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Million Dollar Fire Belts Hotel Sahara
Sunday, July 21, 1968 | 6 a.m.
A fire that started on the roof of the Hotel Sahara's casino early yesterday afternoon sent gamblers out into the street and caused an estimated $1 million in damage before it was stopped.
Damage was the main casino, the hotel's executive offices, coffee shop lounge and showroom. Hundreds were evacuated from these areas, plus more from the new casino addition, which escaped damage.
The hotel portion of the sprawling structure at Sahara Avenue and the Strip was not affected by the fire. Guests of the hotel were not evacuated.
Hotel officials quickly set about repairing the damages with an aim to reopen gambling and entertainment facilities today. The showroom, lounge and casino areas were closed yesterday following the fire.
Stan Irwin, entertainment director for the hotel, said he expected both the showroom and lounge to be in business tonight.
Entertainer Louis Prima saw his show miss its opening night yesterday in the lounge because of the fire. The coffee shop was also expected to reopen today. A poolside coffee shop was kept open all night long while repairs on the main coffe shop were underway.
SMOKE CLAIMS VICTIMS Smoke felled several persons during the fire, including an executive of the hotel. Herb McDonald, Sahara executive vice president, was treated on the scene after being overcome by smoke. A woman employee and several firemen were also smoke victims. Southern Nevada Memorial Hospital said the woman and one fireman were treated and released. While flames and smoke rose on the Sahara Avenue side of the pool, life went on as usual at the swimming pool on the other side of the hotel. Swimmers splashed and floated on their backs while firemen scampered along the roof fighting the flames. The hotel said a central desk in the skyscraper lobby of the hotel complex would be pressed into service as the hotel's main desk while repairs are being made.
STARTED BY SPARK The fire is believed to have started from a spark sent up by welding equipment being used by a work crew on the roof. One member of the crew working on the roof said the fire started while they were completing installation of a roof-mounted air conditioning unit near the front of the main building.
McDonald was stopped by th smoke while he was removing records from the hotel's executive offices beneath the blazing roof. Other employees scooped up trays of chips and money and removed them to protected areas of the casino. The were put under immediate gaurd.
FEAR CASINO ROOF MIGHT FALL During the height of the fire, it was feared that the weight of the water would cause the casino roof to collapse in one piece. But firemen manage to divert most of the water over the side of the building and the roof held.
The fire was stopped before it reached the new casino addition, north of the main casino. The new casino addition in operation for several months, is expected to go back into business today, handling all of the gambling until repairs can be made on the main casino.
Firemen worked for more than an hour to bring the blaze under control. Hundreds lined the streets outside watching the fire, and city police, sheriff's deputies and Nevada highway patrolmen joined forces to break up one traffic jam after another. Smoke from the fire could be seen throughout the city.
Traffic was route down side streets and around the hotel area. The fire broke out shortly after 1 p.m. At 2 p.m., a hotel spokesman used a loudspeaker to tell all casino dealers waitresses and other employees in the damaged areas to go home.
Shortly after that, it was confirmed that electric power to main casino and showroom was out and could not be restored until firemen and hotel employees finished cleaning up. Power to hotel rooms was not cut off.
At the end, 59-year-old Sahara isn’t a hint of what it once was
By John Katsilometes (contact) John Katsilometes
Friday, March 11, 2011 | 8:36 p.m.
It was once the home of Jerry Lewis, Buddy Hackett, Johnny Carson and countless other comedy legends. It is where Louis Prima and Keely Smith turned lounge entertainment into an art form, and where Sonny & Cher packed the showroom at the height of their TV fame.
It’s where legendary vocalist and sometimes diplomat Frank Sinatra brought Lewis and Dean Martin together during the 1976 Labor Day Telethon in one of that production’s most enduring moments.
And when The Beatles played two shows at the Las Vegas Convention Center in 1964, this is where they stayed. Photos of the Fab Four yanking the arm of a slot machine are displayed proudly around the hotel.
But today, the marquee attractions at the Sahara are a burrito so big, it can’t be consumed by any mortal in a single sitting and a roller-coaster ride that lasts all of 45 seconds.
The Sahara is closing, stripping Las Vegas of one of its most famous hotel-casinos even as today’s resort of that name only faintly recalls its regal past. The announcement by Sam Nazarian, CEO of SBE Entertainment Group, which owns and operates the Sahara, was leveled Friday.
SBE has owned the hotel for less than four years. The idea was to remake the Sahara in the model of such hip places as the Palms.
Now, the resort will be closed, with May 16 its final day of operations, though Nazarian has said he hopes to reopen the hotel with “a complete renovation and repositioning.”
But whatever the future holds, the Sahara era is ending in Las Vegas.
“For decades, it was thought of as a bookend to the Strip,” author Jack Sheehan says. “It was Sahara to the north and Hacienda to the south.”
Hacienda was reduced to rubble in 1996, making room for Mandalay Bay as the Strip continued its mega-resort explosion. But there is nothing to replace Sahara as the Strip contracts, its northernmost hotel falling dark after 59 years of operation.
It might seem unfathomable to the guests who tote giant coolers stuffed with three days’ worth of provisions to their $39-a-night room that the Sahara was once one of the Strip’s great hotels. But it was, no question, a place that shared haughty status with such groundbreaking properties as Desert Inn, Flamingo, Tropicana, the original MGM Grand (now Bally’s), Frontier, the Dunes and Caesars Palace.
Jerry Lewis, for one, remembers those days.
“My thought is, it’s very sad. I’m very sad for all those people who are losing their jobs. What are they going to do?” Lewis said Friday during a phone conversation. “We are losing what was considered by most of us Las Vegans as one of the trademarks of the city. You can’t discount the Sahara when you think of those Las Vegas trademarks.”
Lewis was one of the major early draws at the Sahara, teaming with Hackett for a highly energized twin bill of comedy at the hotel.
“Buddy and I did two shows a night for the longest time,” Lewis recalled, chuckling. “You couldn’t get a seat. I’d do the first show and be really sweet, and he’d do the second and be really dirty.”
Hackett’s son, Sandy, remembers practically growing up at the hotel.
“It was a cornerstone for my life,” said Hackett, whose “Sandy Hackett’s Rat Pack Show” now headlines at a hotel that has had its own financial struggles, the Riviera. “I can’t believe it will be gone.”
Hackett grew up in Las Vegas during the Sahara’s glory days, when his father helped pepper the entertainment roster with such stars as Carson, Lewis, Rowan & Martin, Flip Wilson, Jack Benny, George Burns, Shecky Greene and David Brenner.
“It was the hottest comedy lineup in the country,” Hackett remembers. “The place was alive every night.”
Hackett remembers Sonny & Cher headlining at the Sahara and jamming the showroom for each performance. He was studying hotel management at UNLV and worked for then-resort owner Del Webb, who also gave Buddy Hackett a largely ceremonial job as resort vice president.
“My dad said, ‘They gave me a big office and a buxom secretary,’ ” Hackett said. “ ‘How much work do you think they expect me to do here?’ ”
When he was about 20 years old, Hackett was told by his supervisor that Cher was swimming in the hotel pool without a bathing cap. At the time, any guest with long hair was required to wear a bathing cap while swimming in a resort pool, but Cher’s hair was to her derrière.
So Hackett gingerly approached Cher -- whom he called “Mrs. Bono” -- and told her she was in violation of state law.
“She told me to f- off,” Hackett said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
He skulked away and called his father on a house phone. Buddy Hackett listened to the story and asked, “How’s business in the showroom?”
“It’s packed,” the younger Hackett said.
“Well, then, you’d better f- off,” the elder Hackett said.
“This is how business was done at the Sahara,” the younger Hackett said, laughing.
But as Sheehan says, the hotel’s importance can be measured far beyond nostalgic anecdotes. In 1956, in a landmark decision, E. Parry Thomas of Valley Bank approved a then-unprecedented loan of $600,000 to Sahara’s original owner, Milton Prell, who had turned Club Bingo into the Moroccan-themed Sahara, as he called it, “The Jewel of the Desert.”
Prell dreamed of adding a 200-room tower to the property, a move akin to the opening of Bellagio decades later.
“The bank’s loan limit was $75,000, so this was unheard of,” said Sheehan, who recently released the book “Forgotten Man” about Circus Circus and (later) Sahara owner Bill Bennett, who decades later attempted to return the property to its haughty status among Strip hotels. “Parry met with Prell and told him that the prevailing interest rate was 4 percent, that he’d have to go outside the bank to finance this loan, and it was going to cost 6 percent.
“The story goes that Prell was sitting in a rocking chair, rocking back and forth, and asked Parry, ‘What do I get?’ ” Sheehan recalled. “And Parry said, ‘You get the loan.’ ”
Prell consented. He also paid back the loan, at 6 percent, and the biggest loan ever to a casino made everyone a winner.
As Sheehan also reminded, the hotel was considered quite refined a generation ago.
“When I got here 35 years ago, the Sahara was still considered a very nice place,” he said. “They were a player in the game. It was an A-minus place for performers to play. The House of Lords (steakhouse) was always in the top five or six places in the city to eat. It doesn’t compare to the restaurants we have today, but back then it was one of the best.”
A man who enjoyed an inside-out view of the hotel in its infancy was Cork Proctor, who took a job as a lifeguard at the Sahara pool in 1955. It was Proctor’s first job after being discharged from the Navy. He would go on to perform as one of the city’s busiest stand-up comics, and he is still performing today at age 79.
Proctor actually performed at the Comedy Stop at Sahara a few months ago, just before the Bob Kephart-owned comedy franchise was forced to close. As the chronically acerbic Proctor joked from the stage, “I worked at this hotel, about 100 feet from here, as a lifeguard in 1955. How’s my career doing?”
On Friday, seated at a bar at the pool area, Proctor said the hotel was indeed one of the Strip’s jewels, especially in its early days.
“I would work, go home after my shift, sleep and come back in three or four hours and watch Louis Prima and Keely Smith, or the Mary Kaye Trio in the lounge,” Proctor said as he looked out over the sparsely populated pool area. “Louis and Keely were really exciting. I have never seen anyone with that kind of rapport. This was a great joint. Every night was New Year’s Eve.”
Walter Cronkite, Mae West, Victor Mature, Ray Bolger and Cary Grant were among the wide array of famous folks Proctor recalls running into in his time as a lifeguard.
As he pointed out one of the tattered cabanas -- which two summers ago went for $120 a day to rent -- Proctor shook his head.
“This place started going downhill when the bean counters came in,” he said. Musing about the hotel’s possible reopening next year, he said, “I don’t know if it’s fixable.”
Lewis was left to recall the hotel’s prime and that night when Sinatra brought Lewis and his partner together once again.
“When Dean walked onstage, it was a most historic moment,” he said. “I will never forget it. It was incredible, and it happened at the Sahara.”
Sahara to get some L.A. glitz
By Liz Benston
Sunday, April 8, 2007 | 7:27 a.m.
Independent casino operators are a dying breed on the Strip, a playing field controlled by growing chains with billions of dollars at their disposal.
So when Sam Nazarian, a well-dressed Beverly Hills bachelor with the unflappable demeanor of George Clooney and a Rolodex of A-list celebrity friends, announced a deal last month to buy and revamp the well-worn Sahara, some saw yet another overconfident, smooth-talking speculator looking to get rich and burnish his reputation.
Next to buying a sports team, owning a casino - in many ways a more difficult and expensive process - is the ultimate boost for the male ego. But stiff competition, rising land prices and sky-high construction costs have weeded out speculative vanity projects, leaving behind only the most wealthy and experienced.
Nazarian needs neither fame nor fortune. In fact, that's what he brings to the table.
His entrepreneurial track record bears more resemblance to that of Palms resort owner George Maloof - a man who also capitalized on celebrity culture to create an entertainment brand from scratch - than to that of the many outsiders with little experience or cash who have failed to make their mark in Las Vegas.
At the age of 31, Nazarian has even bigger plans. His goal is nothing less than "revolutionizing nightlife" with an entertainment empire of dozens of hotels, restaurants and other venues that, clustered in the nation's hot spots, build on one another's buzz.
His father, Younes, an Iranian construction tycoon and an early investor in telecommunications giant Qualcomm, created the kind of family fortune that leads some men to become professional playboys. Instead, Nazarian parlayed Steve Wynn-like ambition, a keen social life and an eye for design into the 2002 creation of SBE Entertainment Group, which boasts posh hotels, nightclubs and restaurants.
Nazarian began selling cell phone equipment in his 20s and then jumped into real estate, taking on such risks as redeveloping a downtown Los Angeles office building into desirable loft space. His real estate division now develops luxury homes and owns and manages apartment buildings, office parks and condos.
SBE made its biggest splash on the nightclub scene, launching four of Los Angeles' most exclusive clubs. Of those, Area and Hyde Lounge - described as works of art - are most revered among the Paris Hilton-Lindsay Lohan crowd and their hangers-on. Area is like a mod-inspired living room, with white banquettes and low couches offering a wide-open view of the beautiful, well-dressed crowd. Hyde Lounge, which seats only 100, has a stricter velvet rope and is known for gourmet drinks with ingredients like cracked pepper and pressed watermelon. It sports a masculine look set off by crocodile-embossed leather and candles that flicker against smoked mirrors.
SBE's eateries, Abbey and Katsuya, are see and be seen destinations for Los Angeles' elite. Nazarian wants to expand Abbey's patio bar and curtained cabana concept in West Hollywood to warm-weather locations nationwide. Katsuya, more modern art museum than restaurant, is the first of several planned restaurant collaborations with Paris-born designer Philippe Starck.
An independent film division, Element Films, develops, finances and distributes its own films with partners. Element has completed eight films, attracting stars such as William Hurt and Michael Keaton and earning awards at festivals.
Nazarian's latest venture is a luxury hotel chain under the newly minted SLS brand, which he envisions as the "Four Seasons of our generation." The first SLS hotel will launch next year at Le Meridien, the Beverly Hills hotel SBE acquired in 2005. Nazarian also is redesigning the recently purchased Ritz Plaza hotel in Miami's South Beach.
The Sahara may be his biggest gamble yet.
Even if the property is gutted and outfitted in designer glamour, the Sahara is a relatively small building in a poor location bordering a low-rent neighborhood at the north end of the Strip.
Nazarian will need to work magic to compete with the deluge of new venues and expensive face-lifts closer to the Strip's core and aimed at attracting the young, rich and beautiful.
The Bennett family spent millions making the Sahara the most well-preserved of the Strip landmarks yet to succumb to the wrecking ball. At 54, the Sahara looks good for its age but makes a small fraction of the hundreds of millions in profit generated by its newer neighbors. But where other developers see a fading casino too close to sorry-looking pawn shops and wedding chapels, Nazarian - whose Privilege nightclub on the seedy east end of Los Angeles' Sunset Strip helped reenergize that area - sees one of the last remaining "Rat Pack" hotels.
"The Sahara is a legendary asset with tremendous history, and its location and sheer potential fit perfectly into the SBE model," Nazarian said.
All of Las Vegas seems to fit the SBE model, given the explosion of nightclubs as casinos' premier draws. Nazarian not only has identified the town's new demographic, he fits it .
He is already thinking like a casino boss. Nazarian has locked up talent by poaching from competitors and is cultivating partners across industries to pool ideas.
Among Nazarian's catches: Starck, event producer Brent Bolthouse (a veteran of the Los Angeles club scene and co-founder of the Body English nightclub in Las Vegas), master sushi chef Katsuya Uechi, "avant-garde" chef Jose Andres and hotel executives involved in the launch of the chic W hotel chain.
Of that crowd, Starck, who created "surreal chic" and "daredevil design" for the iconic Mondrian, Clift and Delano hotels under the direction of boutique hotelier Ian Schrager, has earned the most devoted worldwide following.
He's under a 15-year agreement to design luxury hotels and is locked into designing future restaurants, lounges and clubs for Nazarian.
Beyond creating a database of customers and their tastes, Nazarian is establishing a player club of sorts, whereby a hotel customer's room key would become a VIP pass to SBE-owned restaurants and clubs nearby.
Revamping the Sahara is a job too daunting to contemplate for locals accustomed to tearing down the old and starting afresh. That's why Strip operators are interested in Nazarian, who has an outsider's perspective and the cash to think big. Nazarian will make the rounds in coming weeks, introducing himself to casino bosses.
Coming from Los Angeles, where the competition is more combative and scattered, Nazarian can expect a warm welcome from a tightly knit group of casino executives who ultimately benefit from their neighbors' successes.
One year after it closed, can Sahara site become a symbol of Las Vegas’ rebound
Rob Oseland heard plenty of skepticism about some of the projects he helped create along the Las Vegas Strip.
The Bellagio was too expensive. The Wynn and Encore were too far north, away from the heart of the Strip.
Those resorts became some of the most successful and glamorous along the Strip, but that hasn't stopped Oseland from hearing similar doubts about his latest endeavor — transforming the old Sahara into SLS Las Vegas.
"Really? The north end?" he said, repeating a question he's been hearing about the Sahara resurrection project.
Yes, the north end. It's where Oseland has returned as part of a team that announced last month it raised $300 million in financing to create the SLS Las Vegas .
Las Vegas locals may see the north end of the Strip, with its empty buildings and stalled construction projects, as a memorial to unfinished business and money that ran out too soon.
But Oseland's eyes widen and his voice gets a little more animated as he talks about the promise for revitalizing the historic Sahara under a hotel brand that has evolved into one of the most luxurious in Beverly Hills, a move that just may signal the renaissance out of the Great Recession.
"This really could be the first step in coming back," said Oseland, president and chief operating officer of SLS Las Vegas.
The millions of dollars needed to launch the new resort casino came despite the project receiving low debt ratings that led the investment to be classified as risky. The two principal developers, Los Angeles' SBE Entertainment Group and Stockbridge Capital, responded by raising most of the $415 million it will need in just a couple of weeks.
"When you're out on the street, raising investments for Las Vegas is not easy," Oseland said.
Recent struggles of Station Casinos, the Palms, the Hard Rock Cafe and others still are fresh in investors' memories. But Oseland said SLS' success in obtaining funding should send a message that people are once again willing to put money back into the Strip.
“People may look at what we did and say, ‘If they can get the money with no better debt rating, then there may be other opportunities for the right idea, the right concept, the right place with the right people,’” Oseland said.
Between SLS Las Vegas and the Linq retail and entertainment district under construction by Caesars Entertainment, the Strip now has nearly a billion dollars of projects in play.
The new investment and opportunities on the corner of Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard had people buzzing with the possibilities of a new life for one of the city's historic focal points. The Sahara opened in 1952, joining El Rancho, New Frontier, the Flamingo and the Desert Inn as the Strip began to take shape as the center of the casino and entertainment world. The Dunes, Riviera and Tropicana would follow. The Sahara closed one year ago today.
Sahara, the avenue, is a major artery and one of the main exits off Interstate 15.
Paul Hobson, general manager of the Stratosphere, noted recent signs of activity at the former site of the Holy Cow brewery and casino and SLS as a signal that the north end of the Strip could explode in the next two years. The nearby Riviera has also announced plans for $20 million in renovations.
"It's starting to build some mass, as in critical mass," Hobson said. "If you look at some of the busier corners, they have complementary properties on each side. You look at Flamingo with Caesars and Bill's Gamblin' Hall, the Bellagio and Bally's, and that's a nice cluster of properties. Certainly, that dynamic is at play here."
The Stratosphere tower is one of the city's icons, and the Sahara site is drenched in history, giving the north end two anchors. Adding to the potential is SLS' rich brand of luxury properties in Beverly Hills, which it's expanding to Miami, New York and Chicago.
Really, Oseland pointed out, there's nowhere to develop on the Strip but north.
"You've got the airport to the south, so you can't go any farther than Mandalay Bay," Oseland said. "Any future development has to be to the north."
That's headed toward downtown, where casino resorts are spending millions in face-lifts and revitalization projects. Businesses along Fremont Street see the new SLS Las Vegas as a rich opportunity to bring the bustle of the Strip a little closer to downtown.
"Being a downtown guy, I love the fact Sahara's firing it up again," said Derek Stevens, principal owner of the D.
SLS' plans will complement the new construction, Stevens said, including his efforts to rebrand Fitzgeralds as the D, along with ongoing renovation at the Golden Gate and recent face-lift to the Plaza near Fremont Street. Add the new City Hall, Smith Center for the Performing Arts and Symphony Park, and the north end of the Strip seems like a natural progression in the transformation.
But new buildings need people willing to come and spend their money. How will SLS try to find success where the Sahara failed?
SLS Las Vegas plans to bring a Beverly Hills experience at Vegas prices, Oseland said. The Sahara’s 1,600 hotel rooms are smaller than those at megaresorts on the Strip, and using the structure of the Sahara saves money and will keep room prices between $100 and $200 a night. That's about a third of what you'd pay for the SLS in Beverly Hills.
The investment is a tenth of the $4 billion Vegas was spending on the biggest resorts in the 1990s, Oseland said — ones he helped design, open and market.
"What I've learned over the years is that bigger isn't always better in Vegas," he said.
The smaller size of the SLS will be an advantage, Oseland said.
"When you have 3,000 rooms and they aren't full, you have a tendency to shill the joint up, as we say," he said. "Unless everything is full tilt on a Friday or Saturday night, it doesn't feel so good. It feels quiet. When things aren't busy, people question the level of excitement. This is half the footprint of the size. It sets itself up to create energy in small spaces."
Sam Nazarian, founder and CEO of SBE, also exhibits traits that remind Oseland of Steve Wynn, with whom Oseland worked on Wynn Las Vegas, Encore and Bellagio.
"Steve Wynn showed that with the right combination of people, you can create destinations that are desirable and current," he said.
Nazarian is following a similar path that began by purchasing the Sahara property four years ago. That four years has been spent paying down debt and developing a meticulous plan, Oseland said.
It included SBE starting small, operating Hyde Bellagio to learn how nightclubs might work differently in Las Vegas than in Los Angeles, where the company also runs clubs. It even included hiring Oseland with 20 years of experience in running some of Vegas' most successful casino resorts. It included continuing to build the SLS brand, which will be established across the country by the time its Las Vegas resort is set to open in 2014.
"Really, Las Vegas is the epicenter of the national brands," Oseland said. "If you're really a big boy in the entertainment, in nightlife and in the luxury hotel scene, you've got to have a footprint in Las Vegas.”
Oseland cited the success of Wolfgang Puck, who brought his L.A. dining experience to Las Vegas at Caesars Palace 20 years ago, and the Cosmopolitan's partnership with Marriott as examples of how name brands can spell success on the Strip.
"Since the Cosmopolitan brought on the Marriott brand, they are pushing some of the highest room rates and occupancy in the city," he said.
While looking optimistically to the future, Oseland appears almost wistful as he contemplates the Sahara’s new name wiping the iconic resort’s memory off the Strip.
He's seen that before, too, with the Bellagio rising in the ashes of the Dunes, and the Wynn and Encore replacing the Desert Inn.
But while Vegas has a storied past, the city survives by remaining vibrant, Oseland said. When the Sahara closed, it was not what it once had been.
"The Sahara had lost its soul," Oseland said. "It needed a new one. Now, it will get it."
Sahara shuts down roller coaster ahead of May 16 closure
The Sahara hotel-casino has shut down its roller coaster in preparation for its closure in less than two weeks.
The roller coaster closed Sunday, a representative from the hotel said. The ride first opened in 1999 when the Sahara renovated and opened its NASCAR Café.
The Sahara will close on May 16 after nearly six decades. The hotel’s current owner, SBE Entertainment Group, which is run by Sam Nazarian, announced the closure on March 11, stating “the continued operation of the aging Sahara was no longer economically viable.”
Milton Prell opened the hotel-casino in 1952.