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September 3, 2015

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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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