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Howard Stutz

Sahara offers last goodbyes after nearly 60 years

16 May 2011

In its day, the Sahara was Las Vegas' epicenter.

Peter Villalobos would know.

For almost 35 years, he manned the Strip hotel's front desk.

He watched the parade of celebrities and the pseudocelebrities.

He supervised thousands of hotel check-ins for high rollers and want-to-be high rollers.

Villalobos will be at his front desk terminal Monday when the Sahara's final guest checks out at around noon. The nearly 60-year-old Strip resort will cease operations two hours later, a victim of both the recession and of progress.

Sahara owners SBE Entertainment of Los Angeles and private equity firm Stockbridge Real Estate of San Francisco acquired the hotel-casino in 2007 from the family of the late casino pioneer William Bennett. The new owners had hopes of breathing new life into the resort. They have not announced plans for the 18-acre corner of the Strip and Sahara Avenue.

In March, SBE said it was "no longer economically viable" to operate the Sahara.


Last week, Arash Azarbarzin, president of SBE's hotel division, who has overseen the Sahara since the company took control, said the goal was to close the Strip resort "quietly and with dignity."

His thoughts have been with employees like Villalobos, who remained loyal to the property, even as the city's two-decade building boom added megaresorts that dwarfed the aged, 1,720-room Sahara.

Villalobos gave Azarbarzin a firm handshake last week and thanked him for the four years that SBE kept the property operating. The year SBE took over, the company spent about $2 million to refurbish and make cosmetic changes to the Sahara's public areas. SBE never operated the casino; that was done by Navegante Group.

Like other longtime Sahara employees, Villalobos could have gone to a job with a newer hotel-casino. For personal or professional reasons, he and others chose to remain, hoping that the Sahara would one day return to what it once was.

"It was the Wynn. It was Caesars. It was Aria. The Sahara is where you saw the stars," Villalobos said. "It was a wonderful property and it still is. I hope it still has a future."

Rebecca Salter has similar hopes.

She went to work at the Sahara when she was 22 years old, as a waitress in the hotel's coffee shop. Almost 42 years later, Salter served her final meal in the Caravan Cafe, which closed last year.

Leaving for a job at another casino was never a consideration.

"This was home. This was my family," said Salter, who started her career at the hotel when it was owned by real estate developer Del Webb. "I would get up in the morning and be excited to go to work. There are just so many wonderful memories about working here."

Salter made one final trip to the Sahara on Tuesday, primarily to seek out "Mr. Arash," who was just 4 years old when she began her career at the Sahara. Like Villalobos, she thanked him for efforts to keep the Sahara going.

Over the past decade, the casino attracted midlevel gamblers, and in its final months was touting the Strip's only $1 blackjack tables. The Sahara also promoted the NASCAR Cafe, with its gut-busting, 6-pound burrito once featured by the Travel Channel's "Man v. Food."

Even employees who didn't have the tenure of Villalobos or Salter were saddened by the closure.

Sean Morland, a NASCAR Cafe cook, said the Sahara is shutting down 16 days shy of his one-year employment anniversary. He has already lined up a new job as a cook at the Stratosphere.

Morland said his mother and grandmother used to visit the Sahara.

"It was always their favorite place to stay and it had so much history," said Morland, who plans to work the NASCAR Cafe's final shift Monday. "I'm disappointed because I'm a NASCAR fan but also I got to work with a lot of nice people. I think we'll get a lot of customers in this weekend."


Azarbarzin said the company's evolving plans for the Sahara, which once included removing one or two of the existing hotel towers, were shelved when the economy sank.

Once the decision to close the Sahara was finalized, efforts were made to help the property's 1,050 workers find employment. Job fairs were held and casinos came looking for workers.

The company didn't stand in the way if workers could be hired elsewhere. Some areas closed early. The Sahara's roller coaster stopped rolling in April when the attraction's certified ride engineers found new jobs.

The Stratosphere hired two dozen Sahara employees, including about 50 percent of the staff of the Sahara's poker room. For the Stratosphere, the new employees were seen as two-for-the-price-of-one. The resort picked up seasoned employees and perhaps a longtime Sahara customer base.

Sahara poker room manager Richard Luksza, who helped bring his team of dealers and supervisors to the Stratosphere, said the casino has added four poker tables due to increased business.

"Because the poker room had so many tenured employees and a good local customer following, we're trying to connect and bring them to the Stratosphere," said Dieter Dechant, who spent almost seven years as a Sahara poker dealer.

Maureen Lumino, a nine-year poker dealer at the Sahara, began using social media to tell customers that the poker staff, and the Sahara's popular poker tournament, were heading to the Stratosphere.

"We were hopeful things were going to turn around and SBE was going to start remodeling the Sahara," Lumino said, "but we weren't real surprised by the news (of the closing)."

Luksza had also hoped SBE would give the Sahara a new lease on life.

But then Boyd Gaming Corp. halted construction of Echelon in 2008, plans went away for a project on the neighboring former Wet 'n Wild site and the Fontainebleau was shuttered in 2009.

He knew the end would come.

"It wasn't the news you wanted to hear, but the economy put the casino in the wrong direction," Luksza said.


Soon after the closing was announced, room bookings increased for the hotel-casino's final weekend. Two hotel towers closed over the past year, but Sahara officials expect most of the property's 800 remaining rooms to be filled.

"We did hear from a lot of longtime customers," said Shawn Woodrich, the Sahara's reservations director. "The Sahara built a loyal following over the years and they are sad to see the property closing."

Woodrich spent 27 years at the Sahara, and like many longtime workers, would often bump into celebrities. Literally. She once walked head-on into entertainer Jerry Lewis coming around a blind corner. Lewis hosted his annual Muscular Dystrophy Telethon at the Sahara for decades.

Local publicist Mike Henle worked at the Sahara between 1970 and 1974 as a busboy, in the warehouse and on the bell desk. He once escorted then-Sahara owner Del Webb to his room on the hotel's top floor, carrying the businessman's luggage and earning a $2 tip.

As a valet runner, he once earned a tip of 35 cents and an autograph from comedian Jack Benny, even though Benny's wife wasn't happy with the hotel's laundry service.

Working at the Sahara, Henle met comedian Buddy Hackett, singer and U.S. Rep. Sonny Bono and Pro Football Hall of Famer Paul Hornung.

"We made good money there and it was definitely the place to be," Henle said.

The House of Lords, the Sahara's 50-year-old steakhouse, will have one last dinner seating tonight. Assistant Executive Chef Kurt Sedlmeir, who spent five years at the Sahara and recently joined the Stratosphere, said the House of Lords was a restaurant where the chef and staff knew the regular customers and celebrities and prepared meals that weren't always on the menu.

"House of Lords had a great tradition that's going to be missed," Sedlmeir said.

Souvenir hunters were not able to purchase $1 Sahara casino chips last week at the casino's cashiers cage because the tokens were expected to be needed by gamblers during a busy final weekend. However, a run on Sahara casino chips for mementos was expected before closing time Monday.

Azarbarzin said the Sahara's gaming equipment, hotel furniture and other property would be auctioned this summer.

Sahara employees will have first crack at buying the items, including the large photos now surrounding the casino of entertainers who performed in the Congo Showroom, such as Johnny Carson, Don Rickles, Tina Turner, Dean Martin, Pat Boone and Connie Francis.

But while they might take a piece of place with them, most know they can never replace the Sahara's atmosphere.

"The place made you feel very comfortable and that's hard to come by," Luksza said.
Sahara offers last goodbyes after nearly 60 years is republished from