The Sahara Hotel and casino opened October 7, 1952, on the site of the former Club Bingo. The Del Webb Corporation built the property at a cost of $5.5 million for Al Winter of Portland, Oregon, and Milton Prell, a jewelry-store owner and supplier from Los Angeles. They billed the Sahara the “Jewel in the Desert,” and immediately got into a heated competition to sign Hollywood stars to come and be seen in the desert. When they were signed, they took the best of the 240 available rooms found on the 20 acres of landscaped grounds.
According to the book Nevada’s Golden Age of Gambling, the Sahara opened their Congo Room with Ray Bolger as their top act. His wife was frightened by the stories of gangsters in Las Vegas and suggested he ask for a salary they would never pay, $25,000 a week. They paid, Ray sang and danced, and the property kicked off with a hit show and huge crowds.
When it was opened, the Sahara had the largest freestanding neon sign in town at 100-feet. Prell expanded the Sahara hotel by 200 room as the property exceeded all expectations and Las Vegas began to grow into its own. Del Web was so flush with cash from all the building over a 15-year period that the company eventually purchased the Sands in 1961 with Prell running the property until 1964.
By that time the Sahara in Lake Tahoe was also open. Del Webb’s $100 million merger between his construction company and the California-Sahara Corporation (which included the Sahara’s and the Mint casino) created the first publicly traded company to own casinos. Webb celebrated by building a 24-story tower and doubling the hotel rooms available.
The Sahara casino boasted more than 500 slot machines and 40 table games including Chuck-a-luck, blackjack, roulette and craps. A Keno lounge close to the showroom was very popular and had a high $25,000 payoff.
The casino hosted the Beatles when they played two shows at the Las Vegas Convention Center in 1964 and had their own shows with stars like Buddy Hackett, Johnny Carson and Sonny & Cher. They heyday lasted into the 1970’s before the property needed constant upkeep to stay just one step behind its competition.
In the 1980’s, the Sahara casinos, now comprised of properties in Lake Tahoe, Reno, and Las Vegas, introduced a new concept to the gambling world: Blackjack tournaments. Events were held at each of the three properties and winners were flown to the Las Vegas casino for a championship that included a $25,000 first-prize.
It wasn’t until 1995 that the Sahara got the renovation it needed after William Bennett, previous owner of Circus Circus, purchased the hotel for $193 million. The refurbishing and renovations ran nearly $100 million, and the property made a nice comeback into the fold of profitable hotel casinos.
Attractions included the NASCAR exhibit and caf, racing cars and interactive arcade games. The SPEED roller coaster ran from inside the casino to the Strip and back inside – quickly.
Bennett passed away in 2002 and the Sahara remained under the control of the Bennett Family Trust, managing the property as Golden Gaming Corp. The casino and 17 acres of land were sold in 2007 to SBE Entertainment Group of Los Angeles, who purchased the property as a partnership with Stockbridge AdChoices Real Estate Funds, based in San Mateo, California. The property struggled on in the midst of the worst depression in visitors and gaming revenues Las Vegas had ever experienced and planned to close its doors on May 16, 2011. The final days included the usual low limit poker tournaments, $39 rooms, $1 hot dogs, $1 beer, and even a few $1 blackjack tables among the 79 table games, 1050 slot machines of the 46,000 square-foot casino.