Tuesday Night at the Sahara

Notes from the deathbed of a Las Vegas legend

The Sahara Hotel will close on May 16 after nearly six decades of helping countless tourists chase their dreams, in almost all cases throwing good money after bad. But that, as they say, was entertainment. This was one of those places—like the long-lost Sands and the blown-away Dunes—where booze-fueled Rat Pack-style antics were once carried out with a devil-may-care attitude in a fog of cigarette smoke.

Or so I like to imagine. I missed out on those good ol’ days.

When I moved to Las Vegas in 2001, I briefly investigated the Sahara. The old girl was already frayed at the edges even after the renovations of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Her loyal staff seemed bent with age, slowed even as the pace on the Strip picked up. Then I forgot about her entirely.

But before the end came, I wanted to try once more to find that old Sahara magic. So I booked myself a suite for my birthday, April 26. It would cost me $71, I was informed over the phone, and as a local, I was required to put down an additional $100 deposit. Locals, the operator explained, have a nasty habit of throwing parties.

I also might, I was further educated, be getting a Murphy bed.

I pulled into the valet, dressed to the 1952 nines. That was the year the Sahara opened, and possibly the year my vintage satin saucer-style hat was sold to its original owner. Check-in was swift—I was the only one in line. I went up to my suite, No. 2703 (built in 1987, not the ’60s as I was told at the time of reservation), and put the wet bar to work with the assortment of bottles I had not-so-surreptitiously toted in.

At 8:30 p.m., the casino floor was deserted save a few hearty or perhaps indifferent souls feeding bills into machines. My friends Bill (in his fedora) and Shalom (in her vintage cream silk and gold brocade shift) reported that they had been left on their own to locate the House of Lords steak house; they hadn’t encountered one staff member who could say for sure whether it was even open anymore. The NASCAR Café, the couple was repeatedly told, would be their only dining option. I could hear the death knell.

Our party of six breezed into the Moroccan-themed dining room, past a photo I’ve never seen before of Frank Sinatra and the boys. From the variety of incredulous looks on Frankie, Dean Martin and Peter Lawford’s faces I would guess it was snapped at the instant Sammy Davis Jr. told them he was Jewish.

In the months before its final flat-line, the Sahara’s old organs have shut down one by one—starting, it seems, with the fridge in my suite. Two of the three towers were closed by the night I got there; the Platters had left the Congo Room. There was little remaining at the Sahara that was old as my hat. But I had heard that a few vestiges remained, and the House of Lords, which opened in 1954, was one of them.

When I asked for the wine list, our server, Thomas, returned instead with an armful of bottles—a couple of zinfandels, a Barbaresco and a tempranillo blend—the last remains of the House of Lords cellar.

“I have one of these,” Thomas said. “And one or two of these.” He strained to read the small print in the dim dining room light.

I probably won’t remember my $15 shrimp cocktail, other than its dollar-to-crustacean ratio, or the delicious filet, or the mashed potatoes, salted as if for preservation. But I’ll never forget Thomas bringing us the old restaurant’s finest and lastest. He made my birthday.

Before embarking on the rest of the evening’s itinerary—one that would have us romping for hours through the casino, breaking into the demo car outside the NASCAR Café, doing naughty things to the Saracen-looking statue outside the Congo Room, and eventually passing out at dawn in my Spartan suite—I spun on my heel and returned to ask Thomas a question.

“Where will you go after the 16th?”

“Oh, I’ll be all right,” he said, perhaps reassuring both of us. “I have friends at the Stratosphere, so I’ll probably just head over there.”

Not everyone would have such a smooth exit plan. I winced at the thought of retirement-age cocktail waitresses having to show up for today’s cattle-call hiring days: “model-server,” “model-hostess.” Thomas was one of the lucky ones.

I wished him well and we got on with the debauchery.

The next morning, I checked out, coffee in-hand to fight off a crippling gin hangover, feeling indifferent about the physical building and concerned only for the pleasant and remarkably chipper staff. The valet beamed as an enormous cloud of thick, black smoke suddenly belched out of a nearby grating and enveloped us.

She was still smiling when the smoke cleared.

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