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December 20, 2014

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Sahara guests, workers fondly remember ‘the last of the oldies’

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Justin M. Bowen

The Sahara hotel-casino in Las Vegas on Friday, March 11, 2011, the same day the property made the announcement it would be closing.

KSNV coverage of Sahara closing

KSNV coverage of the announcement that the Sahara hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip will close in May. From the noon newscast on Friday, March 11, 2011.

Sahara History

Louis Prima, wife Keely Smith and Sam Butera at the Sahara in Las Vegas on March 10, 1956. Launch slideshow »

Helmut Hartleb first visited Las Vegas in 1958, six years after the Sahara opened. He remembers the lights and the excitement on the north end of the Strip. And for the past 30 or more years, he and his wife, Joan, have made a yearly trip to Las Vegas.

Whenever they come, they make sure to visit the resort, drawn to the $1 hot dogs and $1 cups of beer. On Friday afternoon, the Hartlebs were strolling under the canopy outside the entrance.

They had just heard about plans to close the Sahara indefinitely May 16. Hartleb sighed and said he hoped other “classics” such as the Riviera don’t follow suit.

“I was shocked, but I’m not surprised it’s going belly up,” said Hartleb, 75, a native of Windsor, Ontario. “They’re building new (casinos), and the old ones come down, thrown into the scrap heap.”

That sentiment was shared among those at the Sahara on the day owner SBE Entertainment announced it is “no longer economically viable” to keep the resort open. The aging property’s future is uncertain.

Ron Ehlers, 55, makes three or so trips a year to Las Vegas from his home in Sedalia, Mo. Like the Hartlebs, he goes to the Sahara for cheap fun and easygoing atmosphere, he said, but he’s never stayed there.

He plans to rectify that before the May 16 closing: Ehlers is coming back with his son in April for one last hurrah at the Sahara.

“This is old-school Vegas. I love that. I don’t like the big joints,” he said. “People are friendly, and they treat you right. It’s a darn shame to see it go.”

Seated at one of the casino’s $1 blackjack tables, Ehlers said he wasn’t surprised at the news. “Things change,” he said.

Employee Kim Whitney said she “felt it coming. Things didn’t feel right.”

She started working at the Sahara 35 years ago, when she was 18, and it’s the only workplace she’s known. These days, she’s a valet parking attendant.

As she waited for the next guest, she said she was more worried about her co-workers who will probably have to find new employment. As for herself, Whitney plans to retire when the Sahara closes.

“It’s sad. It’s one of the last of the oldies. That’s progress, I guess,” she said, chuckling. “I’ll miss it. These guys are like my family.”

Walking the casino floor Friday, things looked normal. Guests checked in and out. Dealers manned the blackjack tables, and college basketball fans from New Mexico and Utah shuffled out the door to cheer on their team at the Mountain West Conference tournament in town.

Suzanne and John Holderbaum were seated outside the Grind Café when they were told the Sahara will close. She appeared visibly upset at the news, while he simply shook his head.

Suzanne, 60, said she remembers seeing pictures of The Beatles and their first show there in 1964. Even then, she had wanted to visit the Sahara, a place where “so many of the greats” such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin had played over the years.

“I always preferred this to the extravagance you find on the rest of the Strip,” she said. “I feel much more comfortable here.”

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  1. always loved staying at the saraha.started going out there before they remodled it into what it is now and loved the old one better.they took care of you,you didnt need a players card for anything as they knew you and would give you what you needed.the new casnios today do not care about the person you are, only a number on a card and how much money they can get out of you. also i bet the old pit bosses could have told you where jimmey hoffa was buried.the last few years my trips have slowed down because the new casnios have no soul,they are just a huge space built by huge compaines that worry how to get that last dollor for a dinner by feeding you junk food that isnt worth a dime. its sad but that is the way it goes.

  2. I'm really gonna hate to see this place go :(

    I do agree, however, with the person who recommended cutting back some of the plantings in the front - it's hard to pull into the place coming off the freeway because the plantings in the medium are too high for a short person to see over (making a left turn in scary) and it would be better if the whole front could have been viewed from the street. I can only hope something happens between now and May 16th to save this place from closing.

  3. Fontainebleau, Echelon, and now Sahara -- holy-cow the north strip is rapidly turning into one ugly mother collection of broken dreams with the promise of more to come -- the birth of a ghetto.

    : {

  4. sad to see sahara is closing .i go to las vegas 3 times a year and always stay mid strip but,play all my blackjack and roulette at the sahara. i love those dollar tables that is the best part of my trips where i can play as little as a dollar or more if i choose.they have great cocktail waitresses who come around quickly and load the drinks on you too at the dollar tables.gonna miss this vintage place and fond memories.it needs to stay open..somehow!