So long, Stardust

Oct 31, 2006 5:39 AM

The closing of the Stardust this week marks the end of an era — the era of jeweled-and-feathered showgirls, bargain-priced gaming, a gangster heritage and middle-class appeal.

In a few months, probably in April, what’s left of the Stardust will be leveled and, in its place, construction will begin on Boyd Gaming’s ultra-chic, 5,300-room Echelon Place project.

Following the lead of other upscale resorts on the Strip — Bellagio, The Venetian, Palazzo, Wynn Las Vegas — Echelon Place will be an upscale mega-property replete with a hotel, condominiums, entertainment, dining, shopping and other amenities,

Although many will agree that the Stardust had grown tired and ordinary in recent years, there’s no question that since it debuted on July 2, 1958, the resort was more often than not a trend-setter and hot spot on the Las Vegas Strip.

When it opened it was the largest resort in the world, boasting 1,065 rooms and the largest swimming pool in Nevada. Its casino floor was also the biggest in Nevada.

Despite the bright neon lights and retro architecture, the Stardust had plenty of middle-class appeal. In 1958, its hotel rooms started at $8 a night and remained cheaper than other Strip hotels for decades.

Like many of the other Strip resorts, such as the Riviera, Sands and Dunes, the Stardust relied on innovative and sometimes spectacular entertainment to gain favor with the Hollywood crowd.

The resort’s first stage spectacular was the tantalizing Lido de Paris. The show debuted on the Stardust’s opening night, attracting more than 10 million people in its first 17 years.

One of the Lido’s biggest attractions was the topless showgirls, who a newspaper reviewer once promised were "all very artistic and not offensive." Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper reported that during the show’s early run, 1,000 people were turned away every night.

Lido de Paris also featured jugglers, mimes and ice skaters, and it also launched the career of Siegfried & Roy who catapulted to stardom while playing to packed audiences every night.

In subsequent years, the Stardust opened a golf course, car racing track and drive-in theater on the property. It also featured Las Vegas’ first sports book (see accompanying page 1 story), with a record-high betting limit of $100,000 (most limits ranged from $1,000 to $5,000).

If anything could upstage the Stardust’s entertainment offerings and casino action, it was the hotel’s mob connections.

In 1976, the Stardust was exposed by Nevada investigators as a Mafia front and accused of skimming more than $7 million — in quarters! — off its slots for distribution to Midwestern mobsters.

The Stardust’s owner, Allen Glick, was forced to sell the casino. Another top Stardust boss and sports book founder, Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, against whom Glick testified, was banned from Nevada casinos. Rosenthal later survived an attempt on his life, but his business associate, mob-affiliated Tony Spilotro, wasn’t so lucky. He and his brother turned up dead in an Indiana cornfield.

The Rosenthal era was loosely chronicled in the movie "Casino," the story of the last great mob scandal in Las Vegas.

It wasn’t long after the Rosenthal scandal that the Boyd Gaming Corp. acquired the property.

The Stardust had a few successes in the intervening years, most notably scoring Wayne Newton as a headliner.

But its glory days were in the past. By the mid 1990s, the Lido de Paris had closed, the Stardust’s signature sign had lost its space-age font and its all-you-can-eat buffets and discount slots had become standard fare for Vegas.

When the Stardust shuts its doors, Las Vegas will have lost another of its colorful links to its Sodom & Gomorrah past, a past in which people came to town to cast off their sins and revel in decadence, at least for awhile.

The Stardust will have gone from the world’s largest hotel to just another "grind operation" on the Strip, from glamour to middle-class normalcy.

And, as we’ve seen so many times before, normalcy here is a prelude to the wrecking ball.