EDITOR’S NOTE: This marks the return of an occasional series of stories highlighting performers who played an interesting role in the history of entertainment in Las Vegas.
When beautiful red-haired film actress Arlene Dahl made her “world premiere nightclub engagement” for four weeks at the Flamingo in 1962, she had the creme de la creme of legendary Las Vegas entertainers to give her advice.
“On opening night (March 15, 1962), we had a tech and dress rehearsal,” Dahl told me recently. “And this was in the afternoon about 3 o’clock. And it (the theater) was dark — I didn’t know anybody was in the audience except the waiters, maybe. The lights went up after our dress rehearsal before the opening, and I saw Marlene Dietrich, Sammy Davis Jr., the Ritz Brothers and Georgia Gibbs. If I had known they were there I would have been terrified!”
“What I was told was that Las Vegas was like family,” she explained. “They all come to the rehearsals to give tips and suggestions. Dietrich relit my whole show because she said: ‘Whoever you sent to New York for does not know how to light a redhead. Do you mind if I relight your show? … She was almost late for her own opening. I learned everything from Dietrich.”
“Now Sammy, because I danced with the boys, gave me a few steps to make it easier for me to get into the opening number.”
Davis gave her other dance tips and rehearsed a chat number with Dahl and the boys, which was included in the show.
“The Ritz Brothers gave me a joke,” she added, “and Georgia Gibbs gave me a spray for ‘Vegas throat,’ dry throat. I mean, I got something from everybody. I mean it was just an eye-opener — I never had such an audience in my life in show business!”
I asked Dahl if she was nervous or frightened to perform before a live audience. “I didn’t know enough to be afraid,” she said, chuckling. But performing live was not entirely new. “I had started in theater before I went to Hollywood. I had done musicals, you know, before I appeared at the Flamingo. But I had never had an act. I never put an act together.”
Of Norwegian descent, she was born Arlene Carol Dahl in Minneapolis on Aug. 11, 1928. She was active in a local drama group and theater at an early age. (Her mother was involved in local theater as well.)
After graduating high school, Dahl made her Broadway debut in 1945 as Mrs. Taylor in the short-lived musical-comedy-romance “Mr. Strauss Goes to Boston,” which was choreographed by George Balanchine. (Dahl also appeared on Broadway in a revival of “Cyrano de Bergerac” in 1953, and “Applause” in the early 1970s.)
She was voted the Miss Rheingold Beer Girl of 1946 — later winners included Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren — while pursuing her career in New York. That led to a brief Warner Bros. contract in 1946.
In 1948, she signed with MGM and later Paramount. Her best film work was in “Reign of Terror” (1949), “Three Little Words” (1950), “Here Come the Girls” (1953), “Woman’s World” (1954), “Wicked As They Come” (1957), and “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (1959), opposite James Mason and Pat Boone.
Dahl married six times, including to actors Lex Barker (once a movie Tarzan) and the late Argentine heartthrob and fellow MGM contract star Fernando Lamas, father of her son, Lorenzo Lamas. Dahl and Fernando Lamas were wed on June 25, 1954, at the Frontier’s Little Church of the West in Las Vegas. (Fernando Lamas himself headlined in Las Vegas with Margot Brander and Louis Basil and His Orchestra at the Sahara in December 1958, the year of Lorenzo’s birth.)
Dahl’s actor son, Lorenzo (“Falcon Crest”), has recently branched out to cabaret with his highly praised singing voice and style. Dahl has two other children: Carole Holmes McCarthy, born in 1961, and Stephen Schaum, born in 1970.
In 2009, Dahl celebrated her 25th wedding anniversary to Marc Rosen, a former vice-president of Elizabeth Arden Inc.
Known primarily as a glamorous movie star, Dahl was intrigued by the possibility of performing in Las Vegas when she was approached to do it in September 1961.
Her lawyer Louis Blau put Dahl in touch with Gordon and Sheila McRae. They said: “Well, you’ve got to get somebody who knows about lighting,” Dahl continued. ” ‘You’ve got to get an orchestrator. You’ve got to do this, and you’ve got to do that.’ And they were very helpful in helping put the act together. As was Lou, who got me in touch with the producers in New York, Lyn Duddy, who wrote music and lyrics, and Jerry Bressler, who was an orchestra leader and arranger. They flew in from New York, and we turned my garage in the Pacific Palisades into a rehearsal room with mirrors and a ballet bar. My piano was already there, so we started rehearsals.”
“I had three weeks of rehearsals before I opened,” she said. “I worked every day including the weekends with three boys. I was the fourth boy. And we got a well-known choreographer as well. I opened cold. I didn’t even play it once, except for a group of neighbors in the garage.”
Bob Mackie and Ray Aghayan designed her stunning costumes for her Las Vegas debut.
Dahl’s reviews for her Las Vegas act were sensational. “The most delightful show surprise of the year … an eyeful and earful of song and dance charm,” wrote Hollywood-Citizen News reporter Abe Greenburg.
“Arlene sang, danced and looked ravishingly gorgeous,” wrote Los Angeles Herald-Examiner reviewer Dean Gautschy. And on April 1, 1962, Joan Winchell of the Los Angeles Times continued with the praise: “The ravishing redhead continues to sing, dance, twist and clown her way through the show with all her motion picture know-how. Opening night saw tears flow freely from her pretty eyes as she got a standing ovation, which thanked her for switching her film talents to a successful nightclub show.”
It took 26 technically skilled personnel to put the opening together at a then staggering cost of $60,000. There was one spot in the show as she sang “Picture Us” that Dahl would walk through the audience and randomly sit on a man’s lap, just as a photographer snapped their picture.
The act also included a sexy motorcycle number, “Let’s All Be Female Again,” in which Dahl stripped out of leather-gear down to a black lace leotard.
“I was the headliner, which I couldn’t get over,” Dahl recalled. “But Dick Shawn opened the show for me. He was famous for doing ‘Me and My Shadow,’ and he played Las Vegas all the time. And I couldn’t imagine that he would not be a headliner with me. But he opened the show, and I asked him to come back after my act was over and we both did “Me and My Shadow” together.”
One particular incident from her Las Vegas tenure stands out in Dahl’s memory. “I was married to Chris Holmes at the time,” she said. “And I remember he was a famous gambler. And I was really on edge because he promised me he wouldn’t gamble, because that would mean my huge salary was going to pay for his gambling debts instead of what we needed it for. And unfortunately, the last Saturday night that I was closing, he gambled, not at the Flamingo. He went to other clubs, and he practically gambled away my entire salary for those four weeks, which was horrendous.”
During her run at the Flamingo, Dahl continued to write her three-times-a-week beauty column. “I had over 100 papers,” she told me. “And I wrote that column (translated in five languages) for 20 years, from 1950 to 1970.”
When she concluded her month in Las Vegas at the Flamingo, Dahl took her act to New York and successfully opened at Lou Walters’ The Latin Quarter in June 1962.
For years, Dahl toured the country performing in musicals, dramas and comedies in summer stock. Throughout her lengthy acting career, Dahl has appeared on numerous TV shows; during the 1980s she had a continuing role on “One Life to Live.” She continues to appear in feature films.
Creating her own company in New York, Dahlmark Productions (Arlene Dahl Enterprises), she also has authored 16 best-selling beauty and astrology books, designed a successful line of lingerie (including the “Dahl” cap, written about in Life magazine, as well as popularizing the “baby doll” pajama craze in the 1950s), a cosmetic line, and she was appointed the health and beauty editor for Sears Roebuck & Co. Dahl currently is designing a line of jewelry.
A member of numerous charitable organizations, including serving on the board of directors of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Dahl also has been the recipient of several major industry and fashion awards, and she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
But Dahl’s time in Las Vegas is special to her. “I was treated like a queen at the Flamingo.” About her career in film and on the stage, Dahl recently said: “I considered the years in Hollywood nothing but an interim. What I always wanted to be was a musical comedy star.” In Las Vegas, she proved that she could be just that.