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At the end, 59-year-old Sahara isn’t a hint of what it once was


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.

Sahara Announces Closure

The Sahara hotel-casino in Las Vegas on Friday, March 11, 2011, the same day the property made the announcement it would be closing. Launch slideshow »

Sahara History

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

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.

Boomtown: Part Six

In the 1950s Las Vegas began to see a growing trend in resort casinos on the Strip. As the mob began to take over the casino business in town, high class performers billed at inexpensive rates made Las Vegas an entertainment Mecca. More history of Las Vegas »

Map of SLS Las Vegas Hotel & Casino

SLS Las Vegas Hotel & Casino

2535 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas

It was once the home of Jerry Lewis, Buddy Hackett, Johnny Carson and countless other comedy legends. It is where Louis Prima and Keely Smith turned lounge entertainment into an art form, and where Sonny & Cher packed the showroom at the height of their TV fame.

It’s where legendary vocalist and sometimes diplomat Frank Sinatra brought Lewis and Dean Martin together during the 1976 Labor Day Telethon in one of that production’s most enduring moments.

And when The Beatles played two shows at the Las Vegas Convention Center in 1964, this is where they stayed. Photos of the Fab Four yanking the arm of a slot machine are displayed proudly around the hotel.

But today, the marquee attractions at the Sahara are a burrito so big, it can’t be consumed by any mortal in a single sitting and a roller-coaster ride that lasts all of 45 seconds.

The Sahara is closing, stripping Las Vegas of one of its most famous hotel-casinos even as today’s resort of that name only faintly recalls its regal past. The announcement by Sam Nazarian, CEO of SBE Entertainment Group, which owns and operates the Sahara, was leveled Friday.

SBE has owned the hotel for less than four years. The idea was to remake the Sahara in the model of such hip places as the Palms.

Now, the resort will be closed, with May 16 its final day of operations, though Nazarian has said he hopes to reopen the hotel with “a complete renovation and repositioning.”

But whatever the future holds, the Sahara era is ending in Las Vegas.

“For decades, it was thought of as a bookend to the Strip,” author Jack Sheehan says. “It was Sahara to the north and Hacienda to the south.”

Hacienda was reduced to rubble in 1996, making room for Mandalay Bay as the Strip continued its mega-resort explosion. But there is nothing to replace Sahara as the Strip contracts, its northernmost hotel falling dark after 59 years of operation.

It might seem unfathomable to the guests who tote giant coolers stuffed with three days’ worth of provisions to their $39-a-night room that the Sahara was once one of the Strip’s great hotels. But it was, no question, a place that shared haughty status with such groundbreaking properties as Desert Inn, Flamingo, Tropicana, the original MGM Grand (now Bally’s), Frontier, the Dunes and Caesars Palace.

Jerry Lewis, for one, remembers those days.

“My thought is, it’s very sad. I’m very sad for all those people who are losing their jobs. What are they going to do?” Lewis said Friday during a phone conversation. “We are losing what was considered by most of us Las Vegans as one of the trademarks of the city. You can’t discount the Sahara when you think of those Las Vegas trademarks.”

Lewis was one of the major early draws at the Sahara, teaming with Hackett for a highly energized twin bill of comedy at the hotel.

“Buddy and I did two shows a night for the longest time,” Lewis recalled, chuckling. “You couldn’t get a seat. I’d do the first show and be really sweet, and he’d do the second and be really dirty.”

Hackett’s son, Sandy, remembers practically growing up at the hotel.

“It was a cornerstone for my life,” said Hackett, whose “Sandy Hackett’s Rat Pack Show” now headlines at a hotel that has had its own financial struggles, the Riviera. “I can’t believe it will be gone.”

Hackett grew up in Las Vegas during the Sahara’s glory days, when his father helped pepper the entertainment roster with such stars as Carson, Lewis, Rowan & Martin, Flip Wilson, Jack Benny, George Burns, Shecky Greene and David Brenner.

“It was the hottest comedy lineup in the country,” Hackett remembers. “The place was alive every night.”

Hackett remembers Sonny & Cher headlining at the Sahara and jamming the showroom for each performance. He was studying hotel management at UNLV and worked for then-resort owner Del Webb, who also gave Buddy Hackett a largely ceremonial job as resort vice president.

“My dad said, ‘They gave me a big office and a buxom secretary,’ ” Hackett said. “ ‘How much work do you think they expect me to do here?’ ”

When he was about 20 years old, Hackett was told by his supervisor that Cher was swimming in the hotel pool without a bathing cap. At the time, any guest with long hair was required to wear a bathing cap while swimming in a resort pool, but Cher’s hair was to her derrière.

So Hackett gingerly approached Cher -- whom he called “Mrs. Bono” -- and told her she was in violation of state law.

“She told me to f- off,” Hackett said. “I didn’t know what to do.”

He skulked away and called his father on a house phone. Buddy Hackett listened to the story and asked, “How’s business in the showroom?”

“It’s packed,” the younger Hackett said.

“Well, then, you’d better f- off,” the elder Hackett said.

“This is how business was done at the Sahara,” the younger Hackett said, laughing.

But as Sheehan says, the hotel’s importance can be measured far beyond nostalgic anecdotes. In 1956, in a landmark decision, E. Parry Thomas of Valley Bank approved a then-unprecedented loan of $600,000 to Sahara’s original owner, Milton Prell, who had turned Club Bingo into the Moroccan-themed Sahara, as he called it, “The Jewel of the Desert.”

Prell dreamed of adding a 200-room tower to the property, a move akin to the opening of Bellagio decades later.

“The bank’s loan limit was $75,000, so this was unheard of,” said Sheehan, who recently released the book “Forgotten Man” about Circus Circus and (later) Sahara owner Bill Bennett, who decades later attempted to return the property to its haughty status among Strip hotels. “Parry met with Prell and told him that the prevailing interest rate was 4 percent, that he’d have to go outside the bank to finance this loan, and it was going to cost 6 percent.

“The story goes that Prell was sitting in a rocking chair, rocking back and forth, and asked Parry, ‘What do I get?’ ” Sheehan recalled. “And Parry said, ‘You get the loan.’ ”

Prell consented. He also paid back the loan, at 6 percent, and the biggest loan ever to a casino made everyone a winner.

As Sheehan also reminded, the hotel was considered quite refined a generation ago.

Click to enlarge photo

Comedian Cork Proctor in front of the pool at the Sahara on March 11, 2011, the same day the property announced that it would be closing.

“When I got here 35 years ago, the Sahara was still considered a very nice place,” he said. “They were a player in the game. It was an A-minus place for performers to play. The House of Lords (steakhouse) was always in the top five or six places in the city to eat. It doesn’t compare to the restaurants we have today, but back then it was one of the best.”

A man who enjoyed an inside-out view of the hotel in its infancy was Cork Proctor, who took a job as a lifeguard at the Sahara pool in 1955. It was Proctor’s first job after being discharged from the Navy. He would go on to perform as one of the city’s busiest stand-up comics, and he is still performing today at age 79.

Proctor actually performed at the Comedy Stop at Sahara a few months ago, just before the Bob Kephart-owned comedy franchise was forced to close. As the chronically acerbic Proctor joked from the stage, “I worked at this hotel, about 100 feet from here, as a lifeguard in 1955. How’s my career doing?”

On Friday, seated at a bar at the pool area, Proctor said the hotel was indeed one of the Strip’s jewels, especially in its early days.

“I would work, go home after my shift, sleep and come back in three or four hours and watch Louis Prima and Keely Smith, or the Mary Kaye Trio in the lounge,” Proctor said as he looked out over the sparsely populated pool area. “Louis and Keely were really exciting. I have never seen anyone with that kind of rapport. This was a great joint. Every night was New Year’s Eve.”

Walter Cronkite, Mae West, Victor Mature, Ray Bolger and Cary Grant were among the wide array of famous folks Proctor recalls running into in his time as a lifeguard.

As he pointed out one of the tattered cabanas -- which two summers ago went for $120 a day to rent -- Proctor shook his head.

“This place started going downhill when the bean counters came in,” he said. Musing about the hotel’s possible reopening next year, he said, “I don’t know if it’s fixable.”

Lewis was left to recall the hotel’s prime and that night when Sinatra brought Lewis and his partner together once again.

“When Dean walked onstage, it was a most historic moment,” he said. “I will never forget it. It was incredible, and it happened at the Sahara.”


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