POSTED: 4:17 a.m. HST, May 16, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 7:24 p.m. HST, May 16, 2011
LAS VEGAS >> The Sahara made its name over six decades in Sin City as a playground and stage for some of the biggest names in showbiz — including the Rat Pack, Don Rickles, Johnny Carson, and Sonny & Cher. Elvis Presley played slots here as he filmed "Viva Las Vegas," and the Beatles stayed while in town to perform a concert.
On Monday, the famed hotel and casino's towering, Moroccan-themed marquis sent a final message to patrons: "Thanks for the memories." Padlocks and chains were wrapped around the Sahara's S-shaped handles on the glass doors.
The Sahara's closure came after its owners earlier this year decided it was no longer economically viable to keep it open. It had operated for nearly 59 years on the north side of the Strip, an area that has struggled to keep visitors since the onset of the Great Recession three years ago.
"It's almost like you're at a wake for an old friend," SBE Entertainment's chief executive Sam Nazarian said as he walked the casino floor. "Everyone gets together and really reminisces, so there's a little sentimental value for me."
Before officials shut the doors, visitors snapped pictures, drank morning cocktails and gambled for the final time in the casino. Employees inside hugged, swapped stories and wondered might come next for themselves and the casino.
Casino officials gave away the last of the Sahara's progressive jackpot cash Friday, awarding 63 winners about $500 each. The free drawings started a weekend of people taking one last stroll through the casino.
"It's sentimental to see it close," said Ron Michl, 72, who worked as a light operator and electrician for the Sahara's shows from 1964 to 1980.
"I feel truly bad for these employees," Michl said as he ate an omelet at the casino's NASCAR Cafe.
The casinos owners, SBE Entertainment, have not said what they plan to do with the hotel.
The Sahara is remembered as one of the Rat Pack's favorite haunts — where an emphasis of lounge acts set standards for other joints that followed. The first performance at the casino came from Ray Bolger, who played the scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz," while Johnny Carson promoted his live appearances at the Sahara on his TV show and Don Rickles and Louis Prima were regular acts.
"That revolutionized their careers but it also marked the first time the lounge received that kind of attention," said Michael Green, a College of Southern Nevada professor who co-wrote the book "Las Vegas: A Centennial History."
He added that the Beatles also were scheduled to perform at the Sahara but the demand for tickets was so great that the hotel management "graciously" moved the show to the convention center.
Both Green and Michl said the Sahara was popular with Hollywood stars like John Wayne, Fred MacMurray and Judy Garland.
In its final years, the Sahara advertised round-the-clock $1 blackjack and a 2-pound burrito eating challenge and added a NASCAR theme, doing little to keep up with the times and the newer bigger casinos, like the Bellagio, CityCenter and the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.
A replica of Dale Earnhardt's race car sat inside the Sahara on Monday with a flat tire, dents in its hood and coins thrown inside.
Visitor Misty Davis of Las Vegas came to the Sahara one last time Monday because she had such fond memories of the place: It was the first casino she visited when she was 21, with her husband and mother to celebrate her one-year wedding anniversary.
She became teary as she remembered the casino's friendly atmosphere, she said, and she talked with a dealer who she remembered from years ago.
"It's kind of visiting the past," said Davis, 35, who made sure to buy four decks of souvenir playing cards from the Sahara on its final day.
Unlike other casino closings in Sin City that make way for newer projects, it's not clear what the future of the site will be. Past hotels, including the Stardust, Landmark and Boardwalk, were razed to make way for new developments. SBE Entertainment has not announced its plans.
Nazarian said SBE's development plans have been delayed by the economy, though he remains optimistic for future years.
The Sahara sits near the site of the Fontainebleau Las Vegas, a project that was 70 percent done before it fell into bankruptcy. Nearby, Boyd Gaming Corp.'s Echelon project has been delayed indefinitely.
"It has not kept up with the Joneses and this is a problem for a Las Vegas casino, and frankly, for our community's history," said Green, who said his parents honeymooned at the Sahara in 1964.
"Las Vegas blows up its history," but only part of it," he said.