Another Piece of Vintage Vegas Folds Its Hand [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe] May20

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Another Piece of Vintage Vegas Folds Its Hand [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe]

The Sahara Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas closed its doors on Monday, leaving only two of the original Rat Pack gambling joints still in operation.  It’s a bittersweet goodbye for the famous casino whose absence is turning the north end of the famous Strip into a ghost town/

The Moroccan-themed Sahara opened its doors in 1952, just outside the official city limits.  It was the sixth resort to open on the Strip and was constructed by Del Webb.  The famous developer would eventually go on to own the Sahara along with other casino properties in both Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

When the Sahara opened, Las Vegas Boulevard was quickly starting to grow from more than a sandy dirt path into the desert.  The resort quickly rose in popularity and many big name Hollywood stars would stop by to perform.

The King of the Swing, Louis Prima was hired as the casino’s first official lounge act.  In 1956, Abbott & Costello would appear there together for the last time before the duo’s breakup.

After Del Webb purchased and took control of the hotel, a 24 story tower was added along with new restaurant options in 1963.

A year later the casino roof caught fire sending gamblers running out into the street and causing $1 million in damage.  It began from a spark from a welder’s torch — he was installing an air conditioning unit.

A third 27 story tower was added in 1987 bringing the total room count to 1,720.

The Sahara has appeared in a number of films and television shows.  The most famous may be the original Ocean’s Eleven, which was shot there with its Rat Pack stars and released in 1960. Many other celebrities would perform in the showroom including The Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and Sammy Davis, Jr.).

Throughout most of the 70s and into the early 80s, the annual Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon was broadcast from the property.  The telethon is an annual event seen on TV stations across the country to raise funds for the muscular dystrophy association.

In 1999, the property underwent one of its last expansions by adding Speed-the-Ride, a roller coaster along with a NASCAR café.  The roller coaster launches the train out of the building, through a loop, then straight up a tall tower right on the Strip.  The train then goes backwards through the entire track.

Del Webb would run into financial problems and eventually sell the property.  It would go through several owners until being purchased by Sam Nazarian and the Stockbridge Real Estate group in 2007.

In 2006, the first rumors about the property’s closure began to surface.  That never happened, but they did close two of its three hotel towers and the buffet in 2009.

The Sahara limped along and as the economy continued to struggle in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis.  Tourism in Vegas had plummeted and the Sahara was considered on the lower end of the fancy Strip hotels.  At one point, they began offering $1 rooms on Twitter to entice visitors.

Finally in March, SBE announced that they would close the property for good on May 16th, just a year shy of its 60th anniversary.  1,050 employees have been laid off.

In a statement, Nazarian said “the continued operation of the aging Sahara was no longer economically viable.”

I first visited the Sahara in summer 2002.  It was there that I sat at a $5 blackjack table for the first time and learned the official casino lingo.  Don’t touch the cards, use hand gestures so the camera can see, and make sure you get the casino player’s card.  I remember playing for hours and really enjoying it.

The place was by no means glamorous even then.  The colors were kind of dark and the red casino carpet looked as though it had been there for decades.

In 2007, I spent the night there once with fellow FaN bloggers Joe Rusin and Ryan Dixon.  We were in town for Ryan’s sister’s wedding.  The hotel was definitely showing its age – even then.  I had booked a non-smoking room, but they had stuck us into a smoking one.  Opening the door, the stench practically reached out of the room and punched you in the face.  Joe R. got severely sick that night from it.

Outside of the smoke, the room wasn’t that bad.  It wasn’t that good, either.  Think of it as a step up from a roadside motel.  I had talked the two of them into checking out their wonderful buffet.  I had indulged there on my very first visit and they had a ton to offer.  But, by this second trip, the buffet area was walled off and closed for good.

Another sign of the casino’s age was the selection of slot machine’s available.  They had some of the newer titles, but most were quite old.  During that trip, a large part of the floor was still using coins, while most other casinos had exclusively gone to ticket in – ticket out.

I made one final visit to the Sahara in April.  It was a quiet Monday afternoon and there were maybe a dozen people on the casino floor.  I sat down at my first machine and quickly won the $20 back I put into it.  I then played a Wheel of Fortune machine that pretty much just ate my cash.  The slot selection had been upgraded to all ticket in – ticket out and the latest slots available, but older machines were still plentiful.

I circled the casino and property one last time.  It still had that stained old red carpet I first saw nearly a decade ago.  There were a few tables open and some were down to a $1 minimum bet.  I walked down the hallway towards the Nascar café and was surprised to see a line of several hundred people waiting in the line for, The Amazing Jonathan, the in house magician show.

The Nascar café was home to the gigantic B3 Burrito.  It was a huge six pound two foot long burrito, packed with 5,000 calories, which promised diners that if they could finish it – it was free.  Adam Richman of the Travel Channel’s Man vs. Food tried and failed with one pound left to go.

Walking past the café, about six people were inside and the upper level had been closed off.  The arcade at the end was gone, but there was a group of kids getting in line for the roller coaster.

My friend Chris who was with me, commented “I wonder if it has something to do with the whole middle east theme?” He could be onto something.  The Aladdin casino with its Arabian theme has been rebranded as Planet Hollywood and underwent a major overhaul.  Both Caesar’s and the Luxor are also scaling back their eastern themes, going for a more modern look in our post 9-11 world.

We left the property via the last stop on the Las Vegas Monorail.  The Sahara Station is the northernmost stop on the line.  According to the Las Vegas Monorail Company, the station will remain open.  The main walkway is through the Sahara, but the station can be access by walking around the building or from street level at Paradise Road.

The north end of the Las Vegas Strip has basically turned into an abandoned ghost town.  The economic crisis has crippled numerous projects that involved imploding a number of classic casinos to construct new mega-resorts.  The problem: they ran out of money.

The New Frontier was imploded to make way for a Vegas version of New York’s Plaza Hotel.  The site currently sits empty.

The Stardust was imploded to make way for Echelon Place featuring a casino and several hotel towers.  The parent company, Boyd Gaming suspended construction due to the economic downturn.  The project sits stalled several stories in the air.  Boyd hopes to begin construction again in a few years.

The worst by far is Fontainebleau, located next to the Sahara.  Designed to match its sister property in Miami Beach, Fontainebleau is on the site of the former El Rancho and Algiers hotel/casinos.  The large blue glass building was meant to hold 3,889 hotel rooms, with space for shopping, and 24 restaurants and lounges.

When Bank of America refused to provide any more financing, the project stalled.  The building was topped off and work on the inside was 70% complete.  All of the furnishings were sold at auction and are part of the major renovations going on the soon to be renamed Union-Plaza hotel and casino in downtown.  The current owner Carl Icahn told the Nevada Gaming Control Board that he has no plans for the future of the site.

Sadly, it’s down right scary to walk the northern end of the Strip at night.  Once you pass Steve Wynn’s Encore, you walk past multiple dead construction sites and abandoned blocks of plywood that keep trespassers on the sidewalk.  Gone is all the Vegas neon, the little shops, and the safety of security guarding the former casinos.  The area is mostly abandoned and is likely to stay that way for many years to come.

Only the Rivera, Circus-Circus, Slot-a-Fun, and the Stratosphere remain open on the north end.  If the economy continues to improve, hopefully some of these stalled projects can reopen and return the party to that has been so cruelly taken away from the north end of the Strip.

Nazarian said, “We see the northern end of the Strip as the future of Las Vegas.”  I certainly hope so.

THE 411

What: Sahara Hotel-Casino

Where: Las Vegas, Nevada

Opening Date: October 7, 1952

Closing Date: May 16, 2011

JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS: I agree that it was time for the Sahara to close.  I don’t think there is much that they can do to save it, except for a total rebranding and renovation.  Jimmy Buffet has been trying to open a Margaritaville casino for years and this could be a great location.  If the north end Strip projects ever get finished, this place needs to reopen.

Downtown Vegas is seeing a major resurgence right now and that is due to their cheaper room rates, cheaper food, and party like atmosphere.  Travelers don’t have the money they once did.  When you’re in Vegas, after your first trip you simply just need a bed for the night.  Most people aren’t in their rooms that much, anyway.

But, if you look at the history of Vegas, when things get old – they blow them up.  At one time you would get something bigger and better, but thanks to the economy, we’ll probably just get an empty, shuttered lot for a while…