Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Sahara Doesn't Live Here Anymore

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

Editor's note: In honor of the Sahara closing its doors, he's a re-post of something I wrote a couple of months ago...

The Sahara Casino is closing.

The Sahara represented my parents' Las Vegas and the innocent simplicity of the sepia-tinted photos of early 1960s: waking up late, eating room service omeletes, lounging by the pool, sipping tikki drinks next to perfectly-coiffed Don and Betty Drapers, eating a surf and turf dinner, consuming more tikki drinks, catching a glamorous show with Louis Prima or Don Rickles, then gambling the night away in the casino playing roulette, craps, or blackjack until the wee hours -- only to wake up late the next day and repeat the process. My parents and their generation experienced the original desert Paradise, meanwhile, I got Paradise Lost, or the watered-down, sold-out, corporatized version of Vegas. Ergo, Lost Vegas.

One of the original six casinos in Las Vegas, the oasis known as the Sahara opened its doors in 1952. The owner, former bingo parlor magnate Milton Prell, was chummy with Col. Tom Parker (a.k.a. Elvis' manager). Elvis supposedly got married in Prell's suite at the Sahara (although some accounts credited the Aladdin as the location of Elvis' nuptials).

Sahara's designer, Del Webb, owned the NY Yankees in the post-War II era (before selling to CBS, who then sold the team to George Steinbrenner). Webb eventually purchased the Sahara from Prell in 1961-62. Webb-Nevada became the first public company to own a major casino. In subsequent decades (1982, 1995) the Sahara traded hands among other big business interests until it landed in the hands of Sam Nazarian and SBE Entertainment Group. At the turn of the century, the casino added a rollercoaster and a NASCAR theme to capitalize on middle America's fascination with auto racing. A decade or so later, the doors are closing. But for good? Will the fate of the Sahara be the face of things to come in the next few years as more Strip properties close its doors?

A gaming conglomerate could swoop in, renovate the joint, whore out restaurant, bar, and retail shopping space to a bunch of other corporations and then re-open its doors. A hedge fund manager could get bored gambling on Wall Street and on a plutocratical whim, buy an authentic casino instead. Heck, maybe Gahdaffi will finally hand over power to Libyan rebels and relocate in Las Vegas in the top 3 floors of the Sahara? Or maybe a wealthy social media gajillonaire will buy the property, implode the old Sahara, and build a spanking-new casino? But does anyone want to party in a non-hip part of town on the north end of The Strip?

The Sahara in its physical nature will eventually cease to exist, but the once-alluring spirit of the casino will live forever in photographs. I'm glad someone documented the old Vegas. Kudos to those citizen documentarians.

Here are a five photos of the Sahara...

The Sahara
(photo via Vintage Vegas)

Louis Prima rocking the Sahara's Casbar Lounge in the 1950s
(photo via Vintage Vegas)

Sahara Pool in the 1960s
(photo via Vintage Vegas)

Modern Sahara with Monorail
(photo by Wolynski)

Modern Sahara
(photo by Flipchip)

* * * *

Las Vegas rose up out of the nothingness of the sand. A former Mormon missionary outpost had transformed into a gambling Mecca by gangsters, real estate developers, and bankers. Mecca is actually an inappropriate word to describe Las Vegas because there's nothing religious about a pilgrimage to modern day Sodom and Gomorrah -- the epicenter for the orgy of consumption.

Las Vegas has very few relics of the past. When you visit European cities like London, Paris, and Barcelona, you glimpse many centuries into the past with historic churches, preserved ruins, and other very old buildings that blended in with the modern architecture. However, Las Vegas' visionaries look to the future by erasing the past. Casinos used to be sanctuaries of brazen fun, but have since become oil wells that suck the Nevada desert dry of wealth. When the owners realized their well reached peak production, they scrambled to find potential buyers -- clueless new owners who were blinded by greed instead of realizing the the law of diminishing returns of a casino. Alas, when wells were no longer profitable to operate, they were unceremoniously shut down until the skeletal remains of the casino got imploded on local TV.

Instead of rusty derricks and rigs peppering the barren landscape of Saudi Arabia's Gahwar region or tumbleweeds-ridden West Texas, the Vegas barons don't let their old wells sit around for too long. I must admit that the casino/well analogy doesn't exactly fit in this instance because you can't re-tap the same well after all the oil has been extracted, but Las Vegas casinos owners have repeatedly rebuilt new, glitzy, modern monstrosities on top of rickety, languishing dinosaurs of yesteryear. And yes, they still rake in the cash.

The Sahara dominated the Las Vegas universe fifty years ago when it had a lot less competition, but that might has well been 500 years ago because lot has changed in the last century, let alone the last decade, yet for better or worse, the Sahara failed to stay ahead of the curve. The desert oasis is on the verge of becoming completely wiped out from Vegas landscape.

From nothing, it was born, and back to nothing it shall return.

* * * *

October 30, 1998.

"Isn't that adorable?" said the old lady in the hot seat, pointing at a faded pack of four disheveled wooks wandering through the casino in a search of the elevator to their room.

"Yes, they decided to wear their hippie costumes a day early," agreed her husband.

The old lady flashed a peace sign at the quartet of scraggly troubadours.

"Ma'am, they're not wearing costumes. Those neo-hippies dress like that all the time," I said after doubling down on an 11.

"Why would anyone want to look like a homeless person?"

I didn't want to tell them that the kids were in town to see the same band I was in town to see, so I changed the subject. I played a ton of blackjack that weekend, more than poker, grinding it out at a lowly $1 table waiting for forty fucking excruciating minutes to obtain a piss-warm Corona from one of the surliest cocktail waitress I have ever encountered in Vegas.

I played blackjack with a smattering of friends including an acquaintance from Olympia who detailed how she smuggled hash from Holland into Germany, then sold it to troops on the Air Force base where she worked as a sous chef in the Officers Club. Meanwhile the rest of my extended circle of friends sat in the poker room behind the blackjack tables. I lived in Seattle at the time (five years before I'd even opened up a Party Poker account) and a my poker buddies got hooked on hold'em after Rounders was released in theatres that summer. A bunch of us from my home game flew down to Vegas to meet up with another group of friends from New York City for an epic Halloween party weekend bender. We stayed up for two nights straight, gambled on college football at the Mirage, got kicked out of Olympic Gardens, and caught two Phish concerts at Thomas & Mack Arena (highlighted by an entire set on Halloween when they covered Velvet Underground's Loaded in its entirety).

The Sahara was the main base of operations that Halloween weekend with two rooms for 8 people, which cost us $10 a piece per night. Everyone was scattered between the Casbar Lounge, the poker room, and slumming at the $1 blackjack table. That weekend was a long blur. Trying to record the events as it happened proved to be difficult, let alone trying to rewind the events in my head 12.5 years later. Despite the foggy hallways of my mind, one moment stood out: late night after the Halloween concert when we actually walked from Thomas & Mack Arena back to the Sahara via a pit stop at a bar inside the MGM. Sounds so cliche, but it was Halloween, I was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and tripping balls on The Strip after (accidentally) ingesting several double-dipped hits of blotter. Double the visuals, double the fun. I was a lit monkey for a week.

That trip also marked the best buffet fried chicken I had ever devoured in Las Vegas (or the South for that matter). The chicken was so delicious that I ate it at the buffet twice that weekend. Can't say I've ever eaten it since.

* * * *

When I moved to Las Vegas in 2005, I bunked with Grubby in Henderson. We often drove to the Sahara to play in their nightly 7pm tournament -- mainly because the poker room provided free sandwiches to their players during the first break and they let you buy back in if you busted in the first couple of levels. We played a few times a week and Grubby usually made the final table, but I always fucking bubbled the final table. Although I grinded my buy-in back at the soft cash tables, it still used to bother me that I couldn't break the nagging streak of not making a final table.

The free food was a decent promotion. The food wasn't anything special -- everyone got a piece (or two) of a six-foot deli sandwich. I think the poker room order three or four. A homeless guy showed up exactly at break time every night. He snuck into the back entrance to the poker room and filled up on a couple of sandwiches that he stuffed into a plastic bag before he escaped out the side door.

Winning (or chopping) the Sahara tournament (either the 7pm or the 11pm one) became a badge of honor among my friends -- many of whom hold that dubious distinction. Shit, I'm still embarrassed that I couldn't final table that sucker once, let alone win it outright. The Sahara had my number. I just couldn't string together any run good in their tournaments.

After a while, the Sahara nightly tournament lost its luster among perpetually grumpy locals and it couldn't compete when the mid-Strip casinos expanded their poker rooms. Once the Venetian and Caesar's began their daily tournaments, they locked up the hard-to-please locals and it got increasingly hard for the Sahara's poker room to keep up. Same goes for the rest of the casino. The NASCAR shtick in a sluggish economy wasn't profitable enough anymore.

(photo by Flipchip)

I had not gambled at the impoverished Sahara in several years. I'm pretty sure the last time I played poker at the Sahara -- I went busto due to a vicious bad beat, oozed with negativity and was probably thrilled to death to leave that dump. Alas, never had any incentives to go back once I migrated from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Since then, I spent next to no time hanging out in that demilitarized zone north of the Wynn and south of the Stratosphere, aside from the odd sojourn to Olympic Gardens.

My Sahara poker memories are few but Halloween 98 sticks out as one of my all-time favorite trips to Sin City. Those incriminating stories (many of which occurred inside the Sahara) were trimmed from the final draft of Lost Vegas, but I guarantee those hijinks will be included in the Phish book (as soon as get around to finishing that).

I have one last memory of the Sahara that I want to share. Luckily, the moment was captured forever on film by Hollywood. I'm talking about a scene from Leaving Las Vegas, when Elisabeth Shue's character did the nefarious "hooker limp" in front of the palatial lobby of the Sahara.

Appropriate tribute.

The ghosts of the Sahara limp into the dark of night. The Sahara is nevermore.

* **

Check out Wolyniski's pics of the moment Sahara closed its doors.

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