On my first visit to Vegas during the university Christmas break in 1947 there were only a couple of joints on the strip. One was the El Rancho Vegas, which would have been just across the street from the Sahara location and the other was the Last Frontier, where we were guests of one of the pit bosses for a couple of nights. The Desert Inn, at that time, was a small, motel-like complex across the highway from the Last Frontier. Much further south, so far that it was only a glow on the horizon, was Bugsy Siegel’s famous Flamingo. All in all, none of us thought Las Vegas even approached Reno for excitement and glamour. How things change!
Fast forward to the mid-50s when I began visiting Vegas four times a year on ad sales trips. Our headquarters were always set up at the Flamingo but I recall visiting he Sahara when it was one of the newest properties in town. Through most of the 50s and 60s it was a “must see” place since the Rat Pack and other famous entertainers were headliners there. On one occasion, when I was in the Sahara during the afternoon, I chanced to bump into Harry Karns, who had been a maitre de in the Sky Room of the Mapes Hotel in Reno and was now performing the same duty for the much larger showroom at the Sahara. When I asked him how the show was doing he replied, “You should come tonight for the dinner show since this kid, Bobby Darin, is really terrific.” I told him I only liked the old tried and true performers and though I had heard of Darrin, his songs didn’t interest me. Karns insisted that I come as his guest so I acquiesced and after the show I told Harry, “You were absolutely right, I think this guy could be the successor to Sinatra because of his stage presence and the way he delivers a song.”
Actually, it wasn’t so much the big showroom of the Sahara that gave it its early reputation as the place to be — it was the spacious lounge, located on the other side of the pit. This lounge had an especially large stage for rooms of that nature and very generous seating. As such it was the perfect venue for a then relatively unknown comic to bring an entirely new version of skill to dazzle not only regular audiences but particularly the other top entertainers that were appearing up and down the strip. His name was Don Rickles and his forte was to insult everyone in the audience, especially the stars that would pack his late night performances. I used to catch his act whenever I could and was amazed at the insults with which he could barbecue the hapless members of the crowd that he could lure up on stage. The lounge was jam-packed every performance and it launched Don on a long and successful career in show business. Probably the only lounge act that could out-draw him was Louis Prima and Keely Smith.
During the 60s, then Riverside Hotel manager, the late Lee Frankovich, booked Rickles into the showroom in Reno. Unfortunately the raunchy Rickles style, which had wowed Las Vegas, was lost on Reno audiences and he was not drawing enough people to half fill the showroom. One night, when we had Sammy Davis Jr. in the Sky Room of the Mapes, several of us went over to catch the Rickles show across the river. One of the Don’s ploys to engage members of the audience in his act was to have the maitre de give him names that were in the room for that particular performance. The maitre de at the Riverside in those days was Joe Ramos, who was a particularly dour individual for such a job. At any rate, I knew Joe well, so I wasn’t too surprised when Rickles singled me out and gave me a good skewering for having booked superstar Davis Jr. opposite him. It was my fault, he said, that his crowd was so small and worthless compared to the sell-out at the Mapes. Following the show we made it a point to visit with him backstage and I offered to comp him into the Sammy Davis Jr. show the minute his show folded at the Riverside.
Another great amenity that was a feature of the Sahara in Vegas early on was its very private and plush steak house. On many occasions Washoe County District Attorney Bill Raggio and I would dine there with the then Distric Attorney of Clark County, George Franklin. The Sahara Steak House was a gourmet type installation that was far removed from the casino area and it inspired many such rooms to be built in other hotels along the strip. Initially, the Sahara pool area was the biggest and best in Vegas and it also inspired other properties to concentrate on building like facilities.
The Sahara got bigger and bigger as the years went by, and probably enjoyed its best years when it was owned by one Paul Lowden, husband of Sue Lowden. Now that it is gone, it is but another testament to the ever-changing face of Las Vegas.
Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.
Editor’s note: Opinions expressed in Harry Spencer’s column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.