The Sands (1952-1996)
Location: Center Strip
3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
What’s There Now: Venetian
Resort opens on December 15
Hotel is remodeled and bungalow suites are added
Ocean’s 11 is filmed at The Sands; hotel becomes the de facto home for The Rat Pack
Hotel is expanded again with more rooms and a new pool
Frank Sinatra weds Mia Farrow at The Sands
Hotel’s signature circular tower opens
Hotel is purchased by Howard Hughes
Hotel is puchased by Inns of America Corporation
Hotel is remodeled
Sands Convention Center is added
Sheldon Adelson takes majority ownership
Hotel closes on June 20
Hotel is used as the set for the plane crash scene in ConAir starring Nicholas Cage
Hotel is imploded on November 26
In a way, The Sands existed because of Bugsy Siegel. No, he didn’t have anything to do with the hotel directly – he had been dead for years by the time it opened – but his involvement with The Flamingo played a hand in the genesis of The Sands.
Located in the heart of the burgeoning Strip, just north of The Flamingo and just south of The Desert Inn, the plot of land that would eventually be home to The Sands was empty scrub brush until 1950. That’s when Billy Wilkerson opened a French restaurant and gambling parlor called La Rue’s. If you have read The Flamingo history, you’ll know that Wilkerson, the editor of the Hollywood Reporter, was the man who originally started building that hotel. He ran out of money and Bugsy and his cohorts took over, leaving Wilkerson with an unfulfilled dream of operating a casino in Las Vegas. La Rue’s was most likely designed to be the first step in creating his own resort like The Flamingo, but Wilkerson got bought out by businessman Max Kufferman in 1951.
Kufferman wanted to build a casino resort either in addition to or in place of La Rue’s but he was unable to get a gaming license due to his unsavory connections with alleged mafia figures in New Jersey. So he sold the place to Jake Freedman, a gambler from Texas, who had a good enough reputation to be able to get past the concerns from gaming officials that he was just a front for Kufferman and his mob friends. Freedman got his license, partners who worked at the Copacabana club in New York, and an influx of cash from unknown sources, most likely Kufferman’s pals, which may have included legendary organized crime figures like Myer Lanksy and Frank Costello.
The resort was reported to have cost $5.5 million to build and incorporated the existing La Rue’s structure. Because of that it was able to be built in a relatively short nine months, opening on December 15, 1952. Its catchphrase, emblazoned on the marquee out front, was “A Place in the Sun.”
The main building sat close to The Strip along the northern edge of the property, more or less where the lagoon and main casino of The Venetian sit now. It had the casino, a lobby, restaurants, a showroom/lounge, and more. The 200 rooms were in two-story motel style buildings that stretched back from main building away from The Strip, opening up in a V-shape with a big lawn in between. To keep guests from having to hike the relatively long distance between the rooms and the casino, a fleet of electric trams ferried guests around the property including to the big pool that glistened in between the main building and the first of the motel buildings.
Danny Thomas provided the opening night’s entertainment and the hotel was an instant success, rumored to have made back its $5.5 million building cost in the first six months. Everyone wanted a piece of the hotel, with Max Kufferman trying, and failing, to get on the books as an official owner. The same thing happened to no less than Frank Sinatra, who applied for, and was denied, a small ownership stake in The Sands. Sinatra’s alleged cozy ties with the mafia nixed his plans but he became a fixture at the hotel and the casino for the bulk of the 1950s and 1960s, lending the property an air of “cool” that made it even more popular.
Freedman died in the late 1950s but by then other investors incorporated and had taken on a majority of the ownership of the property. His widow Sadie kept his 10% stake until she sold it back to the corporation in the mid 1960s.
In 1959, the hotel remodeled the lobby and casino and added a series of bungalow suites.
A year later, Sinatra chose The Sands as one of the five hotels to be targeted by his Danny Ocean character and friends in Ocean’s 11. The Rat Pack made the hotel their unofficial home during filming and after the shoot had wrapped, with the most famous photo of them gathered in front of the hotel’s marquee. Even though he was denied the first time, Sinatra and Dean Martin both eventually became minority investors in the hotel and Sinatra even got married to Mia Farrow there in 1964.
1962 saw the addition of a u-shaped building hotel building that closed off the open end of the V-shape lawn at the back of the property. It added another 83 rooms and a second pool to the hotel’s inventory.
A few years later, in 1965, work started on what would become the hotel’s signature feature, a 17-story, 777 room circular hotel tower. It came with a significant expansion of main building adding more casino space, a new theater, and one of the biggest convention centers in town. The new facilities opened in stages starting in late 1965 all the way through the hotel tower’s opening in 1967.
That opening came shortly after The Sands got a new owner in the form of none other than Howard Hughes, who was on a bit of a Vegas buy spree at the time. He acquired the resort for $14.6 million in July of 1967.
This was also the year that Frank Sinatra’s affiliation with the hotel came to a rather public end. The exact story behind it all is hazy and varies depending on who you ask, but according to legend, someone in the casino denied Mr. Sinatra credit and he took offense to that. He hunted down one of the hotel’s executives (perhaps driving a golf cart through the casino per some versions of the story), confronting him in the coffee shop and eventually throwing a chair at the man, who took offense of his own and punched Sinatra. That pretty much took care of Sinatra’s performing days at the hotel and he became a headliner across the street at Caesars Palace.
During Hughes’ ownership of the hotel, before and after his death in 1976, very little of significance happened in terms of the development of the property. There were some cosmetic renovations and changes to the lineup of restaurants and lounges, but there were no major construction projects or additions.
In 1981, Hughes’ Summa Corporation sold the hotel to The Inns of America, a Texas based hotel chain. They immediately launched a $15 million project to renovate the hotel, updating the decor of the rooms, the casino, and more. The revamp debuted in 1982 with a massive public party featuring Sammy Davis Jr. as the ceremonial emcee.
The company’s strategy was going to be to market the hotel to a Latin and Mexican audience, but that idea never got off the ground and wound up damaging the parent company to such a severe level that the Summa Corporation wound up repossessing The Sands in 1983.
The hotel never really recovered after that, going through a series of owners that included MGM’s Kirk Kerkorian and a company called the Interface group led by Sheldon Adelson. As modern hotels like The Mirage debuted in Vegas, old ones like The Sands began to look hopelessly out of date and out of touch. The massive Sands Expo and Convention Center was added in 1990 but little else was done the main casino or hotel until around 1993 when a series of cosmetic changes were implemented.
In 1995, Sheldon Adelson further secured his hold over the hotel by buying out other investors and raising money for improvements by selling COMDEX, a tech convention that his Interface company had created. He renamed the company Las Vegas Sands and almost immediately announced plans to close The Sands hotel and replace it with a 6,000 room mega-resort.
The Sands closed on June 20, 1996 but it made one last big splash by making a starring role in the move ConAirstarring Nicholas Cage. The shuttered main building was spruced up to make it look like a functioning casino complete with lights, slot machines, and table games all so they could pretend to crash a cargo plane into it.
The iconic, circular main hotel tower was imploded on November 26, 1996. Everything else except for the Sands Convention Center was demolished.
The Sands was replaced by The Venetian, which opened on May 3, 1999.