Vegas4Visitors.com Weekly Column by Rick Garman

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SLS Sets Opening Date

More than three years after it closed, the former Sahara hotel will get a new lease on life this Labor Day Weekend as the SLS Las Vegas makes it debut.

The Sahara opened in 1952 and was one of the city's premiere resorts for decades but it declined over the years to become a second (or even third) tier property, mostly famous for its cheap rooms and $1 blackjack tables. It was purchased in 2007 by SBE, a hotel, nightlife, and restaurant company based in Los Angeles headed by Sam Nazarian. He closed the hotel in May of 2011 to begin preparations for turning it into a sibling to the company's SLS branded properties in Miami and Beverly Hills.

More than $300 million is being thrown at the hotel to modernize, expand, and renovate every part of it,w ith most of the buildings being gutted and rebuilt. Two of the existing hotel towers were stripped down to the concrete and are getting all new interiors and exteriors, a third tower is being rehabbed on the inside, and a fourth, low-rise building was torn down. The SLS will have about 1,600 rooms when it is complete, several hundred fewer than when it was The Sahara.

The rest of the building is getting a similar extreme makeover. The roller coaster and NASCAR related attractions are gone and the casino, lobby, pool, and other public areas will be completely redone not only with new decor but with a revised layout. If the Beverly Hills and Miami SLS hotels are any indication of what the Vegas hotel will be like, expect lots of clean, sleek, modern lines with retro-mod furnishings and luxurious appointments.

New nightclubs, lounges, and restaurants will be added including a branch of The Bazaar, a Beverly Hills restaurant from James Beard Award winning chef Jose Andres, whose China Poblano at The Cosmopolitan has garnered major attention. Other dining will include popular LA favorites Umami Burger, Griddle Café, and Cleo; Katsuya, which is a Japanese/sushi restaurant with eight locations in California, Texas, and Florida; and an 800 Degrees pizzeria.

Furthering the LA resort feeling will be a series of boutiques from famed Tinseltown retalier Fred Segal.

Those looking for a blast-from-the-past version of The Sahara will most likely be disappointed. There is virtually nothing left of the old hotel except the walls. Everything else was sold at auction after the hotel closed.

The project is being designed by Gensler Architects, who oversaw the design of CityCenter.

The hotel is currently slated to open Labor Day Weekend 2014, which occurs August 29 through September 1.

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Las Vegas History: The Sahara

The land on which The Sahara would eventually be built had an important place in Las Vegas history dating all the way back to the 1920s. It was located just over the border from the city of Las Vegas in unincorporated Clark County, a fact that would be important in its development in a lot of different ways.

First, it allowed the land to operate as Rockwell Field, the fledgling town's first airfield and the location of the first airplane landing. It was here that a pre-reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes used to land his planes when racing from Los Angeles and back again.

Later, its location feet away from the more restrictive Las Vegas regulations made the land perfect for a casino, which the land got in 1947 when Milton Prell's Club Bingo opened. Prell had been operating bingo parlors in Los Angeles and this was his first Vegas venture. Although the 300-seat bingo hall was the main calling card, the place had a full range of casino games, a bar, a showroom, and other amenities but no hotel. At the time there were only three in the neighborhood: El Rancho, which was right across the street, and The Frontier and Flamingo, both of which were several blocks south.

The idea to add accommodations to Club Bingo started in earnest in 1951 even though Prell and his business partners wouldn't fully acquire all the land under the property until 1952. Club Bingo stayed open while the new resort was built around it, eventually incorporating it into the master site plan of the new, desert themed Sahara. The $5.5 million property was one of the few of its era that is believed to have been financed by legitimate sources rather than with mob money.

The hotel made its debut on October 7, 1952 with 240 rooms, a 500-seat showroom and dinner theater, a coffee shop, an Olympic sized swimming pool, shops, tennis courts, and an expanded casino that was the biggest in Las Vegas at the time.

Although it had a definite Arabian nights spin to things, with names like the Congo Room showroom and Garden of Allah pool deck and statues of camels and Arabian sheiks placed randomly throughout the property, the overall design was more mid-century ranch, with long, low sweeping lines and stone accents. The main building was closer to the intersection of what is now Sahara and The Strip, where the NASCAR Cafe was in later years, and the two-story hotel wings spread out to the south and east in a square that had the pool and lawns in the middle.

Ray Bolger of "The Wizard of Oz" fame was the opening night entertainment and by all accounts The Sahara was a hit from day one.

Unlike several of its competitors of the 1950s, the Sahara had a relatively stable first decade. Several co-owners cycled in and out but Prell was always at the helm, guiding the property through several expansions including a 1955 addition of several hundred additional rooms in motel-style bungalows at the southern edge of the property and the 1959 addition of a 14-story tower at the southeast corner, near what is now Paradise Road. It was, at the time, the tallest building in Nevada.

The following year, The Sahara made its movie debut as one of the five casinos targeted by the con men in the original "Ocean's 11." The showroom here would be a favorite late-night haunt for Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and the rest of the Rat Pack throughout the 1960s.

In 1961, Milton Prell sold the hotel to real estate magnate and owner of the New York Yankees, Del Webb. His construction company had helped build The Flamingo and Webb also took over the The Mint in Downtown Las Vegas at the same time.

Webb had big plans for The Sahara and embarked on a massive remodeling and expansion program that added a 24-story, 400 room hotel tower, a 44,000-square-foot convention center, a Don the Beachcomber restaurant, parking garages, and revamps to the casino and other restaurants, all of which opened in 1963 and 1964.

In 1964, the British Invasion hit The Sahara when it was to play host to an appearance by The Beatles. Demand for tickets rapidly outpaced the facilities available at the hotel and it was moved to the nearby convention center, but the fab four stayed at The Sahara in room 2344. Their presence brought out hordes of fans who overran the hotel trying to get a glimpse of the band.

Just a few weeks later, in August of 1964, a fire broke out on the roof of the main building housing the casino, restaurants, and showroom. Significant water damage forced most of the public areas to close for several weeks while repairs were made.

Another expansion in 1968 added more meeting rooms in the galaxy themed but clumsily named Space Center Convention Center. A remodeled and expanded casino debuted in 1969.

Del Webb died due to lung cancer in 1974 but by then his Del Webb Corporation was in charge of the resort and the rest of Webb's holdings. But without Webb's stewardship, the company developed financial problems and was forced to sell off some of its assets including The Sahara, which was purchased by the Archon Corporation for $50 million in 1982.

Led by businessman Paul Lowden and his former newscaster (and future politician) wife Sue, Archon embarked on yet another expansion and remodeling project that added more rooms in a 27-story tower, revamped the casino and restaurants, and revised the pool area. The bulk of that project debuted in 1987.

They kept the hotel for more than a decade, eventually selling it in 1995 to Bill Bennett, the man who had run Circus Circus for years and had presided over the development of Excalibur and Luxor.

Bennett oversaw what would be the last major expansion and renovation project for The Sahara from 1997 through 1999 that relocated much of the casino and pool, added a new domed porte corchere, and installed family-friendly attractions like a Speed: The Ride, a roller coaster that looped through the hotel's marquee, a virtual reality Cyber Speedway, and a NASCAR Cafe. A new showroom was added as well.

Bennett died in 2002 and ownership of the hotel transferred to his family who kept the lights on but otherwise let the hotel decline until it was purchased again in March of 2007 by Los Angeles nightclub and hotel impresario Sam Nazarian.

Nazarian immediately launched a PR blitz saying that he would be renovating and renaming the property as a Vegas link in his swank chain of boutique SLS Hotels. The timing turned out to not be the best as the global economy more or less imploded the following year and the project was put on hold. The hotel soldiered on as is for another four years until Nazarian finally decided that it was costing more money than it was worth.

The Sahara closed on March 26, 2011, a year shy of its 60th birthday.

It was stripped of pretty much anything of value in a major public auction in the summer of 2011 and then sat empty for the better part of two years until Nazarian finally raised the funding to begin work on his SLS Las Vegas. The $400 million project kept some of the existing property but other parts were torn down and the remaining bits are being completely remodeled. It is scheduled to open Labor Day Weekend, 2014.

For more photos and memorabilia, visit the Sahara hotel page in the museum.

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Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards

The Let's Get Physical Award of the Week goes to The Flamingo, which will be counting Olivia Newton-John as a resident headliner starting in April. The Australian singer and actress, most famous her role as Sandy in "Grease" and her early 1980s hit "Physical," will be doing a time-share of The Flamingo showroom with Donny & Marie, filling in on dates when they are off. Tickets are now on sale for dates through August of this year and a portion of the ticket sales goes to support the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Sydney, Australia. You can get more info and a link to buy tickets on the Olivia Newton-John show page here on Vegas4Visitors.com.

The Merge Award of the Week goes to the Gamblers Book Club and the Gambler's General Store, which will be merging their businesses this month. The two will operate as Gamblers Book Club & General Store at the 800 S. Main Street location in Downtown Las Vegas.

The SOS Award of the Week goes to Mamma Mia!, the musical featuring hits from pop supergroup ABBA, which is set to make its return to Las Vegas at The Tropicana starting May 8, 2014. Tickets are on sale now starting at $49 and going up to $135 for VIP booth and table seating. You can get more info and a link to buy tickets on the Mamma Mia! show page here on Vegas4Visitors.com.

The Bald is Beautiful Award of the Week goes to Nine Fine Irishmen at New York-New York, which will once again host the St. Baldrick's Day head-shaving event on March 1, 2014. Participants can sign up to have their head shaved to support the St. Baldrick's Foundation, which helps to fund childhood cancer research. There will be live musical performances; appearances by the casts of JabbaWockeez, Jersey Boys, Absinthe, Rock of Ages, Million Dollar Quartet, and more; and special celebrity head shavers to be announced. There is no charge to participate or watch the event, although of course donations are encouraged. For more info visit the St. Baldrick's Foundation website.

The Week Award of the Week goes to National Pancake Week, which runs February 10-16, which coincides with the opening of the newest branch of Hash House a Go Go at The Rio. To celebrate the opening and take advantage of the timing, they are going to be offering a Mardi Gras flapjack that will include M&Ms, white and dark chocolate chips, powdered sugar, and warm maple syrup. It will be served with a side of Mardi Gras beads, of course! It'll be available next week only at all 4 locations.

The Linqed In Award of the Week goes to The Linq, which will open at least some of the remaining portion of the outdoor pedestrian mall on the weekend of February 28. Exactly how much of it and whether it includes the High Roller observation heel is still to be determined.

The Making a Splash Award of the Week goes to Cowabunga Bay, the new water park under construction on the east side of town near Sunset Station. It has gotten an official opening date of May 24, 2014.

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Most Romantic Restaurants in Las Vegas

It doesn't have to be Valentine's Day to want to find a romantic restaurant in Las Vegas. Here are my picks for the best spots to take that special someone regardless of what date is on the calendar.

Alizé at The Palms

The views from the top floor restaurant are stunning but that would be nothing if the food wasn't any good. Here you get both the deliriously gorgeous scenery of The Strip laid out in front of you and the delicious, almost decadent, French-inspired cooking from local legend Chef Andre Rochat.

Auerole at Mandalay Bay

There are two parts to this restaurant from Chef Charlie Palmer; the front is the more lively area surrounding the wine tower but in back is another room that opens on to a lovely outdoor patio with a waterfall and atmospheric lighting. It's beautiful inside and out and comes with some of the best food you'll find in all of Las Vegas.

Bartolotta at Wynn Las Vegas

Get a seat outside along the reflecting pool and savor not only the surroundings but the amazing, almost impossibly fresh Mediterranean seafood that is served here.

Comme Ça at The Cosmopolitan

Although some are intimidated by French food, here it is accessible and delicious. Get a seat on the outdoor patio with views of the Eiffel Tower at Paris Las Vegas and you'll be able to put a little "ooo" in your "la la."

Hugo's Cellar at The Four Queens

Every woman gets a red rose upon being seated in this longtime Downtown favorite. It's a classic Vegas experience with a cozy den of a dining room and the kind of tradition in execution that still charms.

L'Atelier at MGM Grand

The dining room itself isn't all that special; it's small and the casino is right outside the door. But here it is less about the atmosphere and more about the food, which is so delicious, so unique, and so unforgettable that it creates its own sense of romance. Seriously, guys, if you want to impress someone with your taste and refinement, make a reservation here.

Oscar's at The Plaza

The former mayor of Las Vegas is in charge of this old-school steakhouse located in the iconic dome at the Plaza in Downtown Vegas. Not only do you get a good meal but you have a cool view of The Fremont Street Experience right across the street.

Top of the World at The Stratosphere

Of course if you're looking for amazing views, you can't "Top" this place. Located more than 800 feet above The Strip, the restaurant revolves slowly so you can get a full panorama of all of Las Vegas (and most of southern Nevada to boot).

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Las Vegas Wedding FAQ

What do I need in order to get married in Vegas?

A willing participant would be a good first start, but after that all you need is a marriage license from the Clark County Marriage Bureau. A license from your state is no good here.

Where do I get a license?

The Clark County Marriage Bureau is located at 201 Clark Avenue in Downtown Las Vegas. They are open open 7 days a week from 8am until midnight. Amazing but true.

How much does it cost?

$60.00 payable by cash, cashier's check, money order, or credit card. If you pay with a credit card there is an additional $5 service fee.

Do I need to make an appointment?

No, just show up. Although be warned that you may have a substantial wait, especially on busy weekends or holiday periods. Budget a couple of hours for this process. Note that you can fill out the application online up to 60 days ahead of your wedding date, which may say you time at the marriage license office.

Is there anything I need to bring with me?

Your partner - both must be present and accounted for in order to get a license. You also will need to prove how old you are (with a birth certificate, driver's license, passport, or the like) and provide your social security number.

Do I need to get a blood test first?

Nope - they'll trust you.

Is there a waiting period?

No. So if you want to marry that guy you met a couple of hours ago in line at the seafood buffet, you're good to go.

How old do you have to be?

18 is the minimum age although you can get married as young as 16 if you have parental consent.

I'm divorced. Do I need to bring along any paperwork or proof?

All you really need is to know the month, year, city, and state in which it was final but bring along the papers anyway. It's not required but it'll help speed up the process.

Is gay marriage legal in Nevada

No, and they do not have civil unions either. However, many chapels at the major hotels and around town will perform commitment ceremonies for gay or lesbian couples. Check their websites for details.

How do I contact the Clark County Marriage Bureau if I have more questions?

You can call them at 702-455-4415 or you can visit their website at Clark County Marriage License Information.

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Wild Vegas Wedding Spots

It's pretty easy to get married in Las Vegas. All you need is a photo ID and a willing participant to get a marriage license. Perhaps that's why 86,203 of them were issued in 2012. That's more than Chicago, Miami, and Dallas issued that year combined!

Of that rather stunning total, about 1,500 will get used on Valentine's Day, the busiest single day of the year for weddings in Vegas. Many of the hotel and stand-alone chapels stay open 24 hours, with people lined up for their chance to say "I Do."

Yes, marriage is big business for Las Vegas, so it is no surprise that you can get married almost anywhere. Need proof? Here are some one-of-a-kind spots in Sin City where you can exchange vows:

Bellagio Fountains

People pay a lot of money for stunning backdrops for their wedding photos but just imagine the iconic dancing waters at Bellagio framing your happy couple pose. The hotel offers a variety of packages that allow you to get married overlooking the Bellagio Fountains and even chose your own show soundtrack.

Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas Pop-Up Wedding Chapel

The sight of a bride and groom walking through a casino after getting married is common, but you rarely get to watch the actual ceremony. At the Cosmo all you have to do is stand on the street and you can watch weddings happening in their "pop-up" chapel that has big windows facing The Strip. They also offer faux-weddings in case you want the experience without the commitment. It's worth noting that the chapel is not open all the time; different things cycle in and out of the space, so call in advance.

Eiffel Tower Ride

There are many great views in Vegas but few of them are as stunning as those from the Eiffel Tower Ride at Paris Las Vegas. Couples can get married atop the tower with other couples getting married at the Bellagio Fountains across the street as a backdrop.

Kiss by Monster Mini Golf

I had an opportunity to watch a wedding at the chapel at this Kiss themed attraction and it was as silly as you'd expect it to be - but also kinda sweet. A Gene Simmons impersonator officiates and there will be singing involved.

The Mob Museum

Maybe a shotgun wedding is more your style? You can work out your Bugsy Siegel or Vito Corleone fantasies at this fantastic facility dedicated to the history of organized crime. Let's just hope your spouse is all you wake up in bed with afterward.

The Neon Museum

Among the rescued signs at the terrific Neon Museum are several from long-gone wedding chapels around town. The facility offers couples the chance to get married among these historic masterpieces, giving you a one-of-a-kind backdrop.

Mirage Volcano

Speaking of backdrops, picture yourself standing in front of a mountain of fire and water in the form of the Mirage Volcano. Get a night time slot for the best photo opportunities.

New York-New York Roller Coaster

Thrill seekers can come here to New York-New York and get married while flying along at more than 60 miles per hour on the hotel's roller coaster....

Stratosphere Thrill Ride Weddings

...or they can come here to The Stratosphere and get married on any of the hotel's sky-high thrill rides. With Sky Jump you could take the plunge literally!

Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel

Of all the independent chapels in town, this one is the most classically Vegas offering all manners of themed weddings from Elvis to vampires to showgirls to aliens and beyond. If you want to take your marriage seriously but want a fun wedding, this is the place you should go.

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