Las Vegas Sun

October 25, 2014

Dust to dust

As a chronicler of casinos, it's my job to remember the old and usher in the new. Attending my first implosion and watching the past crumble firsthand triggered complex emotions that can only be described as a mix of sentiment and excitement at this icon of the past disintegrating against the rush to modernize.

From his residence in a high rise across town, Echelon Place Chief Executive Bob Boughner could look through Steve Wynn's partly built Encore resort and see the hulking, gray shell of the old Stardust. Both resembling picked-clean skeletons, one came down early Tuesday while overnight work crews swarmed over the other, adding heft to a luxury resort that will open in 2010.

Boughner described the view as "fun, eerie and ironic." In other words, quintessential Las Vegas - a town where a hotel tower can be built and torn down in less than 20 years in the name of redevelopment.

Boughner, who is leading Boyd Gaming's upcoming Echelon project, oversaw construction of the Stardust's 32-story tower, which opened in 1991 as one of the largest and most modern buildings on the Strip.

On Tuesday, it became the Strip's biggest implosion.

"I guess I didn't do it right the first time," Boughner joked.

In the last few years the steady footrace to build new attractions in Las Vegas has become a five-furlong sprint. Designers who pioneered the themed resorts for which Las Vegas is known are skeptically considering the Strip's transformation into an urban landscape of glass cubes and national, rather than home-grown, hotel brands.

Older resorts like the Mirage and Caesars Palace, their brands and buildings too valuable to tinker with drastically, have undergone rapid and dramatic face-lifts with sexy nightclubs, lounges and other attractions aimed at a younger, newer generation of Las Vegas customers who aren't familiar with and don't miss Las Vegas' rich past.

The trend bears more resemblance to the computer chip industry than it does to the tourism business. Like its iconic cocktail servers and showgirls, Las Vegas remains one of the only cities in the country where buildings begin to lack, rather than gain, cachet as tourist attractions as they age.

The Stardust's return to dust is another major milestone in this rapid renewal process.

Watching the Stardust crumble under 428 pounds of dynamite, I doubt that many visitors to Boyd's upcoming $4.4 billion resort complex will ever think about the wood-paneled hotel suite where mob agent Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal lived, the debut of the first modern casino sports book and the transformation of Siegfried & Roy from a little-known magic act to headliner entertainers. Nor would they contrast the so-called "good mob" era of the Stardust under sophisticated gangster and philanthropist Moe Dalitz and the "bad mob" of street thug Tony "The Ant" Spilotro.

They might even chuckle to think of the Stardust's 1958 debut, when it was touted as the world's largest hotel as well as it s largest casino. The property aimed for the mass market and helped to cultivate generations of Las Vegas tourists from middle America.

It didn't die prematurely.

Earning much less than its resort neighbors, the aging property had outlived its usefulness in a business now competing on a national and global scale.

The Stardust was home to a major skimming operation until federal agents raided it in 1983. State regulators ousted the owners and installed the Boyd family, which eventually bought the property in 1985.

As the last of the once mob-controlled casinos, the property's demolition is also symbolic of the Strip's transformation to corporate-controlled gaming.

While the implosion of the luxurious Desert Inn and Rat Pack hangout Sands were perhaps the most painful for historians like Community College of Southern Nevada professor Michael Green, the Stardust replaced them as one of the few remaining historic landmarks on the Strip.

"As a local, you are glad to see progress and prosperity, but it does tug at you that places that are part of your own history are disappearing," said Green, whose father dealt cards at the Stardust.

The Boyds, asked to run the Stardust as one of Nevada's oldest, most respected and clean operators, bid a grown-up, responsible goodbye to the property.

Las Vegas' first big implosion was the Dunes hotel in 1993, a Steve Wynn-hosted spectacle with fireworks and mock cannons to which the public was invited.

Since then, the county and casino operators have clamped down on access to implosions. The county's Department of Air Quality and Environmental Management only began issuing demolition permits four years ago and can pull the plug if certain safety rules, such as timing the implosions in the middle of the night and closing off street access, aren't imposed.

Boyd Gaming is believed to be the first company to make the county's job even easier by enlisting the media to keep a major implosion date under wraps - a tactic that kept thousands of people from wandering too close to the site, potentially being hit by flying debris and trampling expensive, tax-funded landscaping on the Strip's median.

The dust cloud from the implosion didn't impose as immediate a danger to spectators, but may have set a record for size, billowing across Las Vegas Boulevard and enveloping police cruisers in a giant fog. The particulate matter it kicked up is large and therefore less able to lodge in the lungs than microscopic particulates.

Like many other aspects of the city's colorful past, the days of public implosions have probably gone the way of Las Vegas' atomic blasts, when casinos set up lounge chairs and served "atomic cocktails."

Yet for the many locals and visitors who managed to honor the tradition of implosion as spectator sport, the demolition, preceded by the explosion of nearly 3,000 fireworks shells, was both satisfying and sad.

"Las Vegas will probably end up being unrecognizable to someone who's come back to town after 20 years and will probably be unrecognizable to us in another 20 years," Green said. "We end up having to accept this as part of the cycle of living in Las Vegas."

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