Las Vegas Sun

December 19, 2014

After 50 colorful years, resort remains a “jewel”

It was called the "Jewel of the Desert" when it opened in 1952 on a windblown plain that was home to only five other casino resorts.

The modest two-story motel -- formerly called "Club Bingo" -- was a harbinger of the extravagance that was to bloom decades later in the desert. The Sahara opened with the area's first Olympic-size swimming pool.

That may shed some light on how the Sahara, which celebrates its 50th anniversary Monday, has fought the odds in a town that discards past icons like so many used dice.

The history of the Las Vegas property is as colorful as the city it helped build. It hosted some of Hollywood's biggest celebrities in the 1950s and 1960s, including Cary Grant, Grace Kelly and Spencer Tracy. Entertainers Mae West, Marlene Dietrich and Tony Bennett gave way to a later era of stars such as Don Rickles, Liza Minelli and Sonny and Cher.

While not the most luxurious hotel on the Strip, the Sahara was a favorite hangout of Elvis, Ann-Margret, Frank Sinatra and a parade of other legends.

Besides making a name for itself in the entertainment world, the more notable events in the property's history include:

* In 1964 the Sahara survived a fire that ripped through the casino, executive offices, lounge and showroom. Hundreds were evacuated but no one was severely hurt and the hotel was not affected.

* In the late 1960s a homemade bomb was pulled from the wall of a Sahara hotel room before it detonated, brining to light a plot to extort $75,000 from then-owner Del Webb.

* In 1979 the casino fell prey to an elaborate credit scam by a group of gamblers who made off with more than half a million dollars.

* In the early 1980s Sahara casino dealers voted in favor of union representation by the Teamsters following months of controversy at the hotel over mass firings and an intense theft probe. Then-owner Webb refused to negotiate with the union. The following owner, former lounge musician Paul Lowden, agreed to contract negotiations but labor officials say they went nowhere because of pressure from competing casinos.

In an industry once tainted by the Mob, the hotel became one of the first examples of corporate-run enterprise when high-profile real estate magnate and onetime Yankees baseball team owner Webb bought the property in 1961 from its original investors. Webb orchestrated a $100 million merger between his construction company and the California-Sahara Corp., creating the first publicly traded company to own casinos.

The milestone has since been overshadowed by stories of how billionaire recluse Howard Hughes bought up casinos and pushed for corporate ownership, said David G. Schwartz, coordinator of UNLV's Gaming Studies Research Center.

Yet it was the Del Webb deal -- a convoluted arrangement involving a dummy corporation and lease arrangements -- that presented the first strong argument for changing the law to allow corporations with multiple investors to run casinos, Schwartz said.

"A lot of (industry supporters) applauded this because they wanted to get more mainstream capital," he said.

The Sahara is now mostly unrecognizable from the Strip's "Rat Pack" days.

Lowden bought the property from Webb in 1982 and added a 26-story, $35 million hotel tower in 1988. Lowden also expanded the casino and added a new race and sports book.

And nearly every square inch of the property has received an upgrade since casino magnate Bill Bennett acquired the Sahara in 1995. Bennett plowed millions of dollars into the resort rather than tearing it down, breaking a tradition of bulldozing older properties and earning the praise of employees who retained their jobs.

Besides a complete face-lift and new Morroccan theme, Bennett doubled the casino from its original 40,000 square feet, moved the hotel desk from the casino floor to the front entrance and tore down the last remaining relics from the property's heyday -- aging cabanas near the front that became space for parking and other features.

Guests at the front entrance are now greeted with the screams of rollercoaster riders that are propelled out of the casino's nearby NASCAR Cafe and onto a track that runs along Las Vegas Boulevard. Both the ride and the motorsports-themed restaurant and video game complex were added in 2000,drawing a younger breed of customer.

The entryway features a giant cut-glass chandelier and expansive marble. A few steps away, glitzy slot machines -- all recent additions -- greet gamblers with the latest video technology. On the entertainment front, the Sahara launched a magic show by Steve Wyrick in 2000 and premiered aconcert show this year featuring Charo, a Spanish comedienne who made her headliner debut at the Sahara two decades ago.

Despite upgrades under Bennett's ownership, Sahara has lost the cachet it once had 40 years ago, ULNV professor Bill Thompson said.

"It did not draw traffic up to the north end" as more elaborate casinos were built to the south, he said.

"In the eyes of tourists, Circus Circus became the end of the Strip."

The Sahara will celebrate its half-century mark modestly.

The most extensive commemorative effort launched back in May, when the Sahara posted an "interactive timeline" on its website, www.saharavegas.com. Monday, the property will host a small get-together for employees and hold a press conference. Memorabilia donated by local collectors will also be on display.

The low-key anniversary is fitting for a property that prides itself on delivering even-handed service to customers no matter what their bankroll. Now operating in the shadow of opulent megaresorts to the south, the Sahara has carved out a niche serving the middle class, leaving the higher-stakes luxury market to competitors.

"Everyone's wanted here, whether you are betting $1 or $100," General Manager Larry Serna said.

These days, the Sahara credits much of its success to $1 minumum blackjack tables. On the afternoon of Sept. 11, a day when many avoided the Strip, the tables were bustling.

"The younger types come in for the dollar blackjack," Serna said. Older customers, many of them repeat customers over several decades, come for ambience, he said.

"They know most of the employees here. They like to come back to people they've dealt with before."

There's also a newer influence at work in Las Vegas, one that's helping older places like the Sahara.

The Hollywood remake of "Ocean's Eleven," with its scenes of vintage-looking casino floors, has prompted some renewed interest in an older Vegas, Serna said.

"They come to see what the old Vegas is about. But they like the new stuff, too."

Many employees have remained through it all, living out their days as hotel clerks, porters and waiters.

One of them is Walter Choik, 82.

Choik, a bellman at the Sahara, has worked under all of the property's previous owners.

He has witnessed progress first-hand. Older customers have complained about a buffet that was moved upstairs to make way for newer features, he said. A lush pool area, with a certain palm tree that became a favorite resting spot for jazz legend Nancy Wilson, was relocated and paved over to house gleaming banks of slot machines.

"It was Hawaii in the desert," he said. Loyalty to Bennett has kept Choik at the Sahara.

"He's a good man and was one of the best owners," Choik said.

Co-worker Bill Jones, 65, shares that sentiment.

"I love it here. I like meeting people and I like the guys I work with."

The future of the Sahara is up to Bennett, who has not revealed any upcoming plans for the Sahara or for a 26-acre parcel of land he owns across from the property.

For now, managers are focused on boosting profits that are still below levels reached before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks last year.

Since the attacks, the property has suffered as other casinos have lowered prices on hotel rooms and other amenities, said Brenda Prince, the Sahara's director of marketing.

"They want our customer base," she said.

Bennett appears more upbeat about his property's performance and the milestone it has achieved.

Bennett, whose net worth of about $600 million earned him this year's No. 368 spot on Forbes' list of the 400 Richest Americans, says he's satisfied to go it alone amid competition from the corporate chieftains that now rule the Strip.

"We can live on what we're doing now," he said.

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