Celebrating Sahara

The spectacular SLS Las Vegas has taken its place, but will never take its place in casino lore

Sahara 1/26/2006

The new SLS Las Vegas promises to bring new glitz and glamour to Las Vegas. Its nightclub scene and unique hospitality business are expected to break new ground on the northern end of the Strip. But the SLS is a true reflection of the hotel it replaced, within the same core structure: the Sahara.
    
It was one of the seminal casinos in Las Vegas—one that they actually named major roads after. The Sahara was the sixth resort to open on the Las Vegas Strip when it debuted in 1952 under the ownership of Milton Prell, replacing Club Bingo, which opened in 1947. It was built by Del Webb, who later bought it from Prell. The Strip’s first high-rise tower was built adjacent to the Sahara in 1959 and a second 24-story tower was added in 1963, the tallest building in Las Vegas at the time.
    
From the beginning, the Sahara was all about entertainment. In 1956, the first casino lounge on the Strip opened at the Sahara bringing together legendary performers, jazz musician Louis Prima, singer Keely Smith and sax player Sam Butera. Quickly they became the hottest act in Vegas, and guests flocked to the Sahara to see them.
    
Later, dozens of renowned performers appeared at the Sahara. Just a short list includes such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Lena Horne, Jack Benny, Tony Bennett, Paul Anka, George Carlin, Liza Minnelli, Johnny Carson, Buddy Hackett, Helen O’Connell, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Kay Starr, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Don Rickles, Sonny & Cher and many others. In 1964 the Beatles stayed at the Sahara while performing for two nights at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
    
In the early 1980s, Del Webb sold out to the Archon Corp., operated by longtime gaming executive Paul Lowden. Archon sold the Sahara three years later to another Las Vegas legend, Bill Bennett, one of the founders of Circus Circus. Bennett added a 27-story tower in 1987, and a new porte cochere and pool area in ’97. He owned the property until his death in 2002.
    
Toward the end of its life, ownership tried several things, including a roller coaster—Speed, the Ride—which made a trip around several loops in front of the hotel, and later a NASCAR Café, which failed to garner much attention.
    
When sbe Entertainment CEO and founder Sam Nazarian bought the hotel in 2007, he planned to raze most of it and start from scratch. But the economic recession intervened and made the original buildings of the Sahara something of a rarity: a survivor.
   
SLS Las Vegas includes many tributes to the Sahara if you look closely enough, including the Congo Room, the hotel’s main ballroom that retained its original name, as well as iconic photographs of the place in its glory days.

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