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Best of Howard Stutz
Howard Stutz
 

Stardust memories: Longtime employees reflect on their happy years at the resort

30 October 2006

Stories

Some of the Strip's largest resorts -- The Mirage, Excalibur, Treasure Island, Bellagio, The Venetian, MGM Grand, New York-New York, Paris Las Vegas, Mandalay Bay, Luxor, Monte Carlo and Wynn Las Vegas -- have opened since 1989, enticing workers from competing casinos.

For some longtime Stardust employees, nothing could lure them from their jobs at the aging property.

As the Stardust closes Wednesday to make way for the $4 billion Echelon, many Stardust workers -- some with three or four decades of experience at the iconic strip casino -- expressed no regrets about ignoring opportunities at the flashier resorts.

They described the Stardust in affectionate terms as a business where employees and management cared about each other.

As the Strip changed, they came to the realization that the fading resort's days were numbered.

Many recalled the good times and recounted fond memories, such as when the production show "Lido de Paris" was at the height of its 32-year run and was considered the property's drawing card.

The longtime workers said they'll be at their posts Wednesday when the doors are shuttered and the slot machines are turned off. They'll also return early next year, when Boyd Gaming Corp. implodes the building to clear the site for Echelon.

CAROL GERACI -- COCKTAIL SERVER

With the closing of Stardust, Carol Geraci has come to the realization that her 40-year career as a cocktail server is ending. She also feels like she's losing a trusted family member.

"I was probably the last one to believe that the Stardust was going to close," Geraci said. "But now, it's starting to hit me. This place is more like home. I've had a lot of good people watch over me, during both the good times and the bad times."

Geraci came to the Stardust in 1966 when she was 22 and began serving drinks for special events at the casino's long since departed golf course. She eventually moved over to the race and sports book and poker room, where she met some of the game's most famous players.

"We had all the famous poker players in here: Amarillo Slim, Johnny Moss, Nick the Greek. A lot of times they wanted food, so we would have to go across the casino to get it," Geraci said.

Working the Stardust's lounge in the early 1970s, Geraci would meet Strip performers coming in after-hours to watch some of the acts. Elvis Presley, she said, was fond of Brendan Boyer and the Irish Showband.

"Elvis would come in with his entourage. He was very nice," Geraci said. "In those days, the lounge was a great place to work because all the big stars would come in here."

As a longtime employee, Geraci got to know all her bosses, from the officials of the mob-influenced Argent Corp., to Herb Tobman and Al Sachs to the current ownership, Boyd Gaming Corp.

The most memorable individual was Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, who ran the casino during the Argent ownership and who was the basis of the Robert DeNiro character in the movie "Casino." Geraci said DeNiro's performance was accurate.

"(Mr. Rosenthal) was a fanatic about everything. His hair had to be perfect, and his shoes had to be spotless," Geraci said. "He liked me, but not in that way."

Geraci found her way to the casino pit, where she will continue to serve drinks up until Wednesday's closing. What she'll miss most, she says, are the customers, some of whom have forged 40-year friendships with her.

"So many are coming back for the last day. The customers are just as upset as we are," Geraci said.

FRANK PERKINS -- CHEF

It was nearing closing time in the Moby Dick, the Stardust's upscale seafood restaurant in the 1970s, when Frank Perkins was approached by the maitre d'. A chef, Perkins was used to receiving special orders from some of the Stardust's high-end customers, but this night was a bit different.

Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. were in the mood for fresh fish.

"They always came back and told us when someone important was in the restaurant," Perkins said. "The maitre d' told me who was out there, and they wanted something special."

Perkins remembered that he poached some fresh salmon and had a special sauce to go with the entree. After dinner, he was brought out from the kitchen to meet the three members of the Rat Pack.

"They enjoyed the meal and wanted to know who fixed them dinner," Perkins said. "They were very nice."

Perkins came to the Stardust 38 years ago and started out as a dishwasher. He had helped a friend drive out to Las Vegas, and he decided to stay. He walked into the Stardust one afternoon and was hired on the spot.

Perkins worked his way up through the kitchen ranks to become a chef when the Moby Dick was one of the pinnacle restaurants on the Strip. The restaurant has long since closed, and Perkins now works in the casino's buffet area.

"I learned everything through on-the-job training," Perkins said. "That's not how things are done today. That's why I stayed at the Stardust. You always had the opportunity to move up and advance."

Perkins hopes Boyd Gaming will keep him on with a restaurant in one of the company's other casinos.

"I was in Las Vegas two days and I got a job," Perkins said. "This was the hot property to be back then."

DENNY ONOFRIO -- BARTENDER

In the 1970s, the Stardust was the center of the Strip in Denny Onofrio's eyes.

A young bartender, Onofrio said every night at the Stardust "was like New Year's Eve." He was 39 years old when he won a coveted shift on the casino floor, and it was a celebration every night.

"We were the king of the hill," Onofrio said. "We had the best show in town ("Lido de Paris" with Siegfried & Roy), and it was the place to be. "We partied right with the customers. Nobody seemed to care because we did our jobs. But we were part of it."

A die-hard sports fan from Chicago, Onofrio had his chance to meet his share of famous athletes over the years. Football Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown used to co-host a radio show from the casino's sports book. Don Larsen, who in 1956 pitched the only perfect game in a World Series, visits a couple of times a year.

But nothing, Onofrio said, competed with the night New York Yankees great Joe DiMaggio stopped in for a drink. The Hall of Fame outfielder sat at the bar and was unassuming as he drank draft beer.

"I recognized him right away, and I'm telling everybody, 'Hey, that's Joe D. down there,'" Onofrio said. "He didn't like that. He said, 'Look, I'll give you an autograph, but quit telling everybody who I am.'"

Onofrio still has the DiMaggio autograph on a Stardust note pad, along with other mementos from the casino.

"You could see over the years that we lost a lot of our business to the new places, and we're still the place for an older crowd," Onofrio said. "A lot of my customers have asked me where they're going to go."

While the drawn-out closing gave him time to say his goodbyes to longtime customers and friends, Onofrio said he's prepared for the end. He hopes to semiretire while still working banquets and special events.

"You know what? It's going to be sad, but it's time. We have to move on," Onofrio said. "I've already shed my tears, but I've had a great 27 years working here."

LARRY SEELEY -- BELL DESK

Larry Seeley has been ferrying luggage for so long at the Stardust he remembers when room rates were $6 a night. When the hotel kicked the daily room rate up a few dollars, he thought the property would lose guests.

"A lot of people who stayed here didn't want to pay for expensive rooms," Seeley said. "They liked the charisma of the Stardust, they liked the ("Lido") show. It was a great place to be at."

Seeley arrived at the Stardust in December 1958, about five months after the casino opened. Despite opportunity at newer hotel-casinos, he never left.

"You start at the bottom at a new job. I've had a pretty nice shift here for a long time," Seeley said.

In 48 years, Seeley watched the Stardust transform from a glorified motel to a full-scale resort when its 32-story tower opened in 1991. Better guests, he said, arrived with the tower, including guests whose luggage had wheels.

He holds no bitterness that the casino is closing.

"My wife has wanted me to retire for a while now," he said. "I guess I'll get a small trailer and travel."

Over the years, Seeley had to get used to changes in the casino businesses, such as cashless gaming.

In the 1960s and 1970s, casino chips and tokens were treated like currency. Tips were often in the form of silver dollars or unspent casino chips.

"A customer would check out and have a few chips they hadn't redeemed," Seeley said. "So that would be our tips. In a job like mine, every day was payday. I always had a pocket full of money."

Seeley said the "Lido" show brought in huge crowds during the Stardust's heyday. He had hoped the various management teams would spend what was needed to keep the Stardust going, but he knew Wednesday's closing eventually would arrive.

"I think a lot of money was taken in here over the years but spent on other things," he said. "The property could have been improved, and what's being done now should have been done 20 years ago. In the hotel business, the demise of the Stardust will only lead to a newer and better place."

Seeley, however, won't be part of it.

"This is the only hotel on the Strip I ever worked at," Seeley said. "I liked working here because you were always around people who wanted to have a good time. They came in the door happy."

CINDY THORMAHLEN -- EMPLOYEE SERVICES

Of all the managers and executives she came across in the 34 years at the Stardust, there was only one person Cindy Thormahlen avoided.

Alan Glick, the head of the mob-infiltrated Argent Corp., gave her "the creeps."

Otherwise, the Stardust became her family in more than three decades of service to the casino, even through the final years that reputed mob associate Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal ran the resort. During that time, employees were instructed "to look for bombs" when they arrived each shift.

"If we saw something suspicious, we were to alert security," Thormahlen recalled. "It was very frightening."

Thormahlen started her career at the Stardust working the hotel front desk. She eventually landed in the computer room and then human resources. These past few months, she's seen a different side of the Stardust's closing, hearing from confused and sometimes angry employees.

Still, she understands the need to demolish the aging casino. Thormahlen remembered the days when a Stardust guest came to the casino all dressed up for a night of entertainment.

"We need to change, and we need to grow. Change is what life is all about," said Thormahlen, who hopes to remain with Boyd Gaming in some capacity. "It was the people who made the Stardust what it was, and by disbursing these people into other Boyd properties, it might create new families."

Thormahlen was employed in the Stardust computer room when Boyd Gaming took over in 1983. Her boss at the time skipped out the back door with computer disks as the new management assumed control. She's still not sure what information was on the disks.

Thormahlen had been close to the previous operators, Al Sachs and Herb Tobman, so she wasn't sure what to expect from the new operators.

"The day I walked into the Stardust, I fell in love with the place, and I've been here ever since," she said. "I think Boyd gave us a lot more opportunity for advancement, especially for women."

TOM MCEWEN -- BELL DESK/BELL CAPTAIN

Tom McEwen started working at the Stardust long before there ever was a Stardust.

The Royal Nevada Hotel shared some of what is now the Stardust's site in 1956 and McEwen had a job as a busboy. The Stardust was built next door and opened in July 1958, about the same time the Royal was closed.

McEwen walked next door, got a job working at the bell desk and he never left. Wednesday, when the Stardust closes for good, he'll be at his post.

"Nobody likes to lose their job and I have so many friends here," said McEwen, who became a bell captain when Boyd Gaming took over in 1983. "The place has been good to me. I bought a home and raised two kids and now I have six grandchildren. What more can I say."

McEwen recently framed a map from a 1955 Life Magazine article that focused on the Strip. The newer properties depicted on the map have long since disappeared. He said the recently built casinos don't appeal to him.

"I was never the type to look for greener pastures," McEwen said. "I tend to get one job and stay there. That seems to have worked for me. I've seen a lot of people come and go. I've seen bosses come and go. I've even seen employees go and try to get back in."

TERRY LOVERN -- FORMER "LIDO DE PARIS" DANCER/THEATER PRODUCTION MANAGER

With the Stardust closing Wednesday, Terry Lovern believes it's his time to retire.

He spent several years performing as a dancer at the hotel's "Lido de Paris" show. When its 32-year run ended, he became the property's theater production manager, handling varied tasks over the past 17 years that included show management, overseeing the musicians, directing the stagehands and executive duties.

"I think I'm ready to retire," said Lovern, 61. His career at the Stardust, he said, was memorable.

The "Lido" was the first French review brought to Las Vegas. The production was transformed, he said, when Siegfried & Roy became the show's headliners.

"The 'Lido' was the longest running show and the most popular," Lovern said.

"We had celebrities attend our performances, but it was never really that big a deal. Once Siegfried & Roy started getting some notoriety, we started seeing a lot bigger people come backstage to meet them."

As production manager, Lovern worked with the theater's headliners, including Wayne Newton.

His biggest surprise, he said, was the positive audience reaction to comic Roseanne Barr's act last year.

"Going in, that one worried me," he said.

Lovern also was responsible for the promotion of Aki, who performed in the Stardust production show "Enter the Night." Dubbed the "Showgirl for the 21st century," Aki's face and body were plastered on billboards around Las Vegas, magazine covers and even airplanes.

"She probably was the most overpublicized showgirl in Las Vegas. We 'Akied' everyone to death," Lovern said. "But it was a great promotion, and she was a good person."

JIM SEAGRAVE -- VICE PRESIDENT OF MARKETING AND ADVERTISING

As a new resident of Las Vegas in the 1960s, Jim Seagrave enjoyed hanging out at the Stardust.

When he took over the hotel-casino's advertising and marketing division in 1988, it was almost like coming home.

"As a Las Vegas resident, I'd frequently have visitors, and I always took them to the Stardust to see the 'Lido' show," Seagrave said. "This lounge was a place for fabulous entertainment."

In his 18 years with the Stardust, Seagrave was intricately involved in two property-transforming events. The closing of the "Lido de Paris" show in 1991 and the opening of a 32-story hotel tower later that year.

The "Lido" show, he said, had run its course and was replaced by "Enter the Night," which ran for eight years. The new hotel tower gave the Stardust a rebirth.

"It really turned us into a modern property, bringing it up to Las Vegas Strip standards," Seagrave said. "We also added 70,000 feet of convention space, so it really was a new era for the Stardust."

After "Enter the Night" closed, the Stardust went with headliners such as Wayne Newton, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme and Don Rickles.

"Working with stars like that was a big moment for someone in my position," Seagrave said.

He said Wednesday's closing will bring some tears, but he said the real memory of the Stardust will be the veteran employees who turned the aging casino into a source of comfort to longtime guests.

"There was a comfort zone at the Stardust," Seagrave said. "Customers would come back every year, and the same people would check them into their rooms, the same waiters would wait on them in the restaurants, and there would be the same people in the slot departments and the race and sports book. The Stardust was like a home away from home."