The Sahara (1952-2011)
Location: North Strip
2535 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
What’s There Now: SLS Las Vegas
Sahara opens on October 7
Hotel is expanded to add several hundred more hotel rooms
14-story tower is added
Hotel is purchased by Del Webb
24-story, 400 room hotel tower and new convention center opens
The Beatles stay at The Sahara in room 2344
More rooms and an expanded convention center opens
Hotel is purchased by Archon Associates
4th hotel tower opens
Hotel is purchased by Bill Bennett
Hotel is remodeled and NASCAR Café, Speed: The Ride Roller Coaster, and Cyberspeedway attractions are added
Hotel is purchased by Sam Nazarian
The Sahara closes on May 16
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 May 16, 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.