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Once ‘jewel of the desert,’ Sahara entertains last weekend guests before closing

Sahara's Last Weekend

Leila Navidi

The Sahara hotel-casino in Las Vegas Thursday, May 12, 2011.

Sahara's Last Weekend

At the front desk of the Sahara hotel-casino in Las Vegas Thursday, May 12, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Sahara Archive Photos

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

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The Sahara took its first bow after transforming a struggling bingo parlor into a Moroccan-themed resort filled with pretend camels, nomads and African warriors and genuine Hollywood glitz.

It embraced young adulthood as the Strip’s tallest occupant under the guidance of a company whose leader owned the New York Yankees when Mickey Mantle roamed center field.

The hotel endured midlife crises, including fires, an extortion plot and a gamblers’ credit scam, but somehow survived. It once appeared the Sahara would become a respected senior citizen.

But it was outmaneuvered by opulent youngsters with megaresort credentials, causing terminal illness. Its demise will come Monday at age 58.

The Sahara’s creation owed itself to random circumstance. Energetic entrepreneur Milton Prell, a former jewelry salesman who ran a bingo parlor in Butte, Mont., planned a road trip in the mid-1940s to Southern California. As related by then Sun columnist Al Cahlan in 1965, the purpose was to get medical treatment for his ailing wife, Debbie. When the couple’s car broke down in Las Vegas, Debbie spotted an unfinished building she said “would make a wonderful spot for a bingo parlor.”

Prell, a kind, jovial man backed by Oregon gamblers, opened the property as Club Bingo in 1947 and ran it for five years before realizing it would be better if his guests could stay overnight.

His solution was to create a “jewel of the desert,” which he did on Oct. 7, 1952, when the Sahara opened a 240-room, two-story hotel on the former Club Bingo property. As the sixth hotel on the Strip, the Sahara’s contribution to Las Vegas’ resort industry equaled the role the Gemini astronauts played in America’s space program.

The opening came while Dwight Eisenhower was campaigning for his first term in the White House, the Korean War was in full swing and Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy was preparing to bring his rally cry against Communism to Las Vegas.

Built on 20 acres for $5 million, the hotel was constructed by Del Webb Construction of Phoenix, whose namesake initially was a minority owner. Performers worked the Congo Room supper club, where the plants and murals gave the sharply dressed guests a jungle feel. There was also the Casbar Lounge and the Caravan Room coffee shop. One had to pass faux camels to enter the casino. Even the lettering used to spell Sahara was exotic.

Opening-night entertainers included entertainer Ray Bolger, the famed scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz.” One could spot at the Olympic-sized swimming pool the likes of screen legends Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.

When guests called a hotel operator, one of the “Hello Girls” was Phyllis Ferrera Hoggatt, who worked Sahara’s phones from 1957 through 1961. “Hotel Sahara, your order, please,” is what she was instructed to say. One frequent caller was song-and-dance man Donald O’Connor, who tipped the operators $5 for announcing calls in the casino for the likes of “Miss Artichoke and Miss Anchovy” just so he could generate laughter among his buddies.

Hoggatt’s favorite story was the time she almost crashed into Elvis Presley’s pink Cadillac in the hotel parking lot while driving with her boss.

“I was so stunned I did not know what to say so I blurted out, ‘we’re telephone operators, will you come to our office?’ ” she said. “He gave me a big wink and said ‘you bet I will, honey.’ ” Presley showed up when she wasn’t at work but autographed a large photo of himself in a gold lamé suit that hung on the operators’ office door.

Spencer Tracy, Edward G. Robinson, Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne, Eddy Arnold, Mae West, George Burns and Jack Benny stayed at the Sahara, as did members of the Frank Sinatra-led Rat Pack, who filmed scenes from the 1960 resort heist film “Ocean’s 11” at the Sahara. Hardworking band leader Louis Prima and his wife, singer Keely Smith, entertained there.

But behind the scenes, there were anecdotes that members of the Chicago mob were skimming from the Sahara.

That didn’t stop Del Webb Corp., whose namesake also owned the Yankees, from acquiring the Sahara in 1961 as part of a $100 million merger with other casinos. The acquisition represented the first time a publicly traded corporation owned Las Vegas gaming establishments.

Del Webb: A Man. A Company,” a biography authorized by the company, described the arrangement as complicated by a state law that restricted gaming licenses to carefully investigated individuals. The law would have required every Del Webb shareholder to be licensed. Del Webb as “landlord” arranged instead to have Sahara’s gaming license held by “tenant” Consolidated Casinos, initially owned by gaming licensees Prell, Del Webb executive L.C. Jacobson and Oregon gambler Alfred Winter. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that Nevada law allowed corporate ownership of casinos without requiring licensing of all shareholders.

The significance of Del Webb’s acquisition is that it led to use of legitimate financing for the city’s resorts, according to longtime developer and gaming executive Ed Nigro, who was the Sahara’s executive vice president and managing director from 1975 to 1978 and later ran Del Webb’s statewide gaming operations.

“In those days finding money to build a casino was extremely difficult,” Nigro said. “Many of the casinos had individual owners who borrowed money from the Teamsters Union pension fund and some of the financing was illegal. It was the Sahara that triggered the public companies’ interest in casinos.”

The Sahara in 1963 opened a 24-story tower to go with the 14-floor addition opened in 1959, making the hotel the tallest on the Strip. Much of its architecture was credited to Martin Stern Jr., who helped change the face of the Strip from low-level properties to imposing giants.

Stars such as Liza Minnelli, Don Rickles and Bill Cosby kept coming in the 1960s. “The Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson parlayed his popular appearances at the Sahara into a lucrative contract extension at NBC. One of the hotel’s biggest coups, though, was when it paid the Beatles $25,000 in 1964 to play two shows at the Las Vegas Convention Center and stay at the resort.

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.

John Romero, the Sahara’s marketing director from 1962 to 1979, recalled that other Strip hotels weren’t interested in the Fab Four. Because the hotel’s showroom seated only 600, the decision was made to use the 8,200-seat convention hall. Practically every Sahara client demanded tickets for their daughters.

“I was on stage next to Ringo (Starr) and it was scary, to tell you the truth,” Romero said. “I hired 20 bodybuilders from various sports clubs in Las Vegas to stand in front of the stage but the girls rushed the stage anyway. They would run down the aisles and launch themselves like javelins. The bodybuilders would catch them in midair and turn them over to police.”

The marketing folks at the Sahara, Romero said, were also the first in town to send letters to customers reminding them of deals on rooms and shows, and hold ticket drawings for $100,000 in what was dubbed a “Super Sahara Celebration.” The Sahara was also among the first hotels to find ways to fill rooms during traditionally sluggish December, such as hosting parties for airlines and their employees.

“The Sahara was dominant in those days because we had a great team with a lot of ideas,” Romero said. “We all prided ourselves on the ability to make something out of nothing.”

The Sahara also built the 50,000-square-foot “Sahara Space Center,” which opened as the nation’s largest convention hall. It latched onto the Tiki fad with a popular Don the Beachcomber restaurant and served some of the best steaks in town at the House of Lords.

Don the Beachcomber’s first female hostess in 1963 was Ruth Maestas, who recalled that prominent local residents who were regular customers used chopsticks that were stored in their personalized bamboo containers at the restaurant. She and her late husband, Louie “the Blade,” would later own the hotel barbershop and claim among their clients singer Robert Goulet, comedian Buddy Hackett and jazz drummer Buddy Rich.

“Everyone who came to Vegas in those days had their pictures taken with the camels,” Maestas said. “It was a whole different world back then. All the employees watched over each other. Everybody knew everybody. We had a code that you never said anything bad about other hotels. One thing that stuck out about the Sahara is how they always tried to please everybody. They were also very loyal to their employees.”

Click to enlarge photo

Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis at the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon at the Sahara on Sept. 5, 1976.

But the hotel also had setbacks, including a 1964 fire that caused $1 million in damage to the casino, showroom and executive offices, and a 1966 flame that caused three firefighters and 13 guests to be hospitalized and 400 other guests to be evacuated. There was also the 1967 caper that led Lonnie Nall and Jack Keeney to receive five-year prison sentences after they were convicted of plotting to plant a homemade bomb in a hotel room to extort $75,000 from Del Webb. The bomb was pulled from a wall and disassembled outside.

Part of what fueled the Sahara’s success on the north end of the Strip in the 1960s was ease of access to Interstate 15 and McCarran International Airport. Former keno runner Judy Santelman, who used her job at the hotel in the late 1960s to help pay for college, memorized the numbers her regular customers played and recalled that many showered her and her colleagues with fruit baskets and candy.

“It was less corporate back then, a lot more oriented toward the customer,” Santelman said. “When you went to a show you dressed up and you would get a gift or favor, like a cigarette lighter. You never saw anyone in jeans and flip flops.”

UNLV history professor Eugene Moehring pegged the beginning of the end for the Sahara as early as 1966, when the glamorous Caesars Palace opened to the south and stole many of Sahara’s high rollers.

“The heyday of the Sahara was from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s and that’s it,” Moehring said. “It helped establish Las Vegas as a major resort city after World War II. But its contributions to Las Vegas shifted as the years went by. By the early 1970s it was getting to be old. One problem is that it just didn’t have the money to keep up with the times.”

Observers say Sahara’s downfall accelerated after retired Air Force Gen. Ed Nigro, who ran the hotel and was Nigro’s father, died in 1973 and Del Webb passed away the following year, creating a leadership gap in the company.

The Sahara hung tough, though, and in the 1970s became the setting for the annual Labor Day muscular dystrophy telethons hosted by comedian Jerry Lewis. Popular acts such as Tony Bennett and Sonny and Cher still performed there.

The hotel hosted tournaments for professional male and female golfers and also was the first to run blackjack tournaments.

DJ Barrett, who met her husband, the late Bob Miller, at the Sahara when he was a pit boss and she was a pit clerk in the early 1970s, said he kept a little black book with the names, credit limits and physical characteristics of all his regular customers.

Click to enlarge photo

Exterior of the Sahara Hotel at dusk 02/15/71

“The men were gentlemen and the women were ladies,” Barrett said. “The bosses were nice. Everybody was better mannered, and everybody was on a first-name basis. There was no back stabbing. That whole lifestyle is gone.”

The Sahara and its sister properties in Nevada generated profits through 1978, but the younger Nigro departed soon thereafter when Del Webb’s board turned down his request to make major upgrades at the Sahara. Instead, the company made forays into Reno and Atlantic City that proved financially disastrous. Not only did the company get stuck paying nearly 24 percent interest on $150 million in loans, but it also got rocked by the nation’s recession in the early 1980s, Nigro said.

“Del Webb Corp. lost its vision,” Nigro said. “The Sahara just got passed by.”

The company’s financial meltdown was preceded by embarrassing publicity. New Jersey regulators initially denied the company’s request for a gaming license in that state based on reports that the Sahara and a sister property allowed New Jersey gamblers to engage in a credit scam in 1979 that cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. Regulators also said the company provided prostitutes to high rollers in Nevada for more than a decade.

A nasty labor dispute also resulted in 13 fired dealers winning a National Labor Relations Board ruling against the hotel that included nearly two years of back pay.

Del Webb sold the Sahara in 1982 for $50 million to former casino musical director and Hacienda Hotel owner Paul Lowden and wife Sue Lowden, who would leave her career as a television newscaster and later become a politician.

The Lowdens attempted to bring zip to the property by erecting a 26-story tower in 1988 that helped the Sahara crack the 1,500-room barrier and adding a new race and sports book. But after fighting efforts by the Culinary Union to extend its collective bargaining contract at the resort, making the Sahara the last holdout on the Strip, they sold the hotel in 1995 to former Circus Circus Enterprises Chairman Bill Bennett for $193 million in cash and land.

Bennett looked to cash in on the resort industry’s brief attempt to convert Las Vegas into a family destination fit for kids by weaving a roller coaster throughout the property. He also took advantage of the nation’s surging interest in motor sports by installing the Sahara Speedworld racing simulator and opening the NASCAR Cafe. And his $100 million renovation project included a snazzy Moroccan-themed entrance.

But Bennett closed its convention hall, which stunted business traffic. And Moehring said Bennett’s attempt to mesh “Arabs with NASCAR” smacked of desperation and ultimately didn’t work. By the time Bennett died in 2002, Moehring said the Sahara had gone from a classy “carpet joint” in its formative years to a “grind joint” that attracted mostly low rollers from the 1990s forward.

Bennett’s family sold the Sahara in 2007 for an estimated $300 million to $400 million to SBE Entertainment Group, led by CEO Sam Nazarian, whose company operates exclusive nightclubs in Los Angeles. But Nazarian, who dreams of revolutionizing night life, was forced to put those plans on hold when the economy crashed.

In the end, even dollar blackjack didn’t generate enough foot traffic to maintain Sahara’s relevance. The property, which had grown to 1,720 rooms housed in the Alexandria, Tangiers and Tunis towers, and its caravan of 1,050 employees will pass quietly into the desert night.

“To have the camels leave the Strip I can’t believe it,” Maestas said. “It just breaks my heart.”

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