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August 20, 2014

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Desert Oasis: Sahara’s rich entertainment history recalled at 50

The 50-year history of the Sahara is a reflection of the golden age of American entertainment.

Marlene Dietrich onstage in the Congo Room, with Burt Bacharach at the piano.

John Wayne sipping coffee in the Caravan Coffee Shop.

Louis Prima in the Casbar Theatre (he hated the word "lounge").

Sonny and Cher abruptly canceling a show and splitting up, never to perform together as headliners again.

Hundreds of the most recognizable celebrities in the world either performed at the venerable venue, visited the shows there or stayed in the hotel.

According to Deanna DeMatteo's website, lvstriphistory.com, Elvis was often seen at the hotel, with stripper Tempest Storm on his arm.

The Sahara will celebrate its golden anniversary with a low-key ceremony Monday. Scheduled are a 10:30 a.m. news conference, a cake, a display of old photographs.

There will be a few speeches by executives. Employees who have been with the organization since the '50s and '60s will be introduced.

So will the Sahara's headliners magician Steve Wyrick and Charo, starring in "Bravo." Charo first performed at the Sahara in January 1972, and was such a hit she remained until 1980, when she got pregnant.

"I looked like a watermelon in high heels," she said.

Comedian Buddy Hackett was responsible for Charo's first gig with the Sahara.

"He was my real English teacher," Charo said. "Buddy Hackett saw me performing and he liked me and brought me to the Congo Room as a co-starring headliner."

She says she's had a long and and happy relationship with the Sahara.

"I feel like this is home," Charo said in her fractured English. "We all are loyal family. It is a Sahara tradition. The showroom maitre d', Marco (Palacios), I remember from when I opened in the early '70s."

At capacity

The 61-year-old Palacios has worked for the Sahara since 1967. He worked in the Congo Room in 1974, when three minutes before show time, it was announced that headliners Sonny and Cher were splitting and the show had to be canceled.

Palacios, a native of Ecuador, came to Las Vegas in 1966 and first worked as a waiter at the Desert Inn's Monte Carlo restaurant.

"I wanted to work in a showroom," he said. "Those jobs were hard to get into. They were a little more special ... and they paid well."

A year later he landed a job as a waiter in the Congo Room, the Sahara's showroom which served dinner as well as providing entertainment. It's seating capacity was 1,000. Today its capacity is 850, and there is no dinner.

"We used to have 100 employees in the showroom waiters, captains, showgirls," Palacio recalled. "Now, we have eight or nine."

In the early days performers headlined for weeks at a time, not a day or two.

"I saw the best," Palacio said. "Buddy Hackett. Don Rickles. Lena Horne. George Carlin. Eddie Arnold. Liza Minnelli. George Burns.

"I've been the maitre d' since the late '70s. It's been a wonderful adventure for me."

Madcap comedian Rip Taylor, famous for showering audiences and himself with confetti, worked at the Sahara off and onfor five years in the late '60s and early '70s. His first job in Las Vegas was at the Dunes in '63.

"I was the first act at the Sahara's Casbar after Don Rickles left the lounge to go to the main room," said Taylor, who was in Las Vegas recently to undergo laser eye surgery. "He was a hard act to follow. I didn't work like him at all."

Taylor said Elvis' father frequently dropped by the lounge.

"Elvis (himself) snuck in a couple of times," Taylor added.

Eventually, Taylor also left the Casbar for the Congo Room, where he joined such entertainers as Debbie Reynolds, Teresa Brewer, Chita Rivera and Donald O'Connor.

"Entertainers coming through Vegas hung out at the Sahara after the shows," Taylor recalled. "There weren't a lot of places to go. We saw Rickles at four in the morning when he was in the lounge."

Today Taylor is busy with television and movie projects and performing at private functions. He recently completed the film "Jackass," based on the MTV series. He will co-star in a film with Kate Hudson that is scheduled to begin shooting Oct. 15. And he is working on a one-man stage show, "Let 'er Rip."

Celebrity viewing

Account Manager Sharon Arcand, 58, was working in the Sahara's mail room when Taylor performed in the Casbar Lounge and the Congo Room.

Celebrity sighting was a common occurrence for the Massachusetts native.

"A lot of superstars, like Johnny Carson, came here," she recalled. "Lines were wrapped around the block for show tickets."

Clint Eastwood frequently dropped by the Sahara. "He was a friend of Milt Frampton, vice president of entertainment," Arcand said. "A lot of celebrities used to visit Frampton."

She recalled once being in an elevator with singer/actor Jim Nabors.

"He suddenly dropped to one knee and sang to me," Arcand said.

She said the Sahara was the second-most profitable venue on the Strip -- second only to Caesars Palace.

"There were more high rollers in those days," Arcand said. "Now it's more family oriented."

The Sahara has more than its share of longtime employees.

Blackjack dealer Al Gonzalez, 67, has been here since 1974.

"There was a little more glamour back then," said Gonzalez, a native of Texas who came to Las Vegas to work for the police department. Eventually he became head of security for the Sahara and then a dealer.

Gonzalez said he saw Ann-Margret perform with Burns when she was about 18. He was there when actor Telly Savalas made an ill-fated attempt onstage.

"He lasted about a week," Gonzalez said.

Life was less hectic in those days, Gonzalez recalled.

"Things were more relaxed," he said. "There wasn't as much competition. People seemed to have more fun. But maybe it's just that I've gotten older."

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