U.S. News

Las Vegas' once-glamorous Sahara hotel-casino closes

LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Dozens of slot machines fell silent, and announcers ushered crowds of nostalgic gamblers to the exits on Monday as the Sahara hotel and casino, one of oldest landmarks on the Las Vegas Strip, closed its doors to the public.

The Sahara, which opened in 1952 and was once a favorite venue for Frank Sinatra and other members of the super-hip team of stars known as the “Rat Pack,” was officially shuttered at 2 p.m. local time by SBE Entertainment Group, which owns and operates the property.

SBE chief executive Sam Nazarian, who acquired the Sahara in 2007, has not revealed his plans for the property. But after the last of his guests had left, Nazarian stuck his head out of the main entrance and shouted, “Be back soon! Thanks for 59 years.” He left behind a small sign with the same message.

Nazarian said previously that continued operation of the Sahara in its current form was no longer economically viable. But he has hinted at the possibility of some day reopening the 1,750-room hotel, distinguished for its Moroccan architectural motifs and brightly lit entrance capped by an onion dome.

On Monday, he said the north end of the Vegas Strip, where the Sahara is located, “is where the future is.”

The Sahara was only the sixth resort and casino to open on the Strip and is one of just three still standing from the post-World War II era, along with the Flamingo and Riviera.

In its heyday, the Sahara was renowned for its glamour and the mix of big-name entertainers it attracted, most notably the “Rat Pack” team of Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford.

Others among its roster of celebrity guests and performers included Johnny Carson, Clint Eastwood, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, comedian Don Rickles and even the Beatles.

While the Sahara’s popularity and luster waned over the years, it maintained a strong sentimental grip on generations of visitors for whom it personified Las Vegas’ glory days as a desert gambling and entertainment capital.

“This is a grieving process,” said Susan Krawczyk, 53, a native of Milwaukee, who recalled staying at the Sahara during her visit to Vegas in 1976.

“The first time you come to Vegas, it stays with you forever,” she said wistfully. “It’s like your first boyfriend or your first car.”

Peter Villalobos, 56, a room clerk at the Sahara since 1977, stood around saying goodbye to co-workers as clusters of guests wrapped up their last hands of cards or cashed in chips, while the public address system blared announcements urging everyone to make their way to the exits.

Villalobos recounted being invited backstage by Ringo Starr after a performance 22 years ago and hanging out with the former Beatle.

“The stars were nicer then,” he said. “Now they’re a little more stand-offish, probably because of the media.”

Asked about his own plans, Villalobos said, “I’m going to retire and finally finish some work around the house.” Then, his eyes welling with tears, he added, “I’ll miss it. It’s been a great run.”

(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Greg McCune)

This story corrects the occupation in paragraph 12 from restroom clerk to room clerk