LAS VEGAS — The Stardust, the neon-wrapped casino with a mobbed-up past whose 1,065 rooms once set the standard for size on the Las Vegas Strip, witnessed its last roll of the dice Wednesday.
Wistful longtime employees and loyal gamblers gathered for a last farewell to the iconic 48-year-old institution, which is to be razed early next year to make way for Boyd Gaming Corp.’s planned $4 billion Echelon Place resort.
The Stardust opened July 2, 1958, as the world’s largest hotel and catered to middle America with $6-a-night rooms and low-minimum stakes gambling.
But as bigger, classier casinos sprung up around it in the late 1980s and ’90s and patrons began shelling out more for rooms, food and drinks, its luster began to fade.
“I’m really going to miss this place,” said Jimmy Kunihiro, a 60-year-old Honolulu resident, as he took a last pass at the craps table. “It’s a home away from home.”
The resort became as famous for its familiar friendliness as its mob connections. In the 1995 movie “Casino,” Robert De Niro played a character inspired by the finely tailored Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, who ran the hotel-casino in the mid-1970s.
“He truly was Cadillac sharp all the time,” said Mickey Jones, a drummer and actor who appeared as a guest on Rosenthal’s television broadcast from the hotel. “When the mob ran this town, everything functioned like clockwork.”
Cocktail waitress Emma Houston remembered how Rosenthal sent money to make her mortgage payment when she was hospitalized for surgery in 1974.
In its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, Elvis Presley would drop by. Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown co-hosted a radio show from the sports book.
One night, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin showed up at the “Moby Dick” restaurant in the Stardust, just as chef Frank Perkins, now 60, was closing. He reopened in a hurry.
“Sinatra said, ‘You can cook for me anytime,”’ Perkins said. “So I will never forget that.”
With the 1980s came a crackdown by Nevada regulators on organized skimming from the casino cages. Boyd was brought in as an operator in 1983, and bought the Stardust in 1985 when the mobbed-up owners lost their gambling license.
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Slideshow: Viva Las Vegas! While the explosion of upscale resorts — starting with The Mirage in 1989 — reinvigorated Las Vegas, it wasn’t long before Boyd chairman Bill Boyd realized Stardust’s best days were behind it.
“We saw a new wave of Las Vegas reinventing itself,” he said. “We saw many new properties with new amenities that we didn’t have. We started to realize before too many years that we would have to implode the Stardust and start over.”
The property’s decline could be charted in more ways than one.
In its last throes, Boyd signed crooner Wayne Newton in 2000 to a five-year deal to become its headline performer as the company focused its marketing on the older, nostalgic crowd.
But even its frequent players list was losing steam as the clients simply aged. For the past several years, the Stardust has resorted to a swinging couples convention, “Lifestyles,” to fill its rooms for a week in the summer.
The new resort, Echelon Place, is expected to open in mid-2010 with more than 5,000 hotel rooms, two theaters, a shopping mall and more than 1 million square feet of meeting space.
Stardust memorabilia will not be lost.
The company is auctioning off equipment, photos and other mementoes beginning Nov. 17. And its famous 18-story Stardust sign is being donated to the Neon Museum, a local nonprofit group that hopes to restore it.
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