A peek into the past as Las Vegas' Sahara hotel celebrates 70 years

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In the summer of 2011, Amy Raymer stood outside the Sahara Las Vegas, waiting for a chance to own a piece of history.

It was an end of an era. The Sahara, one of the oldest properties on the Strip, was closing its doors. Raymer, a Las Vegas resident, was one of the hundreds to show up for its liquidation sale – despite the 100-plus-degree heat.

The visit made Raymer the proud owner of a Sahara camel lamp, which still sits next to her bed. It was also a rare occasion to get free rein to explore the property, including a suite that once hosted The Beatles and the Casbar, where Frank Sinatra had been a regular. 

"It was a cool experience to see the old turn into the new," Raymer said. "There's not much here anymore that looks like it did back in the day."

Despite its 2011 closure, the Sahara lives on. The property reopened in 2014 and operated briefly under the name SLS Las Vegas before it was sold to billionaire Alex Meruelo, who brought back its original name. The property celebrates its 70th anniversary this Friday, a rare feat for a hotel in a city known for imploding its attractions. 

Meruelo has invested about $150 million in renovations, ushering in new designs that nod to the old-school Las Vegas that so many visitors and locals have grown to love.

"It's been interesting to see how many more hotels try to make some reference to the Las Vegas past," University of Nevada, Las Vegas historian Michael Green told USA TODAY, adding that most visitors are too young to remember the rat pack days. "It is always easier to be nostalgic about something you don't remember." 

Nostalgia for old Las Vegas

There are "many aspects" of Las Vegas' unique history that are appealing, according to Aaron Berger, executive director of the Neon Museum.

"This is a city that you can take in a burlesque show on Saturday night and be at church Sunday morning," he told USA TODAY. "It's a city that is constantly evolving, constantly changing, constantly innovating."

The Neon Museum is proof that there's interest in the city's past, with more than 200,000 visitors expected this fiscal year. The museum's collection includes the Hard Rock Cafe neon guitar and signs from the Stardust and Sahara. 

"Some people are coming (to the museum) because of that nostalgia," Berger said. "They're coming because their parents got married at the Stardust, or they grew up going to Treasure Island and have a chance to see the (giant pirate) skull."

Others reminisce over the city's icons online, where accounts that post old Las Vegas photos can reach tens of thousands of followers.

“When it was great!” under a grainy photo of the Desert Inn in 1958. Another Instagram user responded to a black-and-white photo of the Stardust by wishing for a time machine.

Not all of the love for old Las Vegas comes from nostalgia. Green noted that few visitors these days saw the rat pack perform, but there are still nods to the era sprinkled throughout the city. 

"It's just fascinating to see the nostalgia for, in some cases, what never was. In some cases, for what was. And in a lot of cases, for what a lot of people didn't actually partake of," Green said. 

But not being part of history doesn't mean it's irrelevant. Doug Balduini, 46, of New Jersey, has a tattoo of a camel and the original Sahara sign inked on his arm, despite not once stepping foot inside the property before the SLS renovations.   

Known as “Mr. Sahara” among friends in the Casino Collectibles Association, Balduini has spent thousands of dollars collecting Sahara memorabilia.

His collection today contains postcards, old menus, ashtrays and hundreds of casino chips, the most expensive of which cost him $5,000. All are stamped with the Sahara brand. 

"I liked the whole theme," he said of the property. "I'm probably going to go for the Guinness Book of World Records for the most items from a single casino, if they allow that type of category."

A fascination with Las Vegas memorabilia has drawn about 1,500 members to the Casino Collectibles Association, some of whom spend thousands on vintage chips from casinos.

The city's history isn't spotless; it's well-known for its mob ties. But for some, that's part of the appeal. 

"(Las Vegas) just has a great history to it, as far as these old mobsters that went to Vegas to start a new life with gaming," said Doug Smith, former president of the Casino Collectables Association.  

Downtown now boasts a mob museum for people wanting to learn more about organized crime's ties to the city. 

Renovations at Sahara Las Vegas 

At 70, Sahara is the oldest standing property on the Strip, according to Green. (While the original Flamingo opened six years earlier, none of the original facilities remain.) 

The property leaned heavily into the Moroccan desert theme with the Casbar lounge and Congo Room. 

"It's a themed hotel before Las Vegas Strip was really into themed hotels," Green said. 

The property "revolutionized" the lounge act in the 1950s and hosted performances from big-name celebrities over the years including Johnny Carson, Tony Bennett, Sonny and Cher, Liberace and Judy Garland.

"These are entertainment icons we're talking about," Green said. "That's a big part of the Sahara's history."

Sahara has tried to blend the past and present in its latest round of renovations.

Most of the public-facing renovations are complete, according to general manager Paul Hobson. The property now offers a new casino floor, a new hotel lobby, a new front entrance and 1,100 of the hotel’s 1,600 rooms have been fully renovated.  

The design harkens back to the property's roots as a Moroccan desert-themed stay. There’s intricate tiling at the Azilo Ultra Pool bar. Light fixtures that emulate drifting sand dunes. Earthy tones in the light fixtures. Black-and-white photos of celebrities like Clint Eastwood and The Beatles that line the walls. 

But there are modern touches as well. A massive LED screen towers over people as they enter Bazaar Meat By José Andrés, and the front entrance can now entertain with a fountain show timed with lights, music and more LED screens. 

"There's some really fun things to see that do make it obvious to the guests that they're in a piece of history," Hobson said. "So we have 70 years of history and we're setting up for the next 70."

You can follow USA TODAY reporter Bailey Schulz on Twitter @bailey_schulz and subscribe to our free Daily Money newsletter here for personal finance tips and business news every Monday through Friday.