- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 17, 2011

LAS VEGAS — The Sahara made its name over almost six decades as a playground and stage for some of the biggest names in showbiz - including the Rat Pack, Don Rickles, Johnny Carson and Sonny & Cher. Elvis Presley played slots here as he filmed “Viva Las Vegas,” and the Beatles stayed while in town to perform a concert.

On Monday, the famed hotel and casino’s towering, Moroccan-themed marquee sent a final message to patrons: “Thanks for the memories.” Padlocks and chains were wrapped around the S-shaped handles on the Sahara’s glass doors.

The Sahara’s closure came after its owners decided earlier this year that it was no longer economically viable to keep it open. It had operated for nearly 59 years on the north side of the Strip, an area that has struggled to keep visitors since the onset of the Great Recession three years ago.

“It’s almost like you’re at a wake for an old friend,” said SBE Entertainment CEO Sam Nazarian as he walked the casino floor. “Everyone gets together and really reminisces, so there’s a little sentimental value for me.”

Before officials shut the doors, visitors snapped pictures, drank morning cocktails and gambled for the final time in the casino. Employees hugged, swapped stories and wondered what might come next for them and the casino.

Casino officials gave away the last of the Sahara’s progressive jackpot cash on Friday, awarding 63 winners about $500 each. The free drawings started a weekend of people taking one last stroll through the casino.

“It’s sentimental to see it close,” said Ron Michl, 72, who worked as a light operator and electrician for the Sahara’s shows from 1964 to 1980. The Sahara opened in October 1952.

“I feel truly bad for these employees,” Mr. Michl said as he ate an omelet at the casino’s NASCAR Cafe.

The casino’s owners at SBE Entertainment have not said what they plan to do with the hotel.

The Sahara is remembered as one of the Rat Pack’s favorite haunts - where an emphasis on lounge acts set standards for other joints that followed. The first performance at the casino came from Ray Bolger, who played the scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz.” Johnny Carson promoted his live appearances at the Sahara on his TV show, and Don Rickles and Louis Prima were regular acts.

“That revolutionized their careers, but it also marked the first time the lounge received that kind of attention,” said Michael Green, a College of Southern Nevada professor who co-wrote the book “Las Vegas: A Centennial History.”

He added that the Beatles also were scheduled to perform at the Sahara, but the demand for tickets was so great that the hotel management “graciously” moved the show to the convention center.

Both Mr. Green and Mr. Michl said the Sahara was popular with Hollywood stars, including John Wayne, Fred MacMurray and Judy Garland.

In its final years, the Sahara advertised round-the-clock $1 blackjack and a 2-pound-burrito-eating challenge and added a NASCAR theme, doing little to keep up with the times and the newer bigger casinos, like the Bellagio, CityCenter and the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.

A replica of Dale Earnhardt’s race car sat inside the Sahara on Monday with a flat tire, dents in its hood and coins thrown inside.

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