Published Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2008 | 4:40 p.m.
Updated Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2008 | 10:15 a.m.
Drifting into the ballroom on the second floor of the Palace Station were former shills and dealers and hostesses and waiters and pit bosses – the employees who worked in the trenches of the Sahara years ago, making the resort one of the most popular in town back in the day.
Most had gray hair and thinning hair. Some were stooped, some still stood tall and erect despite age; one had an oxygen tank in tow.
Each had a memories to share about working at the Sahara where Louis Prima and Keely Smith and Sam Butera worked the lounge in the ‘50s and entertainers such as Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich Shirley and Jeanette MacDonald were found in the main rooms.
Times were different. Some were around when the mob was still dominant.
“They were great,” recalls Giovanni (Johnny) Ventura, 76. “This was a safe town back then. The only ones who ended up out in the desert were the ones who tried to cheat.”
Ventura lived in Vegas in 1960 and ‘61, settling here after being discharged from the Navy. In ‘61 he returned to his native Utica, N.Y., and returned in 1991 after retiring.
Although he never worked at the Sahara, but he knew a lot of people who did, including entertainment director Stan Irwin.
Among other places Ventura worked at the Desert Inn as a shill – if a table was empty, he would play to draw a crowd and then move on.
Robin Feigelman, who organizes the annual reunion, also worked as a shill when she first arrived in Vegas in 1968.
“I was a 21 shill at Pussy Cat A Go Go,” a famous disco on the Strip that also had table games, Feigelman recalled. “Then I was a keno runner at the Horseshow and then the Fremont and the Frontier and the Flamingo.”
In 1970 she went to work as a pit clerk at the Sahara.
“About that time there were more and more gaming regulations and the paper work became too much for the bosses and they needed someone to take that responsibility,” Feigelman said. “We did all of the paperwork, plus numerous other things.”
She said she had a better relationship with the bosses than most.
“I had a college education, most of the others didn’t,” she said.
After eight years at the Sahara she moved to the Sands and then in 1982 lost her job because of a recession and since then has worked for a cash register company.
She was a math teacher in New York City when the heat of the desert lured her to Las Vegas at the end of a four-week vacation.
“I landed her on June 10, 1968 and it was 95 degrees at midnight,” she said. “I thought I was in paradise, and there was no humidity. I fell in love with the city.
“It was wide open — not physically, but psychologically. It wasn’t cliquey. No matter who you were you were accepted. And Las Vegas was very safe. You could walk around any time day or night and nobody would both you.”
Mike Gnatovich (gu – NAT — oh – vich) came up with the idea for the Sahara Former Employees reunion 15 years ago.
“This all started when I came back from Ohio after attending a family funeral,” he says. “I was tired of going to family funerals, going and seeing people at funerals. There were not enough remembrances of good old days and I decided to see if I could start something.”
A couple of phone calls was all it took.
Gnatovich, who retired a couple of years ago, became a fan of Las Vegas at the age of 11 when he was living in Steubenville, Ohio (Dean Martin’s hometown) and his older brothers worked in gaming.
“One of them sent me a money order for $20 for my birthday and I knew then that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “To be a dealer in Las Vegas.”
After high school he joined the navy. After three years on a submarine, where he played a lot of poker, he moved to Vegas.
“I was a month away from my 21st birthday,” said Gnatovich, who worked at the Sahara from 1967 to 1972.
A roommate taught him the rudiments of table games and when he turned 21 he went to work for Jackie Gaughan downtown.
“Minimum wage was $1 an hour and I made $8 a day,” he said. “But I loved every minute of it.”