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November 26, 2014

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Brian Greenspun: Where I Stand:

Recalling Sahara’s days of splendor

Sahara Archive Photos

Elizabeth Taylor and her son Michael Wilding at the Sahara on March 7, 1956. Launch slideshow »

The Sahara opened its doors on Oct. 7, 1952.

On the morning of Oct. 8, 1952, my father, Hank Greenspun, published his “Where I Stand” column heralding the opening of the fabulous Sahara. It started this way:

“Ray Bolger (the scarecrow in ‘The Wizard of Oz’) walked out on the stage at the Sahara Hotel last night and said, ‘a few years ago, nothing but desert, all of a sudden, bingo.’

“Ray’s description of the Sahara’s ‘first night’ is typical of all the openings of the Strip hotels. Tommy Hull was at ringside in the party with Gus Greenbaum. I can imagine the thoughts which must have gone through Tommy’s head as he watched the unveiling of Las Vegas’ newest and most beautiful hotel.

“Tommy is the chap who had the foresight which gave the Strip its start about 12 years ago when he built El Rancho Vegas.”

My father’s hasty reaction to the Sahara opening — he had to write it sometime between 10 o’clock that night and 11:15 when the Las Vegas Sun went to press — was typical of the way Las Vegans reacted to the opening of yet another magnificent example of what would be the building blocks for the Entertainment Capital of the World.

It was also Hank’s way of congratulating his dear friend, Milton Prell, the man whose vision conceived and created the Sahara, for forging the way of what was still a very small town yearning to be big.

That was almost 60 years ago, and no one in Las Vegas today can quarrel with the fact that what men such as Milton Prell, Tommy Hull, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Wilbur Clark dreamed of has come to pass 100 times over. Yes, each era has had its share of visionaries and builders. You can go up and down the Strip and see the results of what their imaginations have wrought.

But, in those early days when dreams were all they had because money was short and customers were on the if-come, folks who stepped up with their money and risked all they had were the real pioneers of this prime example of a sleepy Western town made good. Real good.

As a young boy, I remember the Sahara, not for its opulence and its adult-oriented entertainment options. What I remember is riding my bike up what seemed like an unending hill that was San Francisco Avenue on its way to meet the Los Angeles Highway. We actually hunted frogs in a marsh across the street. Today, we call that L.A. highway the famed Strip! And San Francisco Avenue? That’s Sahara Avenue now.

That move — the changing of street names — started a trend. How do you think Desert Inn Road got its name? Flamingo Road? And what happened to Bond Road, which was not much more than dirt in the early days where it intersected the Los Angeles Highway? Try Tropicana Avenue, which fronts one of the last original Strip beauties to still exist. And exist it does because what Alex Yemenidjian has been doing to that place the past couple of years is not much short of outstanding. But that is a story for another day.

I remember growing up in small-town Las Vegas where the Sahara represented the best that man could accomplish in the hospitality world. Whether it was showstopping entertainers who headlined the Congo Room — Johnny Carson, Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles, Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy, Liberace, George Burns and a young Sammy Davis Jr. — or the culinary masterpieces of the day — Don the Beachcomber and House of Lords — or the aesthetic beauty of grass around a beautiful swimming pool, the Sahara had it all.

But most of all, and here is where I prove just how shallow I really am, it was the hot fudge banana royale sundaes served in the coffee shop that made the Sahara not only my favorite but also the favorite of most of us who grew up here and who appreciated a king-size treat now and then.

I don’t know how they did it but they managed to serve the most incredible ice cream concoctions at unbelievably low prices. Actually, I know how they did it because it was the good old days, what we would call B.A., before accountants.

Speaking of the time before accountants, I remember when people who worked in the gaming business dreamed of the day when they would become a vice president of the Sahara. What that really meant was that they got a new briefcase. The title came with the right to enter the “counting room.” Can you guess what the briefcases were for?

I also remember the Pan Room at the Sahara. That is where my mother would go to play her version of cards. That’s also where she and my father met and became lifelong friends with Eddie Escobedo. Eddie tended bar in the early days and later proved to the entire city that the American dream was alive and could be achieved by anyone willing to work hard enough.

The days under Del Webb’s ownership brought great growth to the Sahara, which kept up with the rest of Las Vegas as it found its niche somewhere near the top of the tourism world. The Sahara name expanded northward to Lake Tahoe, setting new standards for that part of the gambling world.

In the early 1970s, Webb’s company was led by Gen. Ed Nigro, who tried to restore the hotel to greatness but whose untimely death short-circuited that effort. Years later, the general’s son and my friend, Edward M. Nigro, took the job and put the Sahara back on the map.

I remember those days well because after Webb died, his company was in turmoil. A man named Frank Sinatra joined Mickey Rudin and a Las Vegas publisher named Hank Greenspun in a proxy stock fight to gain control of the Webb company so they could, once again, put the Sahara brand back where it belonged.

That effort didn’t succeed and the rest is history. Despite a valiant attempt by Bill Bennett to reclaim its former status, the die was cast. The Strip had moved southward and the action was no longer anywhere close to Sahara Avenue.

It was just a matter of time when its current owner, Sam Nazarian, would admit defeat. The Sahara will close its doors Monday, ending what has been the longest-running show on the Strip. What started with Ray Bolger yelling out “bingo” will crap out in just a few hours.

For those of you who want to read and learn so much more about the Sahara and its legendary life, read the Las Vegas Sun on Monday and go to LasVegasSun.com for a real treat. We have reprinted some of my dad’s columns, which are worth the read all by themselves.

What remains, of course, is to hear Sam’s plans for what comes next. He is a man of considerable entrepreneurial talent, so, once the economy gets better in Southern Nevada, it is not inconceivable that the ground on which stands one of the great monuments to Las Vegas’ early and golden years will once again give way to a new vision, a new dream. The next leg of Las Vegas’ journey forward.

I have missed the Sahara for a very long time.

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.

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  1. Brian,
    Thanks for some good history and wonderful pics of the hotel and stars who walked the hallways. I am looking forward to a good read on Monday.

  2. A shopping Center, mini hotel 250 rooms and casino?

    We should have growth caps on development, so there would not be a glut of housing and casinos.

  3. Brian, a lovely reminiscence. I spent many an evening in the Caravan Room Coffee Shop with that same amazing sundae. And my dad was your mom's dealer... Pan dealer that is! For 10 years, Barbara took her regular seat at "Irish" Figler's table. I can only imagine the decade of conversations with the Pan ladies and my father! Such a shame -- they've both passed on now (My dad left on December 25, 2008 at 90). Las Vegas will never lose its "town" nature no matter how much of a major urban city we become. So many stories. So unique a place.