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April 16, 2014

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A dichotomy unfolds at Sahara and Tropicana; a birthday to celebrate for a Vegas matriarch

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Tom Donoghue/DonoghuePhotography.com

The grand opening VIP and media party of Bacio by Carla Pellegrino at Tropicana on May 17, 2011.

They have served as the Strip’s bookends, approximately, for decades. Sahara and Tropicana. On the night after the former shut down, the latter held an event that offered more than a glimmer of the viability of the Strip’s south region.

Bacio by Carla Pellegrino at Tropicana

The grand opening VIP and media party of Bacio by Carla Pellegrino at Tropicana on May 17, 2011. Launch slideshow »
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The grand opening VIP and media party of Bacio by Carla Pellegrino at Tropicana on May 17, 2011.

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The grand opening VIP and media party of Bacio by Carla Pellegrino at Tropicana on May 17, 2011. Chef Pellegrino is pictured here with her daughter, Marcelle Braga, and two guests.

It was no less than a lesson in divergent strategies for how to re-brand a Vegas resort.

The Nazarian-fronted SBE Entertainment has made unspecified assurances that Sahara will re-blossom as a chic, elegant and likely downsized hotel-casino sometime in the foreseeable future. Nazarian put that unspecified promise in writing with a note taped to the Sahara entrance as the hotel shut down.

Meanwhile, Yemenedjian’s staff is pouring $180 million into a full-scale renovation at the Trop that is taking hold just in time for the summer.

On Tuesday evening, as the Sahara sat dark for the first night since it supplanted Club Bingo in October 1952, the Trop held a VIP party for Bacio on the hotel’s mezzanine level. The Italian-themed ristorante is operated by the estimable Carla Pellegrino, who was born in Brazil, raised in Italy and adds a dazzling personality to an already bubbling collection of personalities at the Trop.

On Tuesday night, Pellegrino was tailed by a film crew preparing a “sizzle reel” for a pilot of a reality TV show based on her life in Vegas. The camera likes Pellegrino, to put it mildly, and she delighted in the attention of her new restaurant opening. I don’t know that she stopped smiling all night.

Downstairs, we were given an early look at the indoor-outdoor nightclub Club Nikki and Nikki Beach, which is crucial to the Trop’s overhaul. The circular club is intimately illuminated with dancing light and light-footed dancers, yet isn’t overwhelming like so many other Vegas ultra-clubs.

Outside, the new valet entrance facing Tropicana Avenue on the hotel’s east side is about finished, and there is a perfectly restored, red-and-white 1957 Chevy Bel Air parked out front to hint at the hotel’s long history in Vegas.

With the gadgetry-laden Mob Experience finally in full operation and a showroom featuring entertainment both classic (Gladys Knight) and contemporary (Recycled Percussion), the Trop is fast apace in its efforts to return to the highest level of Vegas resorts.

A couple miles to the north, whatever will be the next version of the Sahara sits idle. The hope here is that Nazarian, SBE President Arash Azarbarzin and the team charged with redeveloping what was once the Sahara can match the investment of energy, imagination and resources to the south.

At the risk of bowing to nostalgia, the Strip needs a bookend on Sahara, even if it’s not named as such.

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Mildred Myers, quick to smile, shown at Las Ventanas as she approaches 100.

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One of Mildred Myers' Annie Shoes, gold in color, high in heel.

Happy 100th birthday to Mildred!

On Tuesday afternoon, I took a break from the splashy Las Vegas scene and visited Las Ventanas retirement community in Summerlin to congratulate a delightful woman on turning 100.

As said that, “Congratulations,” Mildred Myers answered, “For what?”

“For turning 100,” I said.

“Oh!” she countered. “Pffft! I don’t even think about it!”

A woman who is always smiling, or seems about to, Myers turns 100 on Thursday. She is remarkable not just for being born a century ago, or for being just the second Las Ventanas resident to reach that age in the community’s 7-year history, but because she is closely related to a high-profile company in Las Vegas: Golden Gaming Inc. She is the grandmother of that company’s founder, Blake Sartini, who formed the company nearly a decade ago when Mildred was just 90.

The family’s roots are in the little Central Valley California town of Lockeford, which sits near Lodi (from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Stuck In” fame) on the Mokelumne River. Her late husband, Orville, was a dairy farmer and worked for years as a road repair worker. Mildred was the family’s homemaker and matriarch.

The couple moved to Las Vegas in 1980, in retirement, and were married for 56 years. It was in Las Vegas where Sartini learned the finer points of business management, graduating from UNLV with a bachelor’s degree in business management, and in 1985 started his career path by co-founding Southwest Gaming. He also spent 15 years as a top-level executive with Station Casinos before starting up Golden Gaming. Dozens of the company’s Golden Tavern Group bars and eateries dot the Vegas valley.

Sartini says memories of his grandparents always prompt him to envision the iconic “American Gothic” painting by Grant Wood. The work ethic his grandparents instilled during his childhood holds fast today.

“We were the epitome of a working class family,” Sartini said during a phone conversation Tuesday morning. “I learned, very early on, what it was like to work hard, to get out of bed when it was pitch dark. But we were comfortable because everybody worked … It was a very healthy environment, and (Mildred) continues to amaze me even today.”

Mildred’s pearls of wisdom were simple and succinct during our 45-minute chat.

She’s not terribly fond of technological advancement. When I tried to show her how to operate my new iPhone, she took a quick glance at the device, waved her arm and laughed, “No! No! Get it away!”

She still appreciates high-quality footwear, kicking a leg up to show a pair of gold, high-heeled Annie Shoes she bought years ago but still look new. “I love these!” she said. “My feet are in good shape.” She still walks unaided, even in heels.

Transportation is easier today than it was when she learned to drive a Model T as a teenager. “It was a hard car to drive, but my dad taught me to drive it,” said Mildred, who stopped driving 5 years ago. Her first flight was on a bi-plane out of Stockton, Calif., when she was a young girl. “Most of the older people in those days didn’t like planes,” she said, agreeing that anyone who had a fear of flying in the early 1900s deserved to have that fear.

Mildred says the key to her longevity is simple: Live in the now.

“I don’t think of the past much. I’ve never thought about my age, or any number,” she said. “I’m very healthy. I’m very happy. I don’t hate anyone.”

And when you see one of the 40 Golden Tavern businesses sprinkled around Las Vegas, know a heart beats inside. It is Mildred’s.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow "Kats With the Dish" at twitter.com/KatsWithTheDish.

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