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Sun sets on the Sahara in Vegas

After 59 years, the hotel and casino closes its doors Monday, another victim of the recession that has brutalized the city's tourism industry.

May 16, 2011|By Stephen Ceasar, Los Angeles Times
  • In its past, the Sahara had been a hangout for the Rat Pack, Elvis Presley and the Beatles.
In its past, the Sahara had been a hangout for the Rat Pack, Elvis Presley… (Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from Las Vegas — As a valet opened her car door, Martha Gallardo stepped out, glanced up and caught a gleam of afternoon sunlight bouncing off the iconic Sahara sign above her.

"I've never been here, but it's beautiful," she told the valet. "It's a shame that it's closing."

Gallardo, of Henderson, Nev., said she wanted to see the venerable casino and pay her respects before it vanished.

The Moroccan-themed hotel and casino closes Monday, ending a 59-year run. Once a hangout for Elvis Presley and the Beatles, the resort was stricken in recent years by the recession.

In its heyday, the Sahara was a favorite haunt of the Frank Sinatra-led Rat Pack, featuring Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., who also performed there. The resort even had a cameo in the original "Ocean's Eleven" movie.

In 2007, Los Angeles nightclub impresario Sam Nazarian took over and vowed to reinvigorate the property. But in March, his company, SBE Entertainment, announced that continuing business was "no longer economically viable."

More than 1,000 employees will lose their jobs, including Rick Fidone, a valet who has worked at the Sahara for five years.

"I've got nothing lined up," said Fidone, 53. "And I've looked all over — hold on."

He ran off to retrieve a guest's SUV.

Returning, breathing more heavily, he continued: "It's all about helping the people; we're not taking it out on them. We still give them the proper courtesy."

Through the front doors, gamblers huddled around $1 blackjack tables or hovered at the penny slots. The overhead chandeliers no longer evoked luxury, but retained a bit of the luster from better times.

Curious tourists snapped photos of the rows of darkened slot machines that led to the NASCAR Cafe. To the chagrin of some who passed by, the still-advertised topless show was already covered up — closed, that is.

At the Oasis Bar, Jay Rydell struggled to fill drink orders. The liquor was running low and there was no sense in buying more, he said. Not much wine left either.

He smiled for a co-worker's camera, then dropped an empty beer bottle into a trash can.

"It's so sad," he said. "There's going to be a lot of tears."

A Las Vegas bartender for 32 years, Rydell has been at the Sahara for eight. And to his practiced eye, the clientele here differed from the other hotels on the Strip. "No glitz, no glamour — real people as far as I'm concerned," he said with a hint of pride.

Nearby, a gaggle of middle-aged men in swim trunks stared longingly through locked glass doors to the pool, near a black and white photograph of a young Elizabeth Taylor lounging poolside.

At a souvenir shop, the only merchandise left with the Sahara name were playing cards, $1.75 for a deck. Johnny Santia, 38, of San Pedro bought 12 decks. He'd come to say goodbye to a legend.

"The Sahara has the mystique of the old Vegas," Santia said. "You have to respect your elders."

Back at the Oasis bar, a handful of employees gathered to share a last drink or two.

One cocktail waitress, a 40-year veteran of the Sahara, joined them after changing for the last time out of her revealing getup. She alternated between sips of white wine and long drags on a cigarette.

Other employees trickled by, taking pictures and saying their goodbyes.

Another bartender, Joyce Jaskowiak, finished her last shift, donned a Chicago Cubs jersey and drank scotch as she watched a ballgame.

As he walked by, another bartender shouted to nobody in particular, "I can't believe what I'm seeing!"

"You're seeing it, all right," Rydell responded somberly.

The cocktail waitress, who didn't want to give her name, took one last drag on the cigarette and pushed it into an ashtray atop a deactivated bar slot machine.

She hugged a few co-workers, said goodbye and walked away. A dying spiral of smoke wafted from the cigarette butt, and the slot machine screen continued flashing the words: "Out of Service. Out of Service."

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