Sunday, June 13, 2004 | midnight
Al Hummel is looking forward to the day that the people coming through the door of the Sahara hotel-casino are new customers who found their way to the historic property on the monorail and not people in business suits looking to buy the place.
Hummel, who recently was approved for a gaming license by the Nevada Gaming Commission as president and general manager of the 51-year-old property at Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue, said he regularly receives acquisition offers for the property previously owned by the Lowden family and Del Webb Corp.
"The place is not for sale," said Hummel, whose sister, Lynn Bennett, owns the Sahara. "Every time we get a new offer, it makes her not want to sell it even more. What we really want to do is make the Sahara what it used to be. That's always been our primary goal."
Lynn Bennett is the widow of gaming industry legend William Bennett, one of the architects of the Circus Circus empire that eventually became Mandalay Resort Group. When Bennett died in 2002, his wife wanted to keep the Sahara open and run it the way her husband ran it.
That's why she called on her brother, who was living in semiretirement in California and got the itch to return after working with William Bennett for 16 years at Circus Circus Enterprises. Hummel worked at Circus' Slots-A-Fun casino on the Strip and Circus Circus Reno before taking the general manager post at Excalibur from just after it opened in 1990 until 1995.
"She's not really ready to let it go," Hummel said of Lynn Bennett's affection for the Sahara. "I guess if somebody came in with a ridiculous offer, we'd consider it. But now, we're having fun here and that's what makes it exciting."
Of course, Bennett and the tightly held Gordon Gaming Corp. -- Gordon was William Bennett's middle name -- could engineer a deal and still have fun.
The company not only owns the 17 acres on which the Sahara sits, but also 11 acres to the east, across Paradise Road, and 26.5 highly coveted acres to the west, across Las Vegas Boulevard. The 11 acres to the east serve as an overflow parking lot for the Sahara and there's a long-term lease with the Las Vegas Monorail Co. for a maintenance center at the far east end of the property.
Hummel said there are no plans in the works for any of the acreage, but he entertains proposals regularly from a number of suitors. He won't say who has been making the offers, but a number of companies have expressed interest in securing a foothold on the north end of the Strip, especially after the announcement of MGM MIRAGE's acquisition of Mandalay Resort Group.
Among the big players that have publicly stated an interest in a new Strip site is Las Vegas-based Harrah's Entertainment Inc., which also isn't talking specifics about potential deals.
While interest in the Sahara's north Strip holdings has grown steadily, critics of the property say that it has little walk-in traffic because the property's front entrance is a long way from any other resort. It's a criticism Hummel says is true.
"There's no walk-in traffic, especially when it's 110 (degrees) outside," he said. "We really are quite a ways from the Riviera, Circus and even the Stratosphere."
But all that is about to change.
Hummel said when the Las Vegas Monorail begins passenger runs later this summer, the Sahara will have a new front door -- and the entrance may be as far away as the MGM Grand hotel-casino.
"That's just one of the pieces of the puzzle," said Ron Garrett, director of marketing and entertainment for the Sahara.
The Sahara monorail station is elevated above Paradise Road, just south of Sahara Avenue. When passengers get off the train, they'll walk across a catwalk over Paradise, down an escalator to a tunnel that leads right to the Sahara casino floor and the Congo Room, one of the resort's historic entertainment venues.
"We can't wait for the monorail to come on line," Garrett said. "We used to be location challenged. But the monorail is going to create a whole new entrance for us."
When Hummel took charge of the property, he and Lynn Bennett decided to build on its history. The eyes of the Rat Pack peer from photos throughout the resort. Hotel guests make special requests to stay in Room 2344, where the Beatles stayed when they made their Las Vegas tour stop in 1964.
The Casbar Theater Lounge, where Louis Prima, Steve and Edie and Don Rickles got their starts, is still alive with entertainment today. "We didn't want to go retro," Garrett said. "We wanted to be the Las Vegas that most people envision when think of the city."
To that end, the Sahara brought back its famed steak-and-chop house, the House of Lords.
The company also hired John Morocco as head of the company's food and beverage division.
It put Lena Prima -- daughter of Louis Prima -- under contract with a show of her father's music in the same theater where he got his start.
It also opened last month "Saturday Night Fever," a Broadway show based on the John Travolta film that boosted disco music to cult status.
In addition to the tributes to the '50s, '60s and '70s, the Sahara also has some modern-day guilty pleasures -- NASCAR and a roller coaster. The NASCAR cafe is a popular weekend hangout during the race season and the roller coaster, Speed, is the only thrill ride that takes riders beneath the Strip.
Inside the Sahara, new carpet has been installed and the resort's 1,720 rooms have been refurbished with improvements paid for out of cash flow.
While many of the amenities are new, many of the employees are not.
The long-time Sahara workers speak with genuine affection of William Bennett, an executive who did some of his best work behind the scenes and never sought media attention for himself.
"He (Bennett) was one of the classiest operators we've ever had," said Nevada Gaming Commission Chairman Peter Bernhard during Hummel's gaming licensing hearing.
Hummel maintains that the property's loyal customer base will keep the rooms full and the casino humming. He also said the company's status as a privately held corporation gives it an advantage over some of his Strip rivals.
"We don't have all that corporate baloney to go through when we have to make a decision," Hummel said. "Things move quickly in this business and being able to make decisions fast helps us."
That, he said, is one of the advantages a small operation like the Sahara has over a megamerged public company like MGM MIRAGE.
"The larger they get, the less control they have," Hummel said. "They may be able to set prices, but I really don't see (the acquisition of Mandalay Resort Group) having much effect on us."