You were keeper of the Sahara brand from 1982-95. What are your fondest memories?
There was very little walk-in traffic, so you had to run marquee names in the showroom to attract people from other hotels. Don Rickles was there on and off for almost 30 years. We got George Burns to celebrate his 80th year in show business, and we brought him back to the Sahara in the ’80s. He had been a fixture at the Sahara way before I bought it; he introduced Bobby Darin and Ann-Margret on the Conga Room stage.
You’re always trying to get a stable of names to round out your year—we had Tina Turner under a multiweek contract prior to her breakthrough album Private Dancer. We had Billy Preston and Turner together. Even Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Frankie Valli and James Brown. I brought in acts that I really liked—Ray Charles, the great jazz organist Jimmy Smith. We had a lot of talent in those days.
What was Rickles like to work with?
If you remember 1982, Las Vegas was really in a slump. We were hurting. Interest rates were 20 percent, and it was impossible to do business. When I bought the Sahara from Del Webb, I bought Don’s contract for four more years, and here’s what this man did: He knew the place wasn’t doing well, so when we started our promotions with Los Angeles-area travel agents, he volunteered to show up [to the promotions] and work with us. He would get up there and do his act, and the travel agents were going, “What? Here’s Don Rickles.” This was gratis, because he wanted to help out. I never forgot that. What a great guy. What a pro.
What’s the biggest difference between that era and today?
The industry has evolved. You had a live orchestra onstage, you had an opening act, you had a big-name act, you had a gourmet room—in our case, the House of Lords and a specialty room called Don the Beachcomber—and players never paid for anything. When The Mirage opened [in 1989] with superior food outlets and wonderful room products, we discovered that folks would pay up for a better room, food and celebrity chefs.
What did hosting Jerry Lewis’ Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon mean for the property?
Jerry Lewis was doing it for the right reason; it was something we could help out with, and we loved it. Jerry could get all the names to come there. [Frank Sinatra famously arranged for Dean Martin to surprise Lewis during the 1976 telethon]. All Jerry had to do was pick up the phone and call Sammy, and Sammy’s there. Jerry’s raised well more than $2 billion over the years for MDA. What a dedicated human being to have done that.
What are your impressions of SLS?
I’m very impressed with what [owner] Sam Nazarian did in renovating that property. For me, I guess I would have imploded it and started over. But he took something [that existed], knew what to do with it and he did it. When I walk around inside and look at how the traffic flows and see the overall fairly low cost of entry, I say, “This place is gonna work.” He’s going after a market that’s similar to the Cosmopolitan; it’s going to be a fun place to be.
You still own the land where the former Wet ’n Wild was. Are you optimistic about the area?
Sam’s uniquely positioned long term, because you’re going to have two mega projects creating a new north end of the Strip. Between Genting Group’s Resorts World Las Vegas [the former Stardust] and the old Frontier site purchased by Melco Crown, you have two very big, well-financed companies that know what they’re doing. It’s terrific.
Did you recognize anything on your tour of SLS?
There are little things that you can see. If you go into some of the elevators, you’ll see some of the brass fittings still there. And it brings back a lot of memories for me. I could pick out the spots where we built the new Casbar Lounge, I could pick out the spot where we had the Conga Room. This was where the deli we built used to be. But you really can’t go back.
When I hear things like, “We have to make Las Vegas the way it used to be.” No, we don’t. We’re going to do something different, bigger and better. That’s where I want to go. I don’t want to live in the past. Time after time, folks try it. It just doesn’t work. You gotta go for something new, you gotta take the chances, you gotta roll the dice, and that’s exactly what Sam Nazarian has done.
As owner of the Pioneer in Laughlin, do you have any new projects to report?
It’s kind of a market-share game now. Pioneer is holding its own; there’s no debt on any of that, so it’s fine. We recently opened Bumbleberry Flats; it’s getting rave reviews. We were just approved for a new deli and a new porte-cochère and façade, so we’re on a program this year to do quite a bit of improvements and capital expenditures. We’ve been reluctant over the past five years to do that, not knowing where we’re headed down there, but this year we decided to do it, and I think it’s going to pay off.
What’s your outlook on Laughlin?
Laughlin has been flat to declining every single year. If we’ve learned anything, I wish Laughlin were captain of its own ship. Laughlin’s still a part of Clark County; it should be its own municipality. We’ve learned that when the town gets together and brings in name acts, such as what Tony Marnell has done at the Laughlin Event Center amphitheater, they’ve had really good success with country acts such as Toby Keith, Reba McEntire and Rascal Flatts. When you have those, the town fills. Until that part of the business organizes, Laughlin’s going to be a tough market.