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THE MOVABLE BUFFET

Sweeping up the Stardust

July 02, 2006|Richard Abowitz | Special to The Times

WITH its "Jetsons"-like, Space Age look, the Stardust was not meant to grow old. When it opened July 2, 1958, it had more rooms (over 1,000) than any other hotel in the country, and its pool was the largest in Nevada.

Now, as it hits what is sure to be its final anniversary (a closing date hasn't been announced, but room reservations are not being accepted after Nov. 1), the archaic Stardust is among the smallest resorts on the Strip. So the announcement this year of its closing caught no one by surprise.

In its place, owner Boyd Gaming intends to open Echelon Place in 2010: a mixed-use project to encompass four hotels amounting to 5,300 rooms.

"I am going to be sad, but I am also going to be happy," says Denny Onofrio, 62, a bartender at the Stardust since 1979. "I think it is time."

That impression was bolstered by a recent visit to the Stardust. The hallway to my room reeked of ancient ventilation and ammonia -- and I was staying in the 32-story tower that opened in 1991. Like most classic Vegas, the Stardust is more a property than a landmark. It hasn't remained chastely unchanged during its 48 years but has moved through a kaleidoscope of Las Vegas history.

At one time or another, the 62-acre property has hosted a golf course, RV park, tennis courts, a bus terminal, a motor racetrack, a rodeo arena and a drive-in movie theater. The oldest part of the current casino was actually once the building next door, the Royal Nevada Casino, which was converted to Stardust guest rooms in 1959. Last weekend it was pretty busy, attracting a budget-conscious and older crowd.

In the local lore, the Stardust will always be associated with the mob's days in Vegas, thanks to the movie "Casino." Of course, "Casino" was a Hollywood take. Therefore Sam "Ace" Rothstein is a Robert DeNiro character and not strictly a portrayal of Stardust boss Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal. But most locals and historians agree the movie caught the spirit of the times.

"In the movie 'Casino' it was fictionalized as the Tangiers. But organized crime buffs are aware that it was about the Stardust," says Dennis N. Griffin, whose newly published "The Battle for Las Vegas: The Law vs. the Mob" offers the most recent nonfiction account of that period. In terms of more lasting innovation, Rosenthal is credited with being the first, in 1975, to put a race and sports book inside a Las Vegas casino.

"Lefty would walk around the hotel all dapper and dressed well. Even in the daytime he always had beautiful showgirls with him in gowns," Onofrio recalls.

But the Stardust has more than alleged wiseguys in its history. This was also the period that saw Siegfried & Roy ascend to a city institution as part of the Stardust's long-running "Lido de Paris" (a show that played for decades at the property, closing in 1991).

"I worked the bar in the showroom for 'Lido de Paris' in the early '80s, which had Siegfried & Roy," recalls Onofrio cheerfully as he finishes his shift. "Two shows a night, sold out every night with three shows on Saturday and never an empty seat, never. Nobody packed them in like 'Lido de Paris,' and when Siegfried & Roy came on for the last 30 minutes they were the knockout punch.... There was nothing south of us. No TI. No Mirage. We were called Center Strip."

Of course, when Mirage opened in 1989 with Siegfried & Roy as headliners, the era of the mega-resorts had begun.

THE Stardust eventually became a sort of last stand of Vegas' old-guard entertainment on the Strip, signing Wayne Newton as a headliner in 1999. The Wayner no longer performs there, but Don Rickles does. It looks like the final performers at the Stardust, before the resort shutters, will be Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme, who are scheduled to appear at the end of October.

By this time, the Stardust is run by a corporation as well, and to bell captain Tom McEwen, these last years under Boyd Gaming have been the best years to be employed here. Mc-

Ewen, 69, is in a position to know, since he has worked at the Stardust since the year it opened.

"I watched the Stardust being built as I went to high school. They opened Stardust with $8-a-night rates," says McEwen, a formal man with a serious demeanor. "There were no televisions and no telephones in the rooms. We used to have a lot of power failures back then, and so they put a candle in each room."

It wasn't until 1968 that the famous Stardust electric sign was completed out front. "The Dunes was building their sign, and it was a larger sign," McEwen remembers. "So the Stardust put a peak of stars on top to make it be higher."

If nothing else, the Stardust follows the Dunes into extinction; that spirit of competition on the Strip has not changed.

Asked to summarize the casino's legacy, McEwen offers a thoroughly unsentimental, typically local response: "I raised two kids and bought a home." This, of course, will be true of the thousands of employees who will wind up at Echelon Place, and in that sense, the Stardust legacy will go on.

*

For more on what's happening on and off the Strip, see latimes.com/movablebuffet.

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