- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2007

From combined dispatches

LAS VEGAS

Steve McQueen raced there. Wayne Newton sang there. Muhammad Ali trained there. And for decades, the mob did business there. Now, it’s gone.

The Stardust Resort & Casino, a pivotal piece of Las Vegas history, was imploded early yesterday in a hail of fireworks to make way for Boyd Gaming Corp.’s $4.4 billion megaresort, Echelon.

Hundreds of people partied beneath tents and on makeshift patios before Boyd Chairman Bill Boyd’s four grandsons pushed a plunger to detonate the building. The blast generated a massive dust cloud that chased revelers into cars, buses and nearby casinos.

“It hurts. We cried,” said Sheila Navarro, 51, a school-supplies buyer from Oxnard, Calif., who took shelter in the nearby Frontier casino-hotel. She came with three sisters, her mother, an aunt and a brother-in-law to say farewell to the casino, where she gambled for more than 30 years.

“The Stardust, when it opened, it knocked everyone’s socks off,” said Len Rader, 70, a spotlight operator at the resort for 18 years. “There was such a relaxed atmosphere, but there was class. Doggone it, they sure were great times.”

The casino, which closed in November, was the first that marketed to middle-class America. It also was linked to the convictions of five crime bosses who skimmed millions from the property and was the model for Martin Scorsese’s 1995 movie “Casino.”

When it opened in 1958, the Stardust was the world’s largest gambling resort. It used conventions to fill its 1,317 rooms midweek and proved that casinos with cheap rooms — $8 a night in 1963 — were economically feasible.

But the concept of discounting rates to keep people coming is rapidly fading from the Las Vegas Strip, where many casinos nowadays make more revenue from hotel rooms, clubs, shows and cuisine than from gambling.

“There was this implicit idea that invisible high rollers came in and funded everything, so that Mr. and Mrs. America could have a steak for $2 and see Frank Sinatra for the price of a drink,” said David Schwartz, a gambling historian at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

“Now you can build a 7,000-room hotel and charge $300 a night for rooms,” he said. “With slots being so big, it is all the people losing $200 per trip that are driving the growth.”

Yet the Stardust’s early success paved the way for the dozens of neon-lit behemoths on the Las Vegas Strip, including the $4 billion, 5,000-room Echelon Place that will take the Stardust’s place in 2010.

The Stardust’s 2006 profit of $24.7 million was a fraction of the earnings at newer casinos such as MGM Mirage’s Bellagio, which made $406 million.

The loss of the Stardust will mean one fewer casino from the era of Sinatra and the Rat Pack in the 1960s. It was a time when female diners could be turned away for wearing pants, said 73-year-old Jill Rader, Mr. Rader’s wife.

“We wore long dresses and gloves for dinner, Jackie Onassis-type things,” said Mrs. Rader, who danced on the Stardust stage. “Now people slop on through, and they look a mess.”

Crooner Newton brought nostalgia back to the aging clientele in 2000 but called it a wrap in April 2005.

The Stardust was the dream of Tony Cornero, a former tequila bootlegger and convict who operated floating casinos off California in the 1930s and ‘40s. Cornero didn’t live to see his 40-acre casino-resort open.

He had a heart attack and died while playing craps in 1955. The Stardust opened three years later under the control of Cleveland mobster Moe Dalitz.

In its heyday, the Stardust attracted crowds at events such as Ed Sullivan televising his CBS variety show in 1962. Three years later, Ali, still known as Cassius Clay, trained at the Stardust for a heavyweight fight with Floyd Patterson.

“When I first came here, on Friday and Saturday night, if you fainted, you couldn’t fall down,” said Jim Seagrave, who first visited the Stardust in 1961 and worked on its marketing from 1988 until the resort closed.

In 1968, film star McQueen drove a dune buggy in the Stardust 7-11, a 320-mile off-road race that started at the Stardust International Speedway. In 1978, the resort gave magicians Siegfried & Roy their first star billing.

The Stardust also pioneered marketing that became Las Vegas staples. Its Lido de Paris revue had the first topless showgirls in Las Vegas, said Mr. Schwartz.

Stardust’s management had fame of a different sort than its guests and entertainers.

Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, a sports handicapper who had pleaded no contest to fixing college basketball in 1960, introduced legal sports betting at casinos, creating an operation at the Stardust complete with TVs and results from racetracks across the country. He later was banned from Nevada casinos for suspected ties to organized crime and skimming casino funds, according to Nevada state records.

Tony “the Ant” Spilotro was charged with skimming millions from the Stardust and was awaiting trial when he was killed and found buried in an Indiana cornfield in 1986.

Spilotro and his associates represented the end of the Las Vegas era when casinos turned to mobsters for money, before corporations started buying them, Mr. Schwartz said.

In 1983, Nevada regulators revoked Stardust management’s gaming licenses because of mob ties and asked Boyd to manage the property. Boyd bought the casino two years later.

Fern Christian, 85, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., said she visited the Stardust every six weeks from 1965 until it closed. She said she was aware of the mafia ties and once met Spilotro.

“It didn’t bother me,” she said. “I saw them, but I was too busy gambling.”

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