Tuesday, May 17, 2011 | 3:28 a.m.
Where do you mark the apropos moment on the day the Sahara closed forever?
Maybe it’s at the front door.
Two of them, actually. Doors that led into and, at the end, out of the hotel. Like many of the guests who made it to the last call for the 59-year-old resort, they were positively smashed.
Seems someone owed to some staggering nostalgia and crashed into the glass entryway the morning the hotel was to be closed.
When SBE Entertainment Chief Executive Officer Sam Nazarian spoke of a quiet and dignified closing of the hotel, he probably wasn’t referring to such a regretful development.
More fittingly, soon after the final guests were led from the hotel’s main entrance, two employees who had logged a combined 78 years met at the Sahara’s valet entrance off Paradise Road. Bell Captain Don Claus had worked at the hotel since 1964. Cheryl Funchess had been a valet attendant since 1980.
The two Sahara loyalists had been without work for about a half hour.
“Don!” Funchess said, as she was about to leave the property. “No more fresh coffee!”
“No more fresh coffee,” Claus said, referring to a ritual of java sharing the two had enjoyed for decades. “Not here, at least.”
Like 1,000 other employees, the two are out of work. Claus is taking some time off. Funchess has some leads at other Strip properties, but it is so competitive out there. Hopefully, for both, the Sahara affiliation carries unique equity among resorts hiring experienced service-industry employees.
There wasn’t much else for the two to say, so they hugged, and as they did, your throat caught. Fresh coffee for both.
More from the final weekend.
Nick Elliott ran the Sahara pool area and also was owner of the 3 Lions Tattoo studio at the Paradise valet entrance. This was hardly his first closing.
“I was a doorman at the Desert Inn when it closed,” he recalled. “On the last day the country club was open, we went out and played a round of golf in our green work uniforms. It was against the rules, but what were they going to do, fire us?”
Elliott still runs the 3 Lions at Riviera just to the south, which is becoming a focal point when discussing the health of the north end of the Strip. Elliott says 3 Lions had been turning a profit at the end.
“We were making money, doing great business,” he said. “From what I’m told, us and the roller coaster were the only places making money.”
I caught up with “Legends in Concert” founder John Stuart just in front of Casbar Lounge on Saturday afternoon. Stuart had been booking acts in the lounge recently, and the final show there was three weeks ago, when the Stinson Brothers closed the curtains. The Stuart-produced Rick Thomas tigers-and-magic show closed Sahara Theater on Friday before a crowd of 572 -- very good for the final show at the hotel. Thomas is moving to the Riv, too, on July 15 in a show titled “Magical Mansion,” a Disney-styled fantasy tour with Thomas’ illusions and white tigers featured.
Stuart knows Vegas well. He said he has a feel for the future of the Sahara property.
“I think they are waiting for the financial conditions to turn up, and you’ll see remodeling then,” he said. “I think it’ll be 3 to 5 years before it’s completed.”
On the day of closing, former owner Paul Lowden was on the phone. He and his wife, Sue, were planning to have dinner Sunday night, the final night House of Lords was scheduled to be open. Not so. The restaurant closed Saturday as the fridge was emptied, and even the man who owned the property from 1982 to 1995 was out of luck.
But he did recall the importance of attracting big names to the Sahara, which -- and this might sound familiar -- struggled to draw walk-in business.
“Meetings and convention business were crucial, and that’s basically how we ran the property,” Lowden said. “We needed great entertainment, and when we took over, we bought Don Rickles’ contract, and he helped with marketing, he became part of the Sahara family and really stepped up. I credit him with getting us started.”
Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, James Brown, Frankie Valli and Billy Preston were among those who played the Congo Room during Lowden’s reign as hotel operator. The all-time high attendance in the room, as he recalls, was a fire code-breaking 1,100 who turned out to see Johnny Carson perform in the 1,000-seat showroom.
“That was before us, though,” Lowden was quick to add. “We tried to get Johnny to come back, but by the time we took over, he was through performing.”
As for what Nazarian might bring to the north end of the Strip, he said, “Look, essentially the Strip stops with Encore. I’m happy to see the Riviera in strong financial and operational hands, but the area needs a catalyst. What Sam does best is the boutique hotel entertainment concept, and you might see something like that there.”
Forgetting to eat all day Sunday, I took a shot at NASCAR Cafe.
My waitress greeted me with, “We don’t have the big burrito. Or pretty much anything else on the menu.”
There were 15 hamburgers left, total, about 7 p.m. on the cafe’s final night. So I ordered one, and a Sprite.
As it was delivered, I was told, “Sorry for the inconvenience.”
“What about condiments?” I asked.
“We’re out of those, too,” she said.
“Not true!” I said, and bolted for a table occupied by a young couple and snatched their mustard and mayonnaise.
“Does anyone have ketchup!?” I called out, to laughter.
“There is no ketchup,” my waitress said, sort of sadly. “You’re lucky you’re getting the hamburger.”
I joined a $10 table with two other players at 9:30 a.m. Monday, and soon each slot was filled. There were 30 minutes more of live blackjack action at the Sahara.
My first hand out of the shoe from the dealer whose nameplate read “Wendy” was a blackjack. Ace and jack of spades.
At that, I called out, “Yes! How does this place stay open?”
So we had a good laugh at that, but over the next half hour, I was cleaned out, the dealer hitting to an 18 with a 4 showing as I held on a 12. It was an expensive send-off to the once-great Sahara, but say this for the grand dame: She went out a winner.