I was going to wait and write this after the Sahara in Las Vegas actually closes its doors in a few weeks, but it’s been on my mind and I found alot of really cool photos to share when I was nerdily (sp/even a word?) researching yesterday. Plus, I just read some Trip Advisor reviews, and the poor old Sahara might as well already be closed, from the scathing, bitter reviews I read. With that said, and if it’s not obvious enough already, I’m a sucker for lost causes. I also have a rabid fascination with public buildings in decline, whether they be sports arenas, auditoriums, old shopping centres, or hotels. The twist in the plot of the poor Sahara (I can’t help but insert “poor” ahead of it, for some reason) is that a certain LA hotshot club developer bought it a few years back and promised to reinvent it, while still keeping a tongue-in-cheek nod to its remarkable history. But more on that a little later.
A very brief history lesson on the Sahara: She opened in 1952 and was built by Del Webb, of home development fame. Webb didn’t originally own the Sahara, but he bought out the owner in 1961 so that he could expand the hotel and casino in the way he saw fit from the beginning. This was one year after the Sahara co-starred in Ocean’s 11 alongside the Rat Pack, the Sands, the Riviera, the Flamingo, and the Desert Inn. It’s worth noting that while the Riviera and Flamingo will outlive the Sahara, the Flamingo as it stands now is not in any way, shape, or form the same building it was way back then. (I didn’t know until Wikipedia-ing, I mean, researching this blog that the Riv was the very first high-rise hotel on the Strip when it was built in 1955. That explains why it looks so old and decrepit!) But back to the Sahara–long before the devastating MGM Grand (now Bally’s) fire in 1980, the Sahara caught fire in 1964. Thankfully, no one was killed, though the damage was pegged at over a million dollars. The caption of the below photo from The Las Vegas Sun reads, “Firefighters work to put out a blaze atop the Sahara hotel on Aug. 25, 1964. Built-up grease was the cause of the fire, and the water damage forced the hotel to close the main casino, the Conga Room and the Casbar. The Conga Room was relocated upstairs to keep hotel guests entertained while the other damaged rooms were repaired.”
The Sahara soldiered on after the fire, changing owners several times along the way. But the noteworthy stories, as with most Vegas casinos, involve the cavalcade of celebrities who played the Sahara over the years. This list really puts into perspective the history that the Sahara’s walls could attest to if they could (and/or would, pretty please?) talk: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Tony Bennett, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Buddy Hackett, Louie Prima & Keely Smith (one of the best nightclub acts of all time, so I’ve read), George Burns & Gracie Allen, Johnny Carson, Milton Berle, Robert Goulet, Redd Foxx, Elvis Presley, Charo, Betty Hutton, Paul Anka, George Carlin, Liza Minnelli, Violetta Villas, Shirley Bassey, Della Reese, Liberace, Pat Boone, Shari Lewis & Lamb Chop, Wayland Flowers & Madame, Martha Raye, Connie Francis, Esther Williams, Sonja Henie, Ann-Margret, Joey Bishop, Don Rickles, Abbott & Costello, Bobby Darin, Sonny & Cher, Nancy Sinatra, Jim Nabors, Mae West, Jerry Lewis, Ricky Nelson, Alice Cooper, Tina Turner, Rich Little, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Sid Caesar, Neil Sedaka, Suzanne Somers, Bill Cosby, and, yes, even trashy Roseanne Barr. The Sahara’s opening night entertainment headliner was Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. The Beatles also stayed there shortly before the infamous 1964 fire, and one of the suites at the hotel is known as “The Beatles Suite” to this day.
My personal experience with the Sahara is very limited, mainly because of its out-of-the-way location at the very north end of the Strip. In fact, the one time I really spent any amount of time in there was last summer when some friends and I rode the roller coaster there and drunkenly played some arcade games. (I also remember using the restroom and feeling like I’d stepped back into 1967.) I took several photos there because I knew even then that its days were numbered; sadly, the photos I took are now held captive on Facebook’s slide show feature, or else I’d include them in this blog. Nevertheless, the bar in the middle of the casino is called The Thirsty Camel, and that made me laugh really hard both times I passed it during our short visit that afternoon. The Thirsty Camel was also decorated with B&W Rat Pack photos, which was a bit sad since most of the people drinking at the bar would’ve been my age when the Rat Pack was popular (no kidding).
Digging back in my MySpace photos (yes, I still retain my account for no apparent reason), here’s me w/ the famous Sahara terrorist & camels back in 2006. It was about 110F when this pic was taken, if I remember correctly:
This brings me to the twist in the poor Sahara’s fate, which I’ll make a super-short story of because it’ll be merely a slight footnote in the hotel’s history. Almost exactly three years ago on The Hills, Heidi’s boss at the LA PR firm Bolthouse Productions gave her an assignment to join him in Las Vegas for a joint hotel reorganization venture with the SBE Group. The hotel in focus, it turns out, was the Sahara. Sam Nazarian, CEO of SBE, appeared as himself on The Hills to offer Heidi some bigwig PR job at the newly announced Vegas hybrid branch of SBE & Bolthouse, which was allegedly being opened to revamp the Sahara while simultaneously developing other nightclub projects in town. Here’s where things get murky and fact and fiction blur, because everyone who watched The Hills now knows how incredibly scripted it was. Was there ever a job for Heidi helping redevelop the Sahara? Probably not, and–coincidentally–she didn’t accept the offer. Did Nazarian and SBE buy the Sahara in 2007 with the intent of reinvigorating it? Absolutely, no doubt about it. But then the recession hit, and other casino redevelopment projects around the Sahara are at a standstill even today in 2011 (including Echelon and Ivana Trump’s now-axed condo tower). Nazarian, who refuses to sell the Sahara for whatever reason, announced last month that the casino will close on May 16th. This comes after two of the three hotel towers were shut down in Dec. 2009, citing low demand for rooms due to the recession.
As someone who has hospitality running through my veins–whether I like it or not–it saddens me to think of over 1700 empty rooms at the Sahara giving in to the elements, which is what happens with any historic property that shutters its doors for any length of time. (The textbook example of this heartbreaking scenario is the Ambassador Hotel in LA, which was finally torn down after renovation plans fell through several times once the hotel closed in 1989. The Statler Hilton in Dallas is the exception to the rule, as it’s miraculously still standing even though it’s chock-full of asbestos.) Sure, the Sahara has honestly evolved into somewhat of a dump, but it’s always shocking to see a once groundbreaking, beloved property selling rooms on Twitter for $1/night (I couldn’t make that up; even their rack rate has dropped to $30/night on most nights). Not to mention all the long-time employees who now will either be forced into retirement, or hold out hope that another casino in town will have a job opening. (SBE has some sort of marketing tie-in with MGM casinos, so Nazarian has promised to get most of his employees on at MGM properties in some capacity.) I’m a bit regretful now that I didn’t hang out at the Sahara a little while longer last summer. But I’m glad I got the chance to go while it was still open and alive. I don’t have a poignant blog ending in mind, so I’ll end with a hodge podge of Sahara photos. After all, it’s always easier to look back on the happier times when one is privy to a demise in progress.