Sahara Hotel Casino recalls its past

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“It was like a hangout for everybody.”

Las Vegas lounge legend Denise Clemente couldn’t have summarized the Sahara Hotel any better.

The original Sahara Hotel.

The sixth-ever hotel built on the south end of Highway 91 — now Las Vegas Boulevard, or, The Strip — carries some of the best stories in the history of Las Vegas.

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From Louis Prima and Keely Smith keeping the big band era alive, to Charo’s “Cha-Cha-Cha,” to Don Rickles and plenty of shenanigans involving the Rat Pack.

“It was just a whole different way of living in Las Vegas, and I loved it,” Clemente said.

In an attempt to restore some of those memories, the new Sahara Las Vegas is asking longtime Las Vegans, historians and collectors to contribute to its more than $150 million transformation. An all-new hotel lobby is set to unveil, and the iconic hotel is hoping to display memorabilia and collectibles from the original Sahara Hotel and Casino, including any rare items from between the 1950s and 1970s, when maitre d’s were just as important as the headliners in the Casbar Lounge.

Like Harry Karn, and Rickles’ favorite, Johnny Joseph.

Karn was the property’s head maitre d, but per folklore, Rickles told the powers that be he wanted Joseph in for his shows or he wouldn’t be back. The Sahara obliged, given headliners — including the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra — could be found at the lounge after their own shows during the wee hours in the morning.

“Guys would cut their show early just to see (Don Rickles) show,” comedian Buddy Hackett once told Johnny Carson during an interview on The Tonight Show.

Rickles and Carson’s friendship blossomed at the Sahara, where the two were reintroduced after an initial meeting in New York City.

“The lounge acts were actually more popular than many of the main rooms,” said longtime UNLV football and basketball PA announcer Dick Calvert, who moved to Las Vegas in 1969. “My recollection is going there with my wife, and I couldn’t imagine how many times we’d go see the same shows. I still know all the words to their songs, Keely Smith along with her husband Louis Prima and Sam Butera and the Witnesses.”

Clemente was discovered in the Casbar Lounge by Liberace and traveled with him for two years. She also spent a good part of 15 years opening for Rickles.

“It really helped my career immensely,” said Clemente, who was booked for the once popular Dinah Shore television show because the program’s booking agent was in the lounge. “People really got discovered in the lounge back then. That doesn’t happen here anymore.”

Rachel Hunt, vice president of marketing, said she’s already received menus, pictures, matchbook covers and ashtrays for the lobby display. The prize grab thus far is an album cover of Louis Prima’s “Live at the Sahara.”

From restaurants such as Don the Beachcomber or House of Lords, to the coffee shop that was situated on the south side of the hotel and ran parallel with windows that revealed the popular pool area, locals, tourists and celebrities made their way to the Sahara for the finest Asian cuisine, best steaks in town or the simplest bowl of oatmeal.

Hunt said she’s taken great pride during extensive research in rebranding the legendary property, and hearing a bevy of stories from people whose memory banks share history from the longtime host hotel for the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon.

“The opportunity to work at the Sahara was definitely a big part of me being here,” Hunt said. “Our role in Sahara’s history, we really feel like we’re the caretakers of this amazing piece of history. Our mantra is ‘for the love of Vegas.’ One of the ways to live up to that is to honor the Sahara.

“It really helps bring it home for us. The community is important to our history. It’s an excitement on a different level. This place is synonymous with their childhood.”

Like the 47-year resident who remembered meeting Gavin MacLeod at the pool as a child. The former Love Boat star, who portrayed Captain Merrill Stubing, not only signed an autograph — which the fan told Hunt he still has — but invited the young lad to sit with him and his wife and join them for lunch and an afternoon of swimming since he was at the pool on his own.

“It resonates with a lot of people who felt they were a part of something bigger,” Hunt said. “You can see with it every renovation we do. And it comes back to our mantra, ‘For the love of Vegas.’”

And truly, a love of the Sahara.

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About the Author

W.G. Ramirez

W.G. Ramirez is a 32-year veteran covering sports in Southern Nevada, and resident of 46 years. He is a freelance reporter in Las Vegas and the Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press.

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