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October 20, 2014

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Saying goodbye to the once-great Sahara

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Courtesy: Las Vegas News Bureau

What I remember most about the night the Sands was imploded was the pause. It was brief, just a couple of seconds. Hundreds of dynamite charges that sounded like rifle fire echoed through the night air. Then … nothing.

The crowd cheered. For a moment, it seemed the hallowed Sands was refusing to buckle. Just as any member of the Rat Pack could withstand a full night of Las Vegas debauchery and still maintain his grace and balance, the Sands would not fall.

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Old-school Sahara

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

Then, like a soufflé handled by a nervous waiter, the place collapsed. Whump!

There was more cheering. Down with history! But I do recall that some onlookers on the Strip that night were crying, and I didn’t understand exactly why. It was October 25, 1996, and I’d moved to Las Vegas a few months earlier. I’d visited the Sands just before it closed, even played the Big Six wheel. By then, the casino showed every minute of its 44 years. It was creaky and old, and I imagined if you took a sledgehammer to one of its walls, asbestos would certainly spill out.

But there were tears anyway, not for the deteriorating hotel as it was on that night in ’96, but for what it represented. The Sands was the headquarters of the Rat Pack and home to the vaunted Copa Room. It was where Vegas learned to swagger.

Since the Sands was felled, I’ve attended each Vegas implosion and stayed in three hotels the week before they closed. This weekend I’ll do it again, leading the once-regal Sahara to its crypt as the hotel falls victim to an economic implosion on the northern end of the Strip.

Sam Nazarian, CEO of SBE Entertainment Group, which owns and operates the Sahara, has said he hopes to reopen the hotel with “a complete renovation and repositioning.” But by Monday morning, the Sahara will be no more. And just as the days leading to a hotel’s opening are finite—never is a hotel again in such disorganized condition as it is during opening week—so are the days leading to its shuttering. I’ve seen it at the Desert Inn, Frontier and Stardust, just before guests were shooed from those properties.

At the Frontier, the concern during closing was for the ominously beautiful (or beautifully ominous) Frontier sign, which I understand was purchased by The Killers’ Brandon Flowers. But the nostalgia I felt was for the end, temporarily as it turned out, of Gilley’s. The bar had been popular for its mechanical bull and weekly mud-wrestling contests. By now it’s resurfaced at Treasure Island, though without the wrestling.

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Follow the last weekend at the Sahara at The Kats Report or on Twitter @johnnykats.

The Stardust closing on November 1, 2006 was met by a visit from Boyd Gaming chief Bill Boyd. I ate at William B’s just two nights before the restaurant was to shut down, and the waiter said most of the staff would be sent over to the Orleans, another Boyd hotel.

The Stardust had an uncommonly loyal clientele. I met tourists who arrived annually to wager on the Kentucky Derby or Super Bowl, and others who would catch acts like Wayne Newton or Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme in the Stardust Showroom. Steve and Eydie actually played the last show at the Stardust, and I walked into the showroom just behind Frankie Valli and Shecky Greene.

Boyd himself shook hands with anyone who stayed at the hotel that final night and checked out in the morning. A jazz band led a parade out the door, and when we all exited, the hotel’s sound system played John Lennon’s “Nobody Told Me There’d Be Days Like This.” I’m still not sure if that was coincidental or a shrewd choice.

The Desert Inn was a hotel that need not have been razed. It was a glorious place, refined and beautiful and absent any particular theme. It was home to one of the city’s great pool areas, and the Desert Inn Country Club, which included one of the best golf courses anywhere and was the longtime site of the Las Vegas Invitational. The hotel’s appeal was one reason the TV series Vega$ filmed there, and on occasion, you could hear hotel chief Burton Cohen being summoned on the hotel PA in the background.

But the final days of the Desert Inn, which closed August 28, 2000, were inglorious. Typical of hotel closings, guests plucked any Desert Inn artifact they could wrest from the resort, stuffing robes into ice buckets for efficient looting. Bartenders talked of scavengers taking fists full of swizzle sticks and stacks of ashtrays, as people who were apparently housing-challenged dozed in the sports book.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Sahara suffer a similar fate on May 16, its bones picked clean upon closing. It’s sad. I’d heard that there might be a rousing send-off performance by Louis Prima Jr. and the Witnesses, evoking the era of Prima’s father and Keely Smith in the once-mighty Casbar Lounge. But there was no energy, no will, to make that gig happen. It’s better to just let the Sahara die a natural death. She was 59.

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