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Gaming Guru

Jeff Simpson

Jeff Simpson Reflects on Some Stardust Memories as Fabled Resort Heads for Date with History Books

18 September 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- It's hard for me to believe that the Stardust is closing in less than seven weeks.

The Strip mainstay that opened in 1958 has provided a lot of great memories, personal and professional.

I had my first big casino win at the Stardust in 1982, running a couple of hundred dollars up to $3,700. A friend's father advised me to immediately drive back to Orange County, Calif., before I lost it back. I followed his good advice.

I loved to play poker - and blackjack and craps - but the only legal poker games in California were draw poker games, mostly lowball. So I would drive (or fly for next-to-nothing on AirCal, PSA or Western) to Las Vegas every few months with two hundred or three hundred bucks.

Although I usually stayed and played downtown, where the bargains were, on a couple of midsummer visits, I stayed at the Stardust's old motel-style rooms for an amazing $9 per night.

I also loved watching sports, and occasionally betting on them, in the Stardust's race and sports book, which was filled with dozens of the sharpest bettors around.

In the early '80s, the last years the Stardust was run by folks with organized crime associations, it was a solid midmarket property. The Mirage had yet to open, and the Stardust competed with the Riviera, Sahara, Dunes, Sands, Flamingo Hilton and Tropicana, among others.

During the '80s and '90s the Stardust continued to change.

The Boyd family took over the property after regulators busted a skimming operation in 1983, and the Boyds bought the Stardust in 1985. A new hotel tower was added in 1991.

Until the Mirage and Excalibur opened in 1989 the Strip was pretty stagnant, as casino operators focused their investment dollars on Atlantic City and Laughlin.

That all changed in the '90s, when a blizzard of new resorts transformed the Strip and dropped the Stardust many rungs on the resort pecking order.

My professional relationship with the Stardust began in 1999, when I started covering the gaming business.

A couple of my favorite stories involved the Stardust.

My first in-depth interview with Boyd Gaming Corp. Chairman Bill Boyd centered on the history and future of the Stardust and what I think still separates his company from its competitors - a personal, friendly style of customer service.

Explaining how his locals- and downtown-centered casino company was able to succeed on the Strip, Boyd told me that he wasn't fazed by the competition.

"It's the same business, no matter where you're looking at," Boyd told me, and then described his efforts to change the attitudes of employees so that guests would feel more comfortable. "When we took over, the dealers weren't even allowed to talk to customers. We're more of a family-type company."

One of the nicest and most interesting persons that I've met in Las Vegas was longtime Stardust employee Larry Vance, who worked at the casino from 1961 until he died a little more than a year ago.

Vance, the son of baseball great "Dazzy" Vance, bridged the Stardust's mob-run era with its Boyd era, and worked in a bunch of different frontline and management jobs, including stints as a busboy, waiter, captain, valet, limo driver (for Lefty Rosenthal!) and beverage manager.

He said his philosophy kept him employed for 44 years: "Keep your nose clean and your mouth shut."

Vance said that Rosenthal, the former Stardust executive, sports handicapper and alleged organized crime associate who is now banned from entering Nevada casinos, once asked him to personally deliver a new Rolls Royce to Siegfried and Roy.

"I was pretty well liked by the mobsters," he told me.

Although most of his last years were spent there after the property had passed its heyday, Vance remained proud of his hotel and remembered its glory days.

"We had the best people coming in and we had some hellacious parties," he recalled. "You should have seen the valet lines. The Stardust was the center of everything. It was dead-center Strip. The Stardust was the biggest, the newest, the most elaborate hotel. We were the biggest thing in the world."

I never got to see the Stardust during its peak years, but it has provided me some great stories just the same. I expect Echelon Place, Boyd's $4 billion redevelopment of the site, to capture people's imaginations the way Vance said the Stardust did.

I've covered enough Las Vegas hotel openings and implosions to know that fond memories make way for new dreams.