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VEGAS4VISITORS.COM WEEKLY COLUMN BY RICK GARMAN
August 25, 2014
The Countdown: Top 10 Vegas News Stories of the Week
10. Vegas4Visitors.com Programming Note
The Weekly Column will be taking a break for the next two weeks as I head to Vegas to celebrate my mother's 80th birthday (and to catch up on the latest in the city) and then off to Atlanta and Savannah to celebrate my own birthday. I'll be 22. Shut up. Anyway, I'll be posting some updates from Vegas next week on the Vegas4Visitors.com Facebook page so be sure to keep an eye out there. The Weekly Column will be back on September 15 with a bunch of new reviews. See you then!
9. Major Freeway Construction Project Approved
Anyone who has ever driven in Las Vegas has probably experienced The Spaghetti Bowl, the epic of confusion that is the interchange of I-15 and I-95 near Downtown. The good news is that the state has just approved the first set of funding for the massive Project Neon, a road works effort that will completely redo the Bowl at a cost that could run north of $1.4 billion by the time it is all done. They will be widening the freeway, adding carpool lanes, revising and rebuilding entrance and exit ramps, and more. The bad news is that road construction will make the area a mess for years until it is done. Expect to see the orange cones pop up next year with a completion date of around 2020.
8. Boulder Station Turns 20
Locals' favorite Boulder Station celebrated their 20th anniversary this past week with cake and champagne for anyone who showed up. The actual opening date anniversary is August 23 but the hotel is making the whole month a party with giveaways and special events. When it opened in 1994 Boulder Station was Station Casinos' second Vegas property aimed at the local market after Palace Station near The Strip. Since then they have added Texas Station, Sunset Station, Fiesta Henderson, Fiesta Rancho, Santa Fe Station, Green Valley Ranch, and Red Rock Resort to their portfolio. Read more about Boulder Station.
7. This Week in Vegas History - August 25-August 31
The dog days of summer have been busy in Vegas over the years. Go all the way back to August 30, 1946 when the Golden Nugget casino first opened. It was a fraction of the size it is now and didn't have a hotel in those days but it has been a landmark for nearly 70 years now. You can read more about the Golden Nugget's history below. On the same date in 1991, Main Street Station hotel opened just a few blocks away, a reinvention of the old Park Hotel. On August 28, 2000 the historic Desert Inn closed after 50 years as a Las Vegas Strip mainstay. It was torn down to make way for Wynn Las Vegas. Finally, on the same date in 2008, the Eastside Cannery opened on Boulder Highway. Read more Vegas history in the Vegas4Visitors.com Museum.
6. Iggy Fine After Post Vegas Fall
Maybe all the excitement from the opening of the SLS Las Vegas got to her? Rapper Iggy Azalea performed at a VIP opening of the hotel on Friday night and then jetted off to Los Angeles where she performed in a benefit concert associated with the MTV Music Awards and promptly fell off the stage. The rapper, who is becoming a Vegas fixture, was uninjured in the incident and was quickly lifted back onstage where she continued performing.
5. Cirque & Southwest Airlines Celebrate the Beatles in Vegas
Travelers on a Southwest Airlines flight from San Francisco to Vegas were surprised earlier this week when cast members from Cirque du Soleil's LOVE popped up and performed at the San Francisco airport, took the plane to Vegas, and then staged a mini-show in the baggage claim at McCarran International in Las Vegas. It was all in honor of the 50th anniversary of The Beatles appearance in Vegas, a 1964 show at The Sahara that caused an almost citywide hysteria. The cast performed three songs at McCarran including "Get Back," "Sgt. Pepper," and "Drive My Car," complete with the VW Beetle pictured driven through the airport. Read the full review of LOVE by Cirque du Soleil.
4. LOVE and Zumanity To Get Makeovers
Speaking of Cirque du Soleil, they are planning to make some changes to two of their Las Vegas shows, the Beatles themed LOVE at The Mirage and the adult oriented Zumanity at New York-New York. The Beatles show will get some upgrades to the visuals and the soundtrack including, possibly, some new songs from the Fab 4 catalogue. Meanwhile Zumanity used to be the raunchiest show at a major hotel but has gotten tame by comparison. It's going to close right after the first of the year and get an overhaul although the basic naughty concept will remain in place. The new Zumanity will debut in mid-2015 while the updated LOVE will be done in time for the show's 10th Anniversary in 2016. Read more about Zumanity and LOVE.
3. Excalibur Buffet Closing For Remodeling
It's hard to believe that a buffet that charges $17-$24 is considered "cheap" on The Strip these days, but one of the few remaining "cheap" buffets is closing right after Labor Day to get a remodel and upgrade. The buffet at Excalibur (formerly known as The Round Table Buffet) is going to get a visual revamp and a makeover of its menu with an expected reopening before the end of the year. How much do you want to bet that when it does start serving again that the $17-$24 price range will be also "remodeled"? The More Buffet at neighboring Luxor is still running at those prices but for how long? Read more about Excalibur.
2. How You Know You Have Too Much Money, Vegas Edition
How do you know when you have too much money? When you spend $80,000 to build a beer fort at a Las Vegas nightclub. Apparently some guy at XS Nightclub at Wynn Las Vegas decided that he wanted more privacy for him and his friends to party so he ordered 400 cases of beer and built a wall around his VIP table. I wish I was making this up. It was said to have cost him $80,000. In this instance it is probably difficult to quantify which "too much" was the critical link in the decision making chain - too much money, too much alcohol, or too much stupidity. ESPN's Darren Rovell snapped the picture and posted it to his Twitter feed. Read more about XS.
1. Lion's Share Progressive Jackpot Hits after 15 Years!
One of the most famous slot machines in Las Vegas has finally given away its top prize after 15 years of building up to $2.4 million. The Lion's Share slot at the MGM Grand was so famous that it had its website and Facebook pages and would regularly have lines of people waiting to play it. It dates back to the opening of the hotel 20 years ago and the progressive has been climbing for 15 years all the way to $2.4 million when it was finally won on Friday night by a New Hampshire couple, Walter and Linda Misco. Now that the big jackpot has finally been hit, the machine will be retired. Read more about the MGM Grand.
SLS Las Vegas Now Open
Fireworks, celebrities, and capacity crowds greeted the newest casino-hotel on The Strip, the SLS Las Vegas, on Friday night as the former Sahara hotel opened with a whole new look, feel, and attitude.
More than $400 million was spent on the reinvention of the old hotel and other than walls and the concrete under the carpeting a tile, not much of the Sahara is left. It has all new rooms, a new casino, a dozen new restaurants, several nightclubs, and more.
The evening started with a VIP event for the company to show off the swank new SLS to celebrities, investors, and the media. Seen walking the red carpet were "Breaking Bad" star Aaron Paul, "Twilight" actor Kellen Lutz, model Dita Von Teese, and actress Brittany Snow among others. They were treated to two special concerts - one from rocker Lenny Kravitz who helped design several of the high roller penthouse suites at the hotel and one from Australian rapper Iggy Azalea and singer Rita Ora.
The whole thing culminated with a huge fireworks show just after midnight as they opened the doors to the general public - and there were a lot of them. According to reports, the line to get in when from the front doors of the property, up The Strip to Sahara Avenue, down Sahara to Paradise, and then down Paradise behind the building. Security had to repeated stop the line from entering the hotel because the building was at capacity.
I'll be getting a first look at the SLS this week and will be bringing you my thoughts on the Vegas4Visitors.com Facebook page and here on the site in a couple of weeks when I'm back from vacation.
Celine Replacement: Let's Start Our Own Rumors
It has only been about a week since Celine Dion announced she would be cancelling her residency at Caesars Palace but rumors on who would replace her, even temporarily, have already begun. I figured we should get in on the action and create some rumors of our own.
There are two schools of thought on the Vegas headliner concept these days. The first is the traditional, middle-of-the-road artist that usually appeals to an older audience. This often involves bringing in an entertainment "Diva" such as Celine herself, Bette Midler, Cher, or Elton John, all of whom have had extended residencies in Vegas.
The second concept aims for a younger audience with someone who is perhaps not at the peak of their career but who can still sell tickets and still create buzz. Hello, Britney Spears.
There's a third concept out there where people dream of getting current artists like Adele or Beyonce, but the odds of them doing an extended residency in Vegas are about the same as rolling a hard eight in craps. Yes, Bruno Mars is doing a "residency" at The Cosmopolitan but that involves 12 shows over the course of a year, which is really stretching the concept to its breaking point.
By the way, before we begin it's worth noting that I'm not going to be the first one to float wishful thinking ideas and position them as rumors. Robin Leach of Vegas Deluxe has already put it out there on artists like Mariah Carey, Madonna, and Diana Ross in the traditional category and Adele, Beyonce, and Katy Perry in the current artist category. Not bad.
In the Diva category I would start with Cyndi Lauper. Although she is not exactly "traditional," she would definitely appeal to a boomer audience but would have enough of an edge that the residency could have a broader appeal. And anyone who has ever seen her perform knows that she puts on an incredible show - she is a force of nature.
Next I'd go to Annie Lennox. I don't know if I need to say anything more about that idea but if it doesn't excite you then you need to have your pulse checked.
If you prefer the male version of a diva, may I suggest George Michael? It might not be a great idea for a guy who has serious impulse control issues to be in a city like Vegas, but I'd love to see what a George Michael show looks like.
Billy Joel has shared a concert tour with Elton John, so why not time share a stage in Las Vegas? They could just leave the piano where it is.
A few more names... Janet Jackson, Chaka Khan, Stevie Nicks, Mary J. Blige, Melissa Ethridge, Patti LaBelle, and Gloria Estefan.
In the younger audience category I'd probably kick things off with Kelly Clarkson. Now that she has just had a baby, she might want to have a little more stability than being out on the road all the time so a Vegas residency would be perfect for her.
As long as we're talking about American Idol alums, how about Carrie Underwood? With Shania leaving at the end of the year they could use a country artist in the rotation.
Or maybe Jennifer Hudson or Alicia Keys to put a little soul into the proceedings?
That last bucket I'm not going to really touch. Sure it would be great to have Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, or Lady Gaga doing Vegas residencies but it's never going to happen so why even go there?
So, I need to narrow this down and start my rumors... I'm going to pick Cyndi Lauper, Kelly Clarkson, and George Michael. Have you heard that they may be headlining at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas?
Las Vegas History: The Sahara
The SLS Las Vegas debuted last week, finally closing the history books on the iconic Sahara hotel. Let's take a look back a that hotel's history:
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.
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 opened in August of 2014.
For more photos and memorabilia, visit the Sahara hotel page in the museum.
Las Vegas History: The Golden Nugget
The Golden Nugget turns 68 years old this week. In honor of that milestone, let's take a look back at the hotel's history.
The history of one of the most famous Las Vegas casinos starts in Los Angeles. It was there that a man named Guy McAfee displayed a perfect definition of the word "irony" by running a series of illegal gambling parlors in the 1930s. It was ironic because at the time, McAfee was on the LAPD's vice squad.
He was forced to resign from the police department and, fearing prosecution, took his ill-gotten gains and moved to Nevada where he bought a legal gambling club located just outside Las Vegas city limits. Originally known as the Pair O'Dice and later the Ambassador Club, McAfee renamed it the 91 Club in honor of Highway 91, the main drag between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
That club was purchased by a Texas movie theater impresario around 1941 and was incorporated into the construction of what would become The Frontier on the burgeoning Las Vegas Strip.
McAfee teamed up with a group of investors that included the legendary Jackie Gaughan (who later owned hotels like The Plaza and El Cortez) to develop a new casino for Downtown Las Vegas. The land they acquired, at the corner of Fremont Street and Second Avenue (now Casino Center) had been occupied by a post office and a theater called The Majestic and later, after prohibition ended, a series of bars.
The Golden Nugget opened on August 30, 1946. There were no hotel rooms but it was, at the time, the largest casino in Las Vegas and the first building to be built specifically as a casino. It had Old West theme (as most properties of the era did) with sawdust on the floors, a handful of gaming tables, some slot machines, a bar, and that's about it.
Over the next three decades, the casino was remodeled and expanded to incorporate neighboring properties such as The California Club in 1969 and Diamond Jim's in the 1970s. If you go into the casino today, you can still see the structural divisions between the original buildings that even include different elevations (ramps and stairs unite the space). During all of this, the casino remained with the same core ownership, a rarity in Las Vegas during a time when gambling establishments changed hands almost as fast as the money at the tables.
That all changed in 1971 when a brash young entrepreneur bought a partial ownership stake in the Golden Nugget. His name was Steve Wynn.
Wynn had been an investor in the Frontier on the Las Vegas Strip and he used the money he made there to buy a small piece of land next door to Caesars Palace from none other than Howard Hughes. The narrow parcel of land was along what is now Flamingo Road, where the Octavius and Augustus towers are now located, and was barely wide enough for the Caesars overflow parking lot that sat on it.
In what is an almost legendary display of either hubris or genius, depending on your viewpoint, Wynn announced grand plans to build a 500-room resort and casino on the tiny slip of land and managed to convince everyone that he was serious. Fearing the micro-mega resort would both literally and figuratively overshadow their hotel, the owners of Caesars offered Wynn a huge sum of money for the land and Wynn walked away a very rich man. He used that money to start his process of becoming the majority stakeholder at The Golden Nugget, which he accomplished in 1973. He was 31 years old, the youngest casino operator in US history.
Wynn took the Golden Nugget from "just a casino" to the premiere Downtown Las Vegas destination resort. The first hotel tower - a 17-story, 579 room building facing Fremont Street - opened in 1977. That tower and the rest of the property were expanded to include more rooms, casino space, a spa, and a showroom in 1984.
The property expanded again in 1989, closing off Carson Ave (one block over from Fremont) and adding a new lobby, porte corchere, and a second hotel tower. It took up most of the land between 1st St and Casino Center Blvd., extending back to Bridger Avenue (two blocks over from Fremont). With the addition of a parking garage, the entire property took up the bulk of three city blocks.
Wynn parlayed his success with the Golden Nugget into major resort properties on The Strip including the game-changing Mirage, the pirate themed Treasure Island, and the ultra-luxurious Bellagio. Collectively they operated under the Mirage Resorts banner.
MGM Mirage sold the Golden Nugget (and its sister Golden Nugget in Laughlin) in 2004 to dot.com superstars Timothy Poster and Thomas Brietling, who had earned their fortune with a travel booking website called Travelscape. They spent $215 million to acquire the hotels but only had them for about a year before they sold them to Landry's Restaurants, the parent company of such popular dining chains as Morton's, McCormick & Schmick's, Claim Jumper, and the Chart House.
The company set about a massive renovation and expansion of the hotel, updating the casino and pool area (adding a swim-through shark tank) in 2006; expanding the casino and adding bars and restaurants in 2007; and adding the $150 million, 500-room Rush Tower, a new porte corchere, lobby, and more restaurants in 2009. To accommodate the construction, the hotel took over portions of 1st Street and Carson Avenue.
Meanwhile the Golden Nugget empire has expanded outside of Vegas. It has long had a sister in Laughlin but Landry's has added Golden Nugget branded properties in Atlantic City in 2011 and Biloxi in 2013.