When the Sahara Hotel Rolled

by Paul Talbot on May 28, 2011

For more than a thousand nights in Las Vegas none of the other lights on the strip burned brighter.

Sahara Hotel Las Vegas

Later on there was always that patina of sadness about the Sahara Hotel.   For the last forty years of its life the Sahara was trapped in a doomed position in the pecking order of the Vegas resorts.

On a chilly high desert morning years ago, before the fire at the old MGM, before the numbers crunchers with Harrah’s came to town and before the sharpies stopped sporting white belts and yellow patent leather shoes, I stood in front of the Sahara.

We were there for the unveiling of the resort’s new sign.  At the time it was the city’s tallest.  After more than twenty years those iconic and cartoonish letters stacked atop one another still evoked the Middle East minus the danger, Morocco without the hash, swinging sultans and sultry harems.

That morning we had our backs to the resort.  All we were interested in was this remarkable new sign.  None of us acknowledged the change.  That the days were gone when visitors just in from Southern California rolled down the Strip in big rails burning cheap Saudi gasoline and that signage like this could lure them in.

By then it was all over for the Sahara.

But before 1966, that was when the Sahara rolled, when it seemed there was no unattainable element of glamor, no spectacle it couldn’t stage, no celebrity it could not attract.  In 1964, in the course of just three months, both President Johnson and the Beatles stayed at the hotel.

Sahara Hotel Las Vegas

Look at the lads on the balcony.  It’s August and Paul is wearing a jacket.  Look at the strip stretching south behind them, barren and bleak, a speculative ribbon of desert on the threshold of hosting the largest binge of hotel construction in American history.

Sahara Hotel Las Vegas

And look at the Beatles performing in the Las Vegas Convention Center.  The Sahara’s management team brought them in after the Flamingo had been offered the band and passed.  The Sahara guys figured there was more money to be made putting them into a larger room than they had at their hotel.

Check out the signage hanging on the curtain behind the stage.  That was what branded entertainment looked like in 1964.

By that time the Sahara has been a going concern for twelve years.

Sahara Hotel Las Vegas

1964 was the Sahara’s gilded year, the sweet spot of a sprawling era when the hotel that started off as a bingo parlor shared the role of the strip’s favored destination with the Flamingo, the Sands and the Desert Inn.

What a run.  And what a rite of passage for me that night in 1974 when I walked out Las Vegas Boulevard from downtown, all the way out from Fremont Street.  When you traveled the strip from downtown the Sahara was the first of the big hotels.

The night before I had slept in my tent on the desert.  Dinner was a can of stew cooked on sterno.  Now I was immersed in unfathomable luxury.  I would stay up all night.  My backpack was stowed under the front desk of a motel downtown.  I was free to wander, free to explore spectacles never experienced and barely imagined.

When I went into the Sahara and saw the casino it was all incomprehensibly vast and dazzling.  I remember sensing a vague collision between order and disorder, the calibrated behavior of dealers, pit bosses and croupiers clashing with the determined chaos of the gamblers.  Slicing through it were all the improbably attired cocktail waitresses flitting past the gaming tables, more waitresses, more cocktails, more people drinking and smoking than you see nowadays.

The Sahara’s best years were behind it that night in 1974.

Either The Drifters or Little Anthony and the Imperials played the Casbar Lounge.  I forget who was in the Congo Room.  It didn’t matter.  I didn’t have any money so I took full advantage of the clusters of free cigarettes stuffed into jars on the blackjack tables with their filters pointed up.  I was highly impressed by this lavish display of hospitality.

Sahara Hotel Las Vegas

All those people, so distant and different, all older.  This was another generation.  That was when not just the Sahara, but Vegas itself seemed to be a hideaway for the other America, an enclave for Nixon supporters who didn’t mind having some fun.

Not exactly my element but I wasn’t having a bad time, wandering around Vegas with forty cents in my pocket and no place to stay, free breakfasts, free cocktails and cigarettes, wide-eyed from that first exposure to a major gambling resort at the Sahara.

And now it’s all gone.

Sahara Hotel Las Vegas

Hotels are fairly reliable barometers of an era.  They mirror our tastes, frame our memories and refract our preferences.  Like the houses we grew up in, the passing years reframe them with distorted dimensions.

Along the way we change and the hotel changes and there is no plotting an overlay of the trajectory of these two forces which have little or nothing to do with one another.

All we are left with is our own distorted view of the hotel’s inevitable fade.

For the past thirty years, if somebody you knew came back from Vegas and told you they stayed at the Sahara, you wondered why.  It would either have been a third string convention or an extreme need for an inexpensive room.

How inexpensive?  Earlier this year weekend rates hit thirty dollars.  There were twittered rates of one dollar.  That’s how far out of alignment the supply and demand curve veered, even with rooms in two of the resort’s towers closed off.

The Sahara was murdered in broad daylight in 1966 when Caesars Palace opened.

A dozen years later, the owners, the Del Webb Corporation, debated sinking a sizable sum into the Sahara to reclaim top shelf status.  It didn’t happen.  The money went to Reno and Atlantic City where things didn’t work out.  It was losing bet, a tragic investment doomed from the outset with 24% interest on a $150 million loan.

A recession and soaring gasoline prices meant fewer Californians driving to Vegas or Reno.  For good measure, a touch of scandal was added when Nevada’s State Gaming Commission took the wraps off the Sahara’s practice of providing prostitutes for high rollers.

In 1982 Del Webb sold the Sahara to Paul and Sue Lowden for $50 million.

Sue Lowden was a former New Jersey beauty queen who wound up in Vegas working for Channel 8 and went on to serve for four years in the Nevada State Senate.

Paul Lowden ran the Archon Corporation, which at one time or another owned the Hacienda, the Pioneer Club in Laughlin, and a water park.

Lowden was a high school dropout from Delaware who played the organ for Vegas lounge acts.  In 1972 he put up $50,000 and along with Allen Glick, secured a minority interest in the Hacienda.

Glick was a difficult man to know.  He could have been a front man for Chicago mobsters, an informant for the Justice Department, or both.  Whatever the case, he was a smart operator, skilled at maximizing revenues from the second and third string hotels he ran such as the Hacienda, the Fremont and the Stardust.

When Glick left the Hacienda, it went to Paul Lowden.  What Lowden lacked in management credentials was more than compensated for by his Clark County and State of Nevada political connections.  Today, his wife Sue chairs the State of Nevada Republican Party.

Archon seemed to be one of those outfits that never got along well with anyone.  It fought with its shareholders and it fought with unions.  By 1995, the Lowdens had enough and sold the Sahara to onetime Circus Circus Chairman Bill Bennet.

It was too late.  The big new roller coaster they built didn’t pull in the crowds.

Sahara Hotel Las Vegas

The Sahara Hotel 1952

Sahara Hotel Las Vegas

The Sahara Hotel 1971

Neither did the NASCAR Café.

Dale Earnhardt was on hand to help drum up publicity when the NASCAR Café opened in 2000.

“I feel lucky,” he said.  A year later, after thousands of fried turkey dinners had been served, Dale Earnhardt was dead.

There were regrettable efforts to capture the past.  In 2003 the Sahara Steakhouse was renamed the House of Lords, the resort’s leading restaurant during the sixties.

And then, in 2007, the Sahara changed hands again.

The new owner was Los Angeles nightclub impresario Sam Nazarian, who operates a Sheraton at LAX, the SLS in Miami Beach, another SLS in Beverly Hills and the Redbury in Hollywood.

The Sahara never managed to make Nazarian’s Las Vegas dreams come true.

Perhaps it was a simple case of buyer’s remorse, or the sting of the recession.  For the Sahara it was well past closing time.  The damage had been done.  All the expensive heavy lifting required to resurrect the resort from bad geography, irrelevance and grind joint status would demand resources so staggering that the numbers simply wouldn’t pencil.

I spoke with a veteran hotel man in Vegas about the Sahara the other day.  He figures they’ll tear it down.

Sahara Hotel Las Vegas

But there were plenty of good years at the hotel, back before the first tremors of the late sixties and seventies.  That was when the place had panache.  Effortlessly, the Sahara wrote more than its share of history.

It was the first Vegas resort to secure financing from a legitimate financial institution, the Bank of Las Vegas, later the Valley Bank, which brilliantly fueled so much of the city’s growth.  The bank gave the resort a million dollars to build 200 rooms.

Back when it first opened in the fall of 1952 the Sahara wasn’t much more than a restaurant, a coffee shop, a showroom, a lounge and a casino with a two story motel out back that wrapped around  the city’s first Olympic swimming pool.  That was all it took.  By the time it shut down after a 59 year run the Sahara had 1,720 rooms.

A friend of Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, by the name of Milton Prell opened the hotel.

Prell renovated a bingo hall across the strip from the fabled El Rancho, came up with the name and the Moroccan theme and ran the place for nine years until he sold it to the man who built most of the resort, Del Webb.

Del Webb’s first big construction job was for the federal government.  He built an internment camp in Poston, Arizona where 17,000 Japanese Americans spent World War Two.  Along with Dan Topping, Webb owned the New York Yankees from 1947 to 1964 and he played golf with people like Howard Hughes, Bing Crosby and Barry Goldwater.

Milton Prell came out of Los Angeles where he sold luggage, cars and jewelry.  In 1945 he opened his bingo hall on Las Vegas Boulevard at the corner of what was then called San Francisco Avenue, which marked the southern city limit for Las Vegas.

A decade later, San Francisco Avenue had become Sahara Avenue.

Sahara Hotel Las Vegas

Sugar Ray Robinson and Milton Prell

Max Maltzman was the hotel’s lead architect.  In the late twenties and thirties, Maltzman designed classic Los Angeles apartment buildings, including the Ravenswood in Hollywood, the Charmont in Santa Monica and the Lovetta near Wilshire and Western.

Ragnar Qvale oversaw interior design.  Qvale was a Norwegian who wound up in Sun Valley working as a ski instructor where he taught 20th century Fox President Darryl Zanuck.  Zanuck brought Qvale to Hollywood for a screen test.  Qvale pursued architecture and along with the Sahara project, worked on the Hughes Laboratories in Malibu and a restoration of the Wilshire Country Club.

At the Sahara, Qvale designed everything from menu covers and murals to uniforms and carpeting.  He ordered custom carpeting woven for the Congo Room patterned with shields and arrows in shades of coral, beige and blue.

Wizard of Oz scarecrow Ray Bolger played the Congo Room opening night, October 7 1952.  Also on the bill was singer Lisa Kirk, a regular at the Plaza Hotel in New York and coauthor, with Mel Torme, of “The Christmas Song.”

The next morning talk around Vegas was the new joint was off to a shaky start.  That the casino lost more than $50,000 in its first 24 hours.

1953 Congo Room headliners included Marlene Dietrich, Nelson Eddy, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.  Red Skelton celebrated his birthday party there that year.  And on it went.

Kirk Douglas married Ann Buydens at the hotel in 1954.  In 1959 young Don Rickles paid his dues and learned his chops in the Casbar.  Night after night Rickles ground out shows at midnight, two in the morning, and what was billed as a five in the morning “breakfast show.”

Mae West, Flip Wilson, Jack Benny, Sonny and Cher, Duke Ellington, Bobby Darin, Ann-Margret… they all played the Sahara.

Howard Hughes a frequent guest.  Scenes for Oceans 11 were shot in the casino in 1960.  Elvis celebrated his twenty-seventh birthday in 1962.  That wasn’t his first time at the Sahara.  In October of 1957 guests saw Elvis pull up under the port cochere in a pink Cadillac.

Sahara Hotel Las Vegas

In May of 1963, Governor Grant Sawyer cut the ribbon for the opening of the Sahara’s new 24 floor tower.  Sawyer was Nevada’s Governor from 1959-67, a Baptist Democrat who was onboard early as a supporter of John Kennedy’s 1960 Presidential bid.

Sawyer was not a typical caretaker, chamber of commerce governor.  He helped dismantle the city’s Jim Crow structures in 1960.  But it would be another decade before blacks could live someplace other than North Las Vegas or what they called the Westside,  those ten squalid blocks across the tracks from Fremont Street where the streets weren’t paved and the sewer lines rarely worked.

In 1941 there were just 178 blacks in Las Vegas.  Three years later, largely because of jobs at a magnesium mine, there were three thousand.  By 1955, lured to the city by back of the house jobs in the hotels, there were 15,000.

Until 1960 the resorts barred blacks.  No gambling in a casino, no staying in a room.  The same went for entertainers who had to stay out back.

Nowadays, Vegas grapples with a different brand of racism.  Those middle-eastern themes, of which the Sahara was the last standing, are gone now.  They were the themes so appealing in the early days.  The Dunes, the Aladdin, all those once flourishing vestiges of sheiks and sultans and magic lamps and carpets, all have been swept away on the anti-Islamic tide.

When Grant Sawyer cut the ribbon for the Sahara’s new tower, the construction of which was financed by the sale of stock in the reorganized Del Webb Corp., the governor was pressing for legislation and regulation to deal with oversight of the gaming industry, both its ownership and its behavior.

But in 1963 these transparencies didn’t exist.  What did exist was the purity and promise of the imagined Vegas which in its own way became real.

In 1963 Jack Nickalus won $77,777,77.77 in The Sahara Open Golf Tournament.  Johnny Carson played the Congo Room 1964, the year the Beatles and LBJ were there, the year the Don the Beachcomber restaurant opened on the third floor.

After that, aside from the arrival of the Jerry Lewis Telethon in 1973, and Frank Sinatra reuniting Lewis with Dean Martin onstage in 1976, it was a long downhill run.

Sahara Hotel Las Vegas Fire

A fire at the Sahara in 1966 forced the evacuation of 400 guests and sent another 13 to Vegas hospitals.

In 1967, a pair of con artists was arrested in a dimwitted $75,000 extortion caper involving a homemade bomb stuffed into the wall of a 12th floor hotel room.  The incident forced the evacuation of seven Del Webb Hotels.

There were other embarrassing moments.  None were more emblematic of the Sahara’s desiccation and descent into irrelevance than the decision to have Tennessee Ernie Ford headlining in 1980.

Glamour to grind joint to an inevitable implosion.  All the while, a Sahara barber known to regulars as Louie the Blade, kept cutting hair.

The closing of the Sahara lures us back into the past.  Even after they tear it down the Sahara will always pull us some of us in off the strip, into the glamorous smoke where those crowds of people who seemed so worldly gathered in the lost Vegas night.

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John Flannery January 30, 2013 at 10:48 am

Worked at the Sahara as a security guard from February 1980 till November 1980. I remember Tennesee Ernie Ford. Florence Henderson was the warm up. Telly Savalas that same year was even worse. Johnny Carson, Don Rickles and Vic Damone were the best. I left NYC to find myself. It didn’t work. It was exciting to be there. Jerry Lewis had dedicated and even bigger sign outside in front. Jack Entratter was the entertainment director at the Sahara. I was assigned to stand in the big showroom kitchen next to Don Rickles. Before each show he would have about four fingers of straight whiskeyand then the “Matador Music”. He’d run out onto the stage. One night I had a post outside next to a door that led to the showroom. Frank Sinatra was coming to see his son’s show at the Sahara. He had just finished his own show at Ceasar’s. He exited his limo, argued with his front man and then he whacked him across the face. It was embarassing for the guy. Sinatra was drunk, his people explained to us and he didn’t mean it. I guess that meant that we should keep our mouths shut. As a rookie cop I moonlighted as a bouncer at PJ Clarke’s Bar on 55th and 3rd Avenue in Manahattan. Sinatra showed up after a show at Carnegie Hall. After eating with his party he came out to the front bar , shook hands and took pictures with whoever had a camera. He was like a different guy. The oldtimers who worked at the Sahara would tell me stories of how it used to be. I never gambled before I arrived in LV. I never even played nichel and dime cards in the school yard where I lived. I became a bust out gambler in a couple of months. The action was too electric. I left a couple of days before the MGM fire. It was sad to hear all those people died and they way some of them died. I left and went back to NYC to join the NYPD. I retired in 2001 just before the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center. Talk about life changing! I have never been back to Las Vegas. I’m sure I wouldn’t recognize it. Maybe one day to satisfy my curiosity or I’m feeling a little reckless I’ll make a return visit to “Lost Wages” Nevada.

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