|The Sahara Hotel on the north end of the Las Vegas Strip will close May 16 pushing more than 1,000 to the unemployment line while also leaving many of us with endless memories.
With the closure of the Sahara Hotel scheduled for May 16, many of us who worked there hold thousands of memories of the good old days.
I started working as a busboy at the Sahara on New Years Eve of 1969. From there, I moved to the warehouse before joining the bell desk about two years later.
In the old days of working at the bell desk, future bellhops first worked as valet runners working split shifts. From 8-noon each morning, I’d pick up laundry and dry cleaning from guests before reporting back to the Sahara from 3-7 p.m. when I’d deliver the orders.
As a valet runner, I’d work closely with some of the Sahara’s most noteworthy guests and performers including Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, Don Rickles, Nipsy Russell, Frank Gorshin, Johnny Mathis, Theresa Brewer, Sonny and Cher; and Johnny Carson, to name a few.
Carson would generally stay at the hotel’s home at the Sahara Country Club while the remainder of the Sahara’s headliners would stay at the hotel. He was a fascinating entertainer and he treated the help with respect, but you could tell that he treasured his privacy. While he was certainly talented on-stage, he almost seemed like a recluse when off the stage.
Benny wasn’t performing at the Sahara at the time but rather hanging out with his buddy George Burns. When the call came to pick up his laundry, I scurried to his room before returning later that afternoon.
When Benny and his wife answered the door, an inspection of the laundry was started by Mrs. Benny who wasn’t at all happy with the fact that her husband’s robe apparently had too much starch on it. While it’s been nearly 40 years since that day, I still vividly recall her criticizing the fact that the work was inferior in a speech that seemed to last several minutes.
Finally – and thankfully – Mr. Benny stepped forward saying “Now, Mary. This isn’t the young man’s fault. He’s just doing his job.”
Mr. Benny handed me 35 cents and an autograph to send me on my way and almost four decades later, I still have the autograph along with the story.
However, the Benny story was just one of many at the Sahara. The famous people we met seemed endless during a time when Las Vegas was much different and the Sahara was a favorite in Las Vegas.
Yet another guest I remember taking to his room was the owner Del Webb, who also owned the New York Yankees. Webb owned Del Webb Corp., which also owned the Sahara Tahoe.
When the room clerk handed the keys to the bell desk, I looked to my right to see Webb standing there wearing his hat. I shuttered to think that I was about to show the most important man in the building to his room; and worried that I’d either say something silly or possibly even drop his luggage.
However, while Webb was extremely successful, he proved to be one of the nicest people ever during our trip to his suite which was on the top floor of the old Sky Scraper building. We talked about the hotel, the Yankees and the rest and after I had properly situated Webb’s luggage in his room, he gave me two dollars and wished me the best.
Then, there was the time the keys from the front desk arrived and turned to discover that my guest was Milburn Stone, better known for his role as “Doc” on the television series Gunsmoke.
When I turned to Doc to greet him to the Sahara, I still recall asking him what brought him to Las Vegas especially considering that he had arrived on Thanksgiving.
“I always come to Las Vegas and stay at the Sahara on Thanksgiving,” Doc said. “I love to go fishing at Lake Mead.”
Rickles also remains among my favorite performers although I only waited on him once while I was a valet runner. I picked up his two suits (one from each of his two shows in the Congo Room) in what would be Rickles’s last performance at the Sahara before moving on to the Riviera.
When I knocked on the dressing room door later that afternoon, there was no answer so I used the master key to open the door. There sitting on the couch watching Monday Night Football was Rickles, who greeted me and began a conversation while also offering me a soft drink.
Rickles would leave the Sahara a few days later but not without leaving behind a nice toke for my efforts. He remained one of the Sahara’s all-time favorite performers because he was so gracious to the employees of the Sahara.
|A watch from the Sahara Classic golf tournament illustrated great times at the hotel's Sahara Country Club situated on East Desert Inn Road.
While some entertainers were intimidating, Rickles was always friendly and cordial. He would hit the front door of the hotel screaming at bell captain Les Garrity, a native of New Orleans who returned the jabs without hesitation.
Theresa Brewer and Frank Gorshin both proved to be popular entertainers, too. Brewer, reportedly coming off a bad divorce, filled the Congo Room with inspirational performances during a two-week engagement and Gorshin was the ultimate gentleman off the stage and one of the great impersonators of all time on stage.
We weren’t so lucky with comedian Buddy Hackett whose own stories include the time he was miffed at the fact that someone had parked in his parking space near the Space Center. As word had it, Hackett reportedly shot holes in the car’s headlights in a big story reported by Las Vegas Review-Journalist Don Digilio, whose source at the Sahara was on the phone informing him of the latest news note.
Digilio had many columns about Hackett including one that said the comedian would commonly skin dive for golf balls at the old Sahara Golf Course. Digilio’s source (we heard the source was golf pro Charlie Teel) always seemed correct and the R-J editor had a strong following every time the stories surfaced.
I will never forget the time on swing shift when Hackett apparently criticized the waiters and waitresses during his show. Disgruntled, the employees were so irritated with Hackett’s rants that they threatened to drop their trays in unison during a future show.
While Sonny and Cher would always pack the Congo Room with performances by their daughter, Chastity, it was their sudden exit that would leave everyone dumfounded. Their suite was found strewn with broken wine glasses after what had apparently been a disagreement and the performances ceased abruptly.
Sonny was a fitness freak and during one visit to the warehouse where I worked before becoming a bellhop, he showed up with a friend to weigh himself on the Toledo scales which just happened to be situated right in front of the windows of the purchasing department.
Bono undressed down to his shorts before hopping up on the scales in full view of two women working in the purchasing office. When told of the setting, he thumbed his nose at the women whose jaws all hit the desks in unison.
Yet another memorable time came when I was asked to take shaving cream and toothpaste to a suite. When the door opened, I discovered an irate Paul Hornung, the former Notre Dame football star who later starred for the Green Bay Packers.
Hornung, known as “The Golden Boy,” immediately wanted to know “Who in the hell is the little pencil neck on the front desk?” who wanted to pull his comp privileges. I informed him that the assistant manager on duty at the time was a guy named Curtis Thompson who wasn’t afraid to let people know who ran the desk.
Not long after my conversation with Hornung, Thompson would learn the value of a clip-on tie when Hornung marched down to the front desk and grabbed Thompson by the tie in a confrontation that is still talked about decades later.
While performing at the Sahara, Lewis was an energetic individual who always hauled his production equipment with him. I roomed both he and his wife on separate occasions and even borrowed my father-in-law’s truck to rush the production equipment to the airport on one occasion.
A member of the Rat Pack, Lewis was always cordial and he tipped well. The Jerry Lewis Telethon attracted countless entertainers keeping the hotel in a buzz for several days.
It was the Sahara Invitational golf tournaments that always drew the best of athletes including Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus and Chi Chi Rodriguez. We all looked forward to the Sahara Invitational considering that it provided positive energy not to mention the fact that golfers generally tipped very well, too.
However, while golfers generally were thought to live the life of leisure, I still remember the time I was called to unload a car at the back of the hotel. The car was owned by one of the tournament participants and included not only luggage and golf clubs but also boxes of diapers as the golfer journeyed from one tournament to another taking his family with him.
Sadly, the PGA event each fall in Las Vegas has real problems drawing fans although the Sahara Invitational had no problem at all attracting thousands at the Sahara Country Club on East Desert Inn Road.
Between the golf, the performers and the ice cream sundaes in the Caravan Room coffee shop, we had it all 40 years ago at the Sahara. We had classy entertainers; we were treated excellently (with the exception of the time we were all forced to picket the Las Vegas Strip without being paid for picket duty); and we all retain wonderful memories of the days when Las Vegas had personality and the Sahara was king.
The closing of the Sahara marks yet another sad example of how old Las Vegas is now being replaced by the colder corporate atmosphere where comps are non-existent and the bottom line is all that matters. Gone are the great times of the Congo Room, the Casbar Lounge, the House of Lords and the rest.
While rumors persist, no one seems to know for sure what’s going to happen with the Sahara, which will usher more than 1,000 employees out the door when the hotel closes May 16. However, the closure adds even further decay to the north end of the Las Vegas Strip once considered the hot spot of Las Vegas.