BY NICK THOMAS
Generally regarded as one of the classic beauties to grace the big screen throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, Arlene Dahl’s career extended beyond the reach of the camera.
“I’ve had many different careers,” said Ms. Dahl from her Victorian home in Sparkill, Rockland County. “I was a writer for 20 years with a beauty column in the Chicago Tribune, which was syndicated in 180 newspapers around the world.”
She was also the vice-president of an advertising agency and, in the 1960s, Sears hired her to visit their stores to offer customers beauty makeovers.
“They are commonplace on many TV programs now,” she noted. “I also created my own perfume fragrance – Dahlia – before anyone else. So I started it all!”
Between the early 1950s and mid-1970s, Dahl also went through five marriages, including to well-known actors Lex Barker and Fernando Lamas – father of heartthrob actor Lorenzo Lamas. Today, Dahl is happily married to Marc Rosen, founder of Marc Rosen Associates, a New York firm specializing in the design and packaging of luxury cosmetic products.
“I was working at Revlon and a friend suggested meeting Arlene and I ended up designing the bottle and packaging for her Dahlia perfume,” explained Rosen. “We became great friends and despite our 18 years age difference, we’re married. People said it wouldn’t last. Well, we just celebrated our 30th anniversary and proved them wrong!”
In addition to sharing their 1859 Sparkill home, Dahl and Rosen have a house in Florida and an apartment in New York City, but feel most comfortable on their 12-acre Rockland County estate.
“We’ve lived here for over 20 years,” said Dahl. “It needed substantial remodeling inside and out, and we suffered some damage from Hurricane Sandy, but we love it here. It’s the perfect setting to continue my writing.”
As an author, Dahl has penned over a dozen books and is currently working on more including an autobiography. “Many people don’t know about some of my experiences, but they’ll be in my autobiography.”
Dahl traces her interest in performing to Minneapolis where, as a 5-year-old, she first experienced the joy of an appreciative audience during a family picnic at Minnehaha Falls.
“My father put me up on a picnic table and asked me to sing,” she recalled. “After hearing the applause they couldn’t get me down.”
At 17, she was discovered by Jack Warner who spotted her singing and dancing on Broadway during the 1945 opening of “Mr. Strauss Goes to Boston.”
“He came back stage and invited me to Hollywood to make a screen test, but I declined,” said Dahl, who expected the play to extend into a long run. “He said ‘give it two or three weeks and you’ll call me, here’s my card.’ He was right. I was soon out of a job.”
Moving to Hollywood, the cameras loved Dahl and audiences fell for her flaming red hair and trademark beauty spot. She went on to appear in over 30 films, including three with Red Skelton.
“He never stuck to the script, ever,” Dahl recalled. “I just followed whatever he did and that’s why he liked to work with me because I was spontaneous, too.”
Initially handed romantic comedies, Dahl eventually tackled more dramatic roles such 1959’s subterranean adventure “Journey to the Center of the Earth” with James Mason and Pat Boone.
The first day’s shooting with Mason was tense, however. “He didn’t want me for the part. I found this out two days before I went to New Mexico to shoot the cave scenes at Carlsbad Caverns.”
But her professionalism impressed Mason.
“He came to my dressing room after our first scene to tell me I had done well. That was like an Academy Award from James Mason, and everything was okay after that.”
Everything, except the hazards on the set.
“I almost died in the underground ocean scene where the boat was going round in circles and waves were rocking it,” recalled Dahl. “Giant water balloons were supposed to hit our backs but they hit me in the face, knocking me out. I woke up in the hospital with James and Pat holding my hand.”
With a half dozen chapters of her autobiography written about such Hollywood memories, Dahl hopes to make more progress over the summer when she also turns 87. “I was born in 1928, not 1925 as a lot of sources report. Maybe 5 and 8 are confusing to some people!”
As for her memoirs, she is anticipating publication in 2016 and says there will be some surprises for readers.
“I’ve lived a very full and happy life, although there have been ups and downs. You have no idea the stories I can tell … and will!”
Nick Thomas has written features, columns, and interviews for over 550 magazines and newspapers.