ep 057 Donn Arden’s Jubilee! 40th Anniversary

Jubilee! Opening 40th Anniversary

Donn Arden's Jubilee! Opening cast photo 1981
Opening cast of Donn Arden’s Jubilee! 1981

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This episode has been in the making for over a year, as I have been collecting guests’ stories about their part in the opening of Donn Arden’s Jubilee! celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2021!! Happy Birthday Jubilee! 

(Please note, the audio contains mistakes of some of the dates and numbers, but will be updated to reflect the write up featured here. Huge thanks to Diane Palm and Su Kim Chung for pointing out the errors. Showgirl history has not been very thoroughly archived and I hope to change that.)

A little history on the opening of Donn Arden’s Jubilee!

Jubilee! Was the 3rd Donn Arden production to open for the MGM properties. The first was Hallelujah Hollywood, in the Ziegfeld Theatre which opened April 23, 1974 and ran for 5 1/2 years, closing on October 12, 1980. The second show Donn created for the MGM was for the Reno property, Hello Hollywood Hello opened June 2, 1978 and closed in 1989. 

Historically, shows ran for 2-3 years then replaced with newer better ones. But as the costs of producing the shows to Donn’s specifications grew, the length of time the show was to run extended, in order to recover the initial costs of getting the productions to stage. The original contract between Donn and the MGM included the production of both shows for the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, which was signed on August 4, 1972. 

Donn Arden, the Master of Disaster

He had a knack for creating shows that were truly spectacular. Each of his MGM productions featured hundreds of cast members, thousands of designer costumes embellished with feathers and Swarovski rhinestone, and world-class choreography set to music from MGM musicals played by a live orchestra. His large-scale variety show formula included 4 acts with his cast and 3 variety acts in between the acts. He was nicknamed the Master of Disaster, as each of his spectacles always included a scene of destruction—Titanic, San Francisco earthquake and a pirate ship sinking. 

He hired only the best to be part of his productions from costume designers and set designers to the performers that would put the show on every night. 

Jubilee! audition notice 1980
Donn Arden Papers, 1910s-1990s. MS-00425. Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries,
University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.

Jubilee! was set to open on December 12, 1980, after a period of three and a half months of rehearsals. Most cast members were simultaneously performing in Hallelujah Hollywood, 2-3 shows per night. Hallelujah Hollywood closed in early October to prepare the theatre to make room for the new sets and costumes that were being created for Jubilee!

A Tragic Fire Delayed the Opening of Jubilee!

MGM Grand Fire Anniversary
Associated Press Reed Saxon

On the morning of November 21st, a tragic fire broke out killing 85 people and wounding hundreds more. The fire claimed the life of one of costume designer Pete Menefee’s dear friends and assistant, Terri Levitt. The damage to the costumes and sets was so great that they had to start the entire production process over. Giving the designers and artisans only 8 months to get the show ready again. If you’d like to hear more details about how one of the worst fires in hotel history affected the opening of Jubilee and the rebuild that happened in the aftermath, I did two special episodes. Episode 021 MGM Grand fire and the impact on the opening of Jubilee! and a bonus about the rebuild The Show Will Go On! MGM fire bonus episode.

Many people were out of jobs that morning and the disaster sent many scrambling to find work. Diana Eden’s famous “costume bible,” an essential key to rebuilding the clothes for the opening, is now being archived at the Nevada State Museum Las Vegas. The show was re-cast in April and rehearsals began with the opening date set. 

Donn Arden's Jubilee! MGM Grand Las Vegas 1981 opening billboard
Donn Arden Papers, 1910s-1990s. MS-00425. Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries,
University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.

The Show Must Go On, Eight Months Later

Donn Arden’s Jubilee! opened on July 30, 1981 with a cast of 128 singers and dancers, a stage crew and wardrobe department of almost 100 people and an 18-piece orchestra. At a total cost of $10M. About $29.8M in 2021. In other words, the show was quite expensive for its time. I wonder what Donn Arden would say about the budgets the current Vegas shows are spending these days…$100M for the opening of O!

The costumes designed by Pete Menefee and Bob Mackie at a total cost of $3.5M. Over 1,000 costumes created for the show, as each performer changed costumes on average of 10 times per show, depending on the line they were in. There were male and female singers, boy dancers, Bluebell dancers and dancing nudes. All complementing the talented singing and dancing principal male and females. 

Donn Arden's Jubilee! Showgirl Spectacular at MGM Grand Las Vegas, 1981, opening program cover
Donn Arden Papers, 1910s-1990s. MS-00425. Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries,
University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.

Fun Facts about Donn Arden’s Jubilee!

  • Ray Klausen was the set designer.
  • Donn hired three choreographers for the show, Winston Hemsley, Tom Hanson and Rich Rizzo. 
  • Originally, Jubilee!’s run was to last for a total of 7 years. It ran for nearly 35 years.
  • Diane Palm opened the show as the Short Nude line captain and closed the show as company manager in 2016.
  • The opening caused a world-wide rhinestone shortage.
  • Total weight of feathers used 2 tons.
  • Total weight of rhinestones 10,000 lbs.
  • Contrary to popular lore, there were no makeup artists doing our makeup, though there was a wig lady that kept all the wigs perfectly coiffed night after night.

Those are the facts. Just a bunch of numbers researched and spouted off. But this episode is really about the people—those that got to experience this masterpiece being created. I hope you enjoy these snippets of all the opening cast and crew members that I have had the privilege to speak with about their share in the creation of the Showgirl spectacular, Jubilee! Enjoy!

Want to see more digital archives from Donn’s Papers? The UNLV Library Special Collections has his archives and they are searchable through this finding aid.

Mentioned on the show

Guests on the show

Special thanks to

Lindsey Raven
Anne Marie O’Connor
Diana Eden
Marty Lewis
Pete Menefee
Alison Kravenko Johnson
Suzanne Lunn
Joe Macchiaverna
Rita Pardue
Dollie Eaglin
Dave Margolis
Jakki Ford
Brenda Barrett
Diane Palm
Su Kim Chung

Su Kim Chung hosted a fantastic panel to celebrate the 40th anniversary featuring opening cast principal dancers Janet Ford and Tricia Lee, plus Diana Eden, the costume assistant to Pete Menefee and Bob Mackie for the opening. I am so appreciative that she was able to have it filmed and put on youtube for me to share here with you. Enjoy!!

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