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July 28, 2014

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The good old days: Memories from Sahara employees who knew her well

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Las Vegas News Bureau

Elvis signs autographs for fans.

Dan Murteza

Now I am a professor, but back in the day—26 years old, single and full of life—I was hired as the associate director of publicity at the Sahara in the late 1970s, working under the tutelage of the greats, Herb McDonald and John Romero. That was the tail end of the great old Las Vegas. Smooth, sophisticated high-rollers, and guests sometimes even wore tuxedos like in the old days.

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Michael Wilding and Elizabeth Taylor at the Sahara on March 7, 1956.

The fondest memory I have, though, was sitting in the sound booth in the Congo Room each night watching Tony Bennett sing; really it was the only show that I watched, even though we had great stars in the late 1970s, such as Don Rickles, Johnny Carson, Jack Jones and Jerry Lewis.

I learned so much about communications, behavioral analysis, people skills and mostly how to have fun at the Sahara. All those lessons took me back to graduate school and a Ph.D. in management. Now, as a university professor, not one of my students could ever imagine the stuff I used to do. Eating breakfast with Tony Bennett in the Sahara Coffee Shop at 2 a.m. after the midnight show; trading classic jokes with Don Rickles; accidently bumping into Charo backstage; having George Carlin dial up my younger brother to cheer him up during a long illness. That was some life.

Finally, when I heard that the Sahara was going dark, a part of me felt as if it was going dark as well. I miss those days, but as long as the building stands and there’s a chance that it will reopen. I can savor those memories and once in a while smile to myself and bewilder my daughter and her friends with stories and the photos to back up the wild tales. Thanks, Sahara.

Ruth Maestas

I was the first hostess [at Don the Beachcomber]. I had lived in Hawaii and I had just moved here. Being very tan, I went to the culinary union; he looked at me—and all my clothes were Hawaiian—and he just said, “You go to work at Don the Beachcomber.”

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

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It was wonderful just being part of all of that. Every day was electric; every day was exciting. Dean Martin came and Jane Russell and the stars were all out in their ermines and their minks. The Sahara was a very warm hotel. It was a wonderful, beautiful time back then. Everybody was beautiful; it was absolutely glamorous.

My husband owned the barbershop. We were married in 1965. Eldon Dotson was a good friend of ours, and he actually gave him the barbershop. In those days they gave the businesses to each other, and then they would pay a percentage to the hotel. But the owner of the barbershop wouldn’t say, “I’ll sell it to you for $200,000.”

His nickname was Louie the Blade. Anyone in this town who was alive at that time had heard of Louis the Blade. He was the one who cut the hair with a razor blade. He was doing the razor blade cuts before anyone else was doing it and the waterfall look where it flipped over. Elvis had the flipped-over look. Anytime you see that in a movie, that was his—that was his style; that was his cut.

I was one of the first licensed manicurists in the state of Nevada. I was the 318th ever licensed. I had to become a manicurist when we owned the barbershop in the Sahara because I had to work in it. Shecky Greene was my client. In those days when they came in, they’d be rehearsing their stage thing right there in the chair.

Joanie Shoofey, Miss Sahara

Mr. Prell was the owner of the Sahara and he loved me like a daughter. There were a lot of vice presidents at Sahara, and he said, if you marry Alex [Shoofey], I’ll pay for your wedding, your honeymoon and I’ll make Alex the president. We got married October 21, 1962. I picked the church that had the most parking, then the party was at the Sahara. We had an eight-tier wedding cake, and Mr. Prell was the best man. We invited 300 people; 500 showed up. When he first asked me to marry him, I said, if I’m not sick of you in six months, I’ll marry you. Everyone asked him, “Are you engaged to Joanie Adams?” And he said, “I’m on trial.”

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Sahara through the Years
• October 1952: Milton Prell opens $5 million Sahara hotel and casino on 20 acres. It’s known for its modern design and luxurious feel.
• August 1961: Sahara merges with Del Webb Corp. Merger is valued at $100 million and includes Mint and Lucky Club.
• August 1964: Crowds swarm the Sahara where the Beatles are staying for their Las Vegas performances at the Convention Center.
• May 1967: Two men attempt to extort $75,000 from Sahara owners by threatening to blow up the hotel. The bomb did not explode and both men received 5-year prison terms.
• August 1968: A fire causing $1 million worth of damage sweeps the Sahara. Smoke inhalation aside, there are no reported injuries.
• September 1973: Jerry Lewis moves telethon to Sahara. The annual fundraiser is held at the hotel until 1982, when it moves south to one of the hotel’s top competitors, Caesars Palace.
• August 1981: Another fire hits the Sahara, forcing the evacuation of the hotel and injuring two.
• May 1982: Paul and Sue Lowden buy the Sahara for $50 million.
• June 1995: Bill Bennett purchases the Sahara for $193 million.
• June 1996: Hotel undergoes $65 million Moroccan-themed renovation.
• February 2000: The Sahara adds Las Vegas’ fastest rollercoaster and the NASCAR Cafe to the property. True to its name, the ride on Speed lasts all of 45 seconds.
• October 2002: Sahara celebrates its 50th anniversary.
• June 2004: Monorail station opens at Sahara.
• March 2007: Bennett family sells the Sahara to Los Angeles-based SBE Entertainment in a deal valued between $300 million and $400 million.
• December 2009: Sahara closes two hotel towers, citing weak demand. The move comes to be seen as the beginning of the end.
• March 2011: SBE Entertainment announces it will close the Sahara on May 16. No further plans are announced for the property.
— Compiled by Rebecca Clifford-Cruz and Nadine Guy

I went to work as a cocktail waitress at the hotel when I was 18. I didn’t drink; I didn’t know Scotch from bourbon. I lied and said I was 21. I became Miss Sahara in 1956. When I started working there, there were only two stories. They kept building new stories and taking pictures of me on top of them. They took pictures of me on top of everything. I was Miss Sahara for seven years, and I got so much publicity. There wasn’t that at any other hotel. No Miss anything.

They took me on all these trips to bring people to the Sahara. I went all over the country and all over the world to bring conventions to the hotel. There was a luncheon every day and something every night. Everyone would come at night to see Louis Prima and Keely Smith, and I would always go back and see the show. I lived quite a life.

Kerry “Bear” Booth

I was a gardener. We detailed the whole front of the hotel in and out. I was there for 31 years, so I went through some owners.

In the engineer shop, when I was working there, all the guys got along. My wife and I used to take in Christmas dinners for everyone in the engineer shop. She’d cook it all herself. We’ve been there going on 10 years. And she always snuck in homemade cookies and homemade breads for the engineers and for the front desk and the bellmen and the valets. Everybody knew her. She used to take care of everybody in the hotel.

[The Sahara] is old. There’s a lot of people who’ve been there a long time. We had a bellman there who had been there so long he couldn’t remember which room he took the customers to. And we had a valet parker who was there 42 years. He’d been there since it opened. I don’t know what’s going to happen to it now.

Phyllis Ferrara Hoggatt

On March 8, 1957 there was an ad in the paper: “Wanted—a telephone operator” needed at the Sahara Hotel. So on March 9 at 8 a.m. I was there. Zoe Allison hired me on the spot, and I went to work that very day making $9 per day with one meal.

The bellmen were always trying to line up girls for some of the guests. One day one came into our office and asked if anyone would like to make extra money, as he had a guest wanting a girl. We quickly ran him out of our office. When I first started working at the Sahara we had the reputation of being the “easiest operators on the Strip.” I was horrified, but we put a stop to that rumor real quick!

While I was at the Sahara I saw and met many celebrities, but the most memorable was on October 16, 1957. I was making a left-hand turn into the parking lot at the hotel and this big pink Cadillac was pulling out right in front of me. I slammed on my brakes and threw my arms over my face, which must have startled him, so he pulled up and stopped right beside me. I was looking into the face of Elvis Presley. I was so stunned I did not know what to say and finally blurted out, “We are telephone operators. Will you come to our office?” He gave a big wink and said, “You bet I will, honey!” —excerpted from Hoggatt’s memoir, My Sahara Years

John Romero, former marketing director

The old bosses knew more than computers. They were raised on the casino floor and stayed with the same casino. They turned gray at 40 and you wondered if they ever had a childhood. They met the customers on the way up, and the big players became their annuities. We had players who wouldn’t stay anywhere else because the first time they took a room at the Sahara, a boss made them feel important. The same boss remembered the wife played Pan, or the daughter went to Wellesley or the son played quarterback for Colorado. They knew more than a computer could ever learn and those uncommon memories bought them longevity.

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