Sahara anniversary a reminder of just how far the industry has come

October 19, 2022 5:38 PM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports
October 19, 2022 5:38 PM
  • John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports

It was just a coincidence, but timing of the 70th anniversary celebration of the Sahara Las Vegas with the annual gathering of casino industry leaders for the Global Gaming Expo on the Strip provides an intriguing reminder of just how far the business has come in a relatively short time.

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Yes, a short time. Hang with me, and I’ll show you just how brief it’s been.

When it opened in 1952, the Sahara was neither the first nor the fanciest hotel-casino located on a Las Vegas Boulevard just coming into its own. But part of what made it important was its timing, opening its doors in the wake of America’s fevered obsession with the US Senate’s Special Committee on Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, better known as the Kefauver Committee.

Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver was a little-known first-termer when he crafted the resolution that created the special committee charged with finding gambling in Casablanca. Uh, I mean uncovering corruption and the presence of organized crime in in the gambling racket, labor unions, and elsewhere in American life.

It wasn’t so hard to do. You couldn’t swing a dead hoodlum without hitting corrupt politicians and judges, and the monied interests that funded them.

Kefauver’s five-member committee was bolstered with $150,000 in funding and a team of investigators. The press played its part digging up gangsters and gunsels and trumpeting the committee’s latest findings, which began in May 1950 with a trip to Miami, which had nice weather and more technically illegal gambling than grains of sand on the beach.

The new medium of television played an outsize role, giving many Americans who had only seen sinister mob elements in the movies a chance to gawk and gander at the real thing.

How big was it? By March 1951, an estimated 30 million Americans were watching Kefauver & Co. on live television. Eat your heart out, “Ozzie and Harriet.”

The committee was so popular that Kefauver received an extension and for a time was considered presidential material and was considered one of America’s “most admired men,” according to a Senate history on the committee. His dreams of the White House would be dashed, and he came out on the short end in 1956 after he became Adlai Stevenson’s running mate. 

And Las Vegas, notorious and irresistible, played a central role in Kefauver’s traveling roadshow as it rolled along for 15 months and convened hearings in 14 cities.

Las Vegas took plenty of licks. Its 5 o’clock shadow was undeniable, as were its strange bedfellows, which ranged from the pals of the late Ben Siegel to Nevada’s Lieutenant Governor, Cliff Jones. 

Which brings us back to the 1952 opening of the Sahara. There had been gambling on the property for years, first as Milton Prell’s Club Bingo. Built by consummately-connected Phoenix contractor Del E. Webb, the Sahara opened on Oct. 7, 1952 as the Strip’s sixth carpet joint. In the ensuing years, it would undergo multiple expansions and changes in ownership and management on the north end of the Boulevard.

What was perhaps taken for granted was its role in reminding post-Kefauver America that Las Vegas was moving forward despite its fiercest critics – or perhaps because of them.

Without Kefauver’s zealous pursuit of mobsters and fixers and guys with colorful nicknames, I propose that Las Vegas and gambling in America wouldn’t have been compelled to evolve from the backroom to the showroom of corporate culture. The Sahara and other venerable casino resorts of its era were strong symbols of the staying power and popularity of legalized gambling and all that went with it.

With them, came the need to protect the state’s regulatory interests and sullied reputation for catering to a certain “element.” It’s not a stretch to peg the rise of genuine gaming regulatory compliance to Kefauver’s carnival.

These days, the Meruelo Group continues to move the Sahara forward into a new generation that isn’t as interested in the past as it is in the latest chapter in the evolution of Las Vegas and the gaming industry. But that change, it must be said, is made possible only by maintaining high regulatory standards in an atmosphere where transparency is prized.

No, 70 years isn’t such a long time. The Sahara remains a short drive from the Sands Expo Center, where the annual G2E draws thousands of representatives of major corporations and startups alike to their own celebration of an industry that appears to show few signs of slowing its growth.