Thursday, March 21, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
Gaming magnate William Bennett is using a wrecking ball to launch a new era in the storied history of the Sahara hotel-casino.
A $65 million renovation project began Wednesday as construction workers started razing poolside bungalows that once housed some of the Strip's biggest stars, including the Beatles, George Burns, Ann-Margret and Tony Bennett.
"Today marks the beginning of the era in which Sahara will once again reign as a major player in the Las Vegas gaming and entertainment industry," Bennett said. "This venture retains the glamour and style that established the Sahara as an icon of the old Las Vegas, while updating its image and making it a player in the new age of mega-resorts."
The renovation, funded entirely by Bennett and his company's cash flow, is aimed at drawing midlevel gamblers to the resort, according to Scott Menke, director of hotel operations.
"We think this is a new and upcoming four corners of the Strip," said Menke. He cited Stratosphere Corp.'s opening next month of a 1,149-foot tower and casino complex north of the Sahara and recent announcements regarding development of the closed El Rancho resort just south of it.
Menke acknowledged that Bennett, who bought the Sahara last year for $193 million, also plans to develop a 40-acre site just west of the Strip but that no definitive plans have been made.
"Traditionally, Mr. Bennett likes to move quickly," he said. "But right now, we're concentrating on the Sahara renovation."
When it's completed next January, the renovation will transform the Sahara into a Moroccan-themed resort, triple casino space to 75,000 square feet and add 2,000 covered parking spaces.
The Sahara's existing 1,750 rooms and lobbies will be redecorated in a Moroccan motif, two new restaurants and an 850-seat buffet will be added and the pool area will be transformed into a lushly landscaped area.
Moroccan-style arches and ornaments will adorn the hotel towers and all other outdoor structures, and a 160-foot minaret-topped marquee will replace the current Sahara sign.
Bennett plans to add 1,300 slot machines and a new sports book in the first phase of the Sahara's remaking. The second phase, scheduled to begin next January, will add 1,300 rooms, raising the resort's total to more than 3,000. The cost of the second phase isn't known.