Requiem for (a Vegas) Methuselah

It’s pretty rare for a Strip casino to get knocked out. Sure, more than a few have taken the standing eight count of bankruptcy, but usually, no matter how far in debt a casino gets, it produces enough cash flow that the lenders would rather see it open than closed.

The Sahara’s scheduled May closure, however, is as bad as it gets. Not only has the current owners’ business model gone belly-up; they can’t persuade anyone else to take the casino off their hands, make a few changes, and hopefully ride out the storm.

By a strange coincidence, I just talked about the Sahara in my GAM 495: History of Casinos class, so its history is fresh in my memory.

The property opened as the Club Bingo, a 300-seat bingo parlor, on July 24, 1947. To put it in perspective, the first Strip resort, the El Rancho Vegas, had been open six years (and was right across what was then called the “Los Angeles Highway”). Further south, the Last Frontier was just starting to assemble the Last Frontier Village, and the Flamingo was barely a half-year old. Local builder Marion Hicks was putting together the Thunderbird with a little help from “the Big Juice” Clifford Jones (then the state’s Lt. Governor) and, it was later learned, Meyer Lansky.

When the Club Bingo was remodeled, expanded, and rebranded as the Sahara in 1952, it was the first Vegas rebirth. In the past few years we’ve seen the San Remo get some plastic surgery and re-emerge as Hooters, and the Aladdin turn into Planet Hollywood. The Sahara was there first.

So the Sahara officially opened, as the Sahara, on October 7, 1952. The Desert Inn had opened a few months earlier, and Moe Dalitz and Allard Roen were just starting to kick around the idea of a golf course. Jake Freedman and Jack Entratter were watching the Sands take shape; it would open that December. People were just starting to call the stretch of road with all that construction “the Strip” instead of “Highway 91.”

And the Sahara saw booms and busts, right from the start. It did so well that it added rooms a year after its opening When several casinos declared bankruptcy in the aftermath of 1955’s over-expansive boom, the Sahara soldiered on. Not every casino made it out of that slump intact, but the Sahara did.

The 1960s might have been the golden age of the Sahara. For the price of a drink, Don Rickles would insult you in the Casbar Lounge. But the story beneath the surface was even more interesting. In 1961, Del Webb acquired the casino from Milton Prell and his partners, becoming the first publicly-traded corporation to own a Nevada casino. Because of the restrictive gaming ownership laws of the time, they had to create a series of shell operating companies, but this was a real milestone.

Architect Martin Stern, Jr., raised the Sahara’s profile with two tower expansions in the early 1960s, putting the Sahara at the cutting edge of casino resort design. He applied some of the lessons he learned there in the iconic Sands tower and the International (1969) and original MGM Grand (1973).

In its later years, the Sahara coasted along, drifting further into the value-oriented market, but filling an important niche in Las Vegas nonetheless. The casino’s closing, no matter how you try to spin it, is awful news and a real loss to the city.

Author: Dave

Director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and author of several books, including Roll the Bones: The History of Gaming. Also Gaming and Hospitality editor for Vegas Seven magazine.

3 thoughts on “Requiem for (a Vegas) Methuselah”

  1. I have to admit I don’t have in depth knowledge of Mr. Nazarian, his family and wealth, but based on what I’ve read I’m guessing he has gotten good offers for the Sahara in today’s market. From what I can tell his business empire is focused on South Florida, Southern California and Southern Nevada and made massive acquisions after 2004 at peak and near peak prices. I cannot help but think he is in a huge cash-flow bind and is trying ot hold out for an unrealistic price for the Sahara.

    I will continue to trumpet that Boyd Gaming is the best buyer for the Sahara. They have cash, or borrowing capacity, on hand, have an older client base and been horribly critized for not having a Strip presence since they imploded the Stardust.

  2. I think it is possible that Penn National Gaming makes an offer for the Sahara. They made an offer of $145 million dollars for the Fontainebleau (which is next door) and Carl Icahn outbid them for that. They bought M Resort for $230 million dollars which is about 10 miles south of Mandalay Bay. It is possible that Penn might offer a low bid (say around $150 million dollars) to buy the Sahara. Then Penn could have 2 casinos in Las Vegas at a total cost of $380 million dollars.

  3. Very sad news indeed. In my current gaming class at UNR we are discussing the history of the mob in Las Vegas and the birth of the Las Vegas Strip. It is very unfortunate that such an iconic property will be no more. Do you think that the Sahara is headed for dust or do you think they will be able to secure a buyer and re-open when the recession starts to let up?

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