 dancers over the years as "Miss Bluebell", only girls who fit her exacting dancing and height requirements were admitted to the ranks of the world-famous “Bluebell Girls.”
The 1950s and 1960s, Arden frequently traveled between coasts and continents to check on shows he had running concurrently in Paris, France; New York City, New York; New Jersey; Miami, Florida; Los Angeles, California; and Las Vegas, Nevada. In New York and Miami, his work was featured at the Latin Quarter nightclub and in Los Angeles at 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 Hotel in Las Vegas.
In the early 1950s, Arden partnered with fellow dancer and choreographer Ron Fletcher and together they created the Arden-Fletcher Dancers who graced a number of Desert Inn, Moulin Rouge, and Latin Quarter productions. After he ended his partnership with Fletcher, Arden 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 extravagance 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 to the newly opened Stardust Hotel and Casino on the north end of the Las Vegas Strip. The topless showgirls were a sensation and the show went through eleven successful editions until it closed in 1991. Arden's other Las Vegas spectaculars included Hello America, a wholesome 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 seventeen years.
In November 1980, Arden was two weeks from opening his newest creation, Jubilee!, when fire swept through the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas killing eighty-five 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 ran until February 2016.
Arden died in November 1994. At his death, the lights on the Las Vegas Strip were dimmed.