By OSKAR GARCIA
LAS VEGAS - The Sahara Hotel & Casino, among a few Las Vegas Strip resorts left from the Rat Pack era, is closing nearly six decades after dealing its first hand.
Several other casinos from the earliest days of gambling in Sin City were remade into new megaresorts, but the Sahara's owners don't yet have a plan for the property.
"The continued operation of the aging Sahara was no longer economically viable," CEO Sam Nazarian of owner SBE Entertainment Group said.
The property will close May 16, officials said.
The Sahara, which opened in 1952, was featured in 1960's "Ocean's Eleven" as one of five casinos robbed by a group of World War II veterans. Today, it touts around-the-clock $1 blackjack and a six-pound burrito-eating challenge at its NASCAR Cafe. Nazarian said his company is considering options including a complete renovation and repositioning.
Nazarian said MGM Resorts International is helping find jobs for affected workers and accommodations for guests who reserved rooms after May 16. SBE officials declined to say how many people work at the Sahara.
MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren said the closure is part of the Sin City life cycle.
"While the closing of any hotel is sad, it is a natural and expected part of our great city's history," Murren said. "While today we pause to reflect on many great memories and stories of its legendary past, like so many before it, there is a brighter future for this property."
The two companies have an established marketing relationship.
Murren pointed to the Desert Inn making way for Wynn Las Vegas, the Dunes becoming the Bellagio, Aladdin renovating into Planet Hollywood and the original Las Vegas Sands giving way to the Venetian. And, when Murren's company built the $8.7 billion CityCenter, it used the land that had held the Coney Island-themed Bordwalk.
Phil Ruffin, the owner of Treasure Island in Las Vegas, said redevelopment of the Sahara would be good for the Strip, but he predicted SBE will have a hard time getting financing.
"I hope we live that long - I don't see it for a long time," he said. "I'd like to see it happen but I don't think it's anything imminent."
Ruffin said the Sahara's neighborhood looks "very bad."
The unfinished multibillion-dollar Fontainebleau development that filed for bankruptcy court protection is nearby. Billionaire Carl Icahn, who ultimately bought the property, sold its furniture to a casino on the California-Nevada border and hasn't said when construction might resume.
There's no guarantee something glamorous will emerge. The former site of the Landmark hotel, whose implosion in 1995 was included in the movie "Mars Attacks," now holds a parking lot for the Las Vegas Convention Center. After the Stardust was razed in 2007 so Boyd Gaming Corp. could build its $4.8 billion Echelon complex, the project stalled. And a $5 billion complex that was supposed to replace the New Frontier never materialized.
The Sahara first gave a hint that change was afoot the same day CityCenter's anchor casino, Aria, opened with 4,000 rooms in 2009. That's when the Sahara announced it was mothballing rooms in two of its towers for the winter season.
But Nazarian called the northern end of the Strip, which includes the Sahara, the "future of Las Vegas."
"With Las Vegas showing early signs of recovery, we are confident that we ultimately will find a creative and comprehensive new solution for this historic property," Nazarian said.