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June 13, 2011

GONE WITH THE MOB, SAHARA’S FORTUNES DRY UP


David Ellis

FRANK Sinatra and his Rat Pack not only performed there but partied hard there as well, a 5-star Who's Who of show-business took to it's stage, and gang enforcer "Tony the Ant" Spilotro had a last drink at the bar before being lured interstate and "eliminated" over a Las Vegas turf war.

For The Beatles it was their digs when they played the local Convention Centre in 1964, and the casino robbery scene in the original Ocean's Eleven was filmed in its vast 7,900sq metre (nearly two acre) casino.

At its peak the Sahara Hotel & Casino was the "jewel of the desert" at the northern end of the famous Las Vegas Strip, a flamboyant throw-back to another time with its Moroccan onion-dome minaret over the porte-cochere, and a magnet for gambling hopefuls, gawking tourists, celebrities and con-artists… and members of The Mob who seemingly gathered in Las Vegas with impunity.

But last month the Sahara checked-out its last hotel guest, settled its last bets, and after nearly six decades, switched-off the longest-burning casino sign on the Strip.

Now in place of the gamblers and the gawkers are the liquidators, this week beginning the mammoth task of selling-off 600,000 items that once made the Sahara the place in which to be seen rubbing shoulders with the rich, the famous and the maybe-infamous. Or simply to take-in its lavish floor shows, have a harmless flutter on the pokies, or wager your house on the card tables.

The Sahara opened in 1952, just the sixth resort in town at the time. It soon hired jazzman Louis Prima as its late-night lounge act – one of the first such ventures in Vegas, and a marketing brainwave – and equally soon was hanging the star sign outside the dressing rooms of entertainers as diverse as Abbott & Costello, Marlene Dietrich, Jack Benny, Shirley Bassey, Paul Anka, The Platters, The Coasters, Bill Cosby, Sony and Cher, Kay Starr, The Drifters…

The list goes on – page after star-studded page.

Over the years various new owners added extra-somethings to draw the crowds: an additional 27-storey accommodation wing in 1987, a new and even more-flamboyant porte-cochere and minaret in 1997, a bizarre roller-coaster a few years later that would shoot riders above the crowded Vegas Strip, loop them through the middle of the grandiose Sahara sign, rocket them skywards – then return them to the front of the resort via the same route… backwards.

Then came the GFC, the sprawl of Las Vegas with flashier and more-modern resorts and casinos away from the older north-side, America's latest financial woes, and a downturn in tourism to the desert city. The once-glamorous Sahara was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The more-than 1000 now ex-staffers, many of whom worked there much of their lives, have mixed feelings, saying it was loss of the "old atmosphere" that killed the resort.

"When the Rat Pack came the crowds flocked-in after them, to gawk, to play the tables or the slots and eat in the restaurants… they had the place humming," said one former waitress of Sinatra and his buddies, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop.

And Humphrey Bogart for a short time before his death. In fact it was his wife, Lauren Bacall who told the boys after a long, hard night at the Sahara: "Ya look like a rat pack." The name stuck.

"But its all history, and good or bad the Strip will never be the same," another ex-staffer told journalists, recalling such times as when murder-for-hire mobster Bugsy Siegel ran Vegas from his Flamingo Hotel just down the road before being gunned down in 1947.

And so today's liquidators at the Sahara. In the massive gaming area, the 1,720 guest rooms and the multiple restaurants and bars, everything has a price tag on it: furnishings to fine arts, kitchens to chandeliers, the beds of the rich and the famous, a complete cinema, the bar stools that wide-eyed hopefuls propped on... and the gaming tables many a shirt – or more – was  lost on.

Even a picture of a beaming Jack Benny next to an old-fashioned slot machine, above which a sign reads: "Reserved for Jack Benny." 

The sale will run for an estimated two months.

 

 

Photo captions:

 

[] WRONG place at the wrong time: after nearly six decades Las Vegas'

   famous Sahara is no more.

 

[] LAS Vegas Strip – once home to 5-star show business icons, The Rat

   Pack and murder-for-hire mobster Bugsy Siegel.

 

[] WELCOME sign still shines, but visitor numbers are down with the GFC

   and a tightening economy.

 

[] THREE of the Rat Pack – Martin, Davis and Sinatra – put on an impromptu

    show.

(Pictures: Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority.  www.visitlasvegas.com.au)

     

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