The Dunes Hotel History- The Miracle in the Desert -1950s

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As we have seen, three hotels opened in the Spring of 1955:  The Royal Nevada, the Riviera and the Dunes.  All three struggled to stay afloat that year.  The Dunes was the tenth hotel and casino to open on what was quickly becoming know far and wide as the Fabulous Las Vegas Strip.  Across town, three days earlier the storied Moulin Rouge had opened on Bonanza Road.

In the winter of 1954, it was announced that plans were moving forward on the building of a new hotel to be called The Dunes.  The cost $5 million.  There were three major investors listed a restauranteur from Providence, Rhode Island, Joseph Sullivan , Coral Gables, Florida former theater magnet, Alfred Gottsman and Bob Rice who had made his fortune as a costume jeweler in Beverly Hills.  They all had one thing in common: no gaming experience.

It was later believed that the money that Sullivan had invested actually came from Ray Patriarca, the head of a Rhode Island crime family, in return for reaping the under-the-table profits that would be made from his undisclosed participation.

Before the hotel even opened the owners announced plans to expand the hotel by another 500 rooms and adding winter homes and a shopping complex. 

The Dunes opened on May 23rd, 1955.  It was located cater-corner across the highway from the Flamingo Hotel and at the time the furthest hotel out on the south end of the highway.   According to Alan Hess, the Dunes had a porte cochere that was both modern and nomadic in style.  Built in the low-rise tradition of many of the other hotels, the Dunes had a 35-foot tall, fiberglass Sultan with a flying cape and plumed turban standing astride the main entrance.  The turban included a diamond that was actually a car headlight that had been gem-cut.  The Sultan was designed by YESCO.  He quickly joined the Pioneer Club's Vegas Vic as a roadside attraction.  The hotel had 200 rooms and a 90-foot pool.  The architect was Robert Dorr, Jr of Hollywood and the architectural engineer was John Replogle.  The construction of the hotel was done by McNeil Construction Company of Los Angeles.  The hotel sat on 85 acres.   The pool was the largest in the country at the  time.  A fountain with three sculpted sea horses rose from the center.  There was 150-foot long lagoon or reflecting pool surrounding by lilies. two fountains and a weeping willow.

Opening the Arabian Room was Vera-Ellen in the Magic Carpet Revue: New York-Paris Paradise.  It was the first Broadway-style revue to play Las Vegas.   The stage in the Arabian Room was designed for Broadway shows.  Robert Nesbitt was the show's director and choreographer.  The stage's dimensions were 65 x 35 and included a revolving stage, a remote controlled lighting system that was said to rival the one used at Radio City Music Hall as well as a floating stage.

By summer the hotel was in financial trouble due to the fact that tourism had not kept pace with the number of hotels opening and for the first time there were more hotel rooms than guests.  The Dunes had only opened with 200 rooms, which was not enough paying customers to help pay for the overhead of running the hotel.  Also adding to the problem was there was a finite number of high rollers and more hotels vying for their business. 

Management called the Sands, at the time, the most successful hotel on the Strip.  The management of the hotel agreed to run the hotel.  Jake Freidman appeared before the Nevada Tax Commission stating that if the move was approved, Ed Levinson would be in charge of the casino, Carl Cohen would be in an advisory position and Jack Entratter would be the Entertainment Director for both.  The Nevada Tax Commission agreed to the arrangement.  The management of the Sands put $600,000 in an escrow account to pay off the current owners obligations.  In addition they put $350,000 up to subsidize the casino. (Which gives us an idea of how successful the Sands was at the time). 

Charlie Tanner, Chuck Bennett and Ed Levinson split their time between the two resorts.  They tried to drum up publicity for the hotel by offering comps to Sands customers who would be willing to try the Dunes.  Jack Entratter asked Frank Sinatra to play the Dunes.  An all out publicity junket was planned.  Sinatra, dressed like a character of the story "A Thousand and One Arabian Nights" rode in on a camel.  Entratter booked Maurice Chevalier, Cab Calloway and Sophie Tucker as well.

Still it wasn't enough. 

"The Sands kept pouring money into the Dunes without any luck and finally threw in the towel"  Chuck Bennett recounted to writer George Stamos in a 1979 interview.

Finally the management realized that the Dunes was a money pit and a financial drain on their main concern, the Sands.  They closed the casino and operated the hotel as a motel.

Jake Gottlieb, who owned Western Transportation out of Chicago became interested in the property.  (Yeah, I also wondered why a guy who owned shipping companies would be interested in the Dunes.  Oh, yeah, it's the Chicago connection.  Gottlieb received investment help from the  Teamsters Union Pension Fund which was handled by the notorious James "Jimmy" Hoffa.   Gottlieb purchased the property.  But Gottlieb, like so many others, didn't have any experience running a casino.  He began looking for someone with imagination and daring.  He got lucky when he stumbled upon Major Arteburn Riddle, who also owned a shipping company out of Chicago

While Riddle was making up his mind as to whether or not he should take an interest in the hotel, he got a phone call from Bill MillerBill Miller, like Jack Entratter, was an old pro at booking entertainment.  While at the Sahara, Miller had put that hotel on firm financial ground with his booking of lounge acts like Louis Prima and Keely Smith as well as showroom headliners such as Marlene Dietrich

"He encouraged me about the possibility of bringing top acts to the hotel.  So through his insistence, we formed M & R Investment Company with Miller as president and myself as vice-president.  However about a year later we began to disagree about the running of the hotel.  So I bought him out."  Major Riddle to George Stamos, 1979 interview. 

The Dunes Hotel and Casino reopend on June 6, 1956 and the two new owners invited everyone in town.  Miller and Riddle had an idea for making the hotel more financially stable.  They had entered into a contract with the famed Minsky's Burlesque to bring the Minsky's Follies to the DunesMinsky's was famous not only for their Burlesque Queens but for the stripping acts that the girls performed as well.  The show re-opened the Arabian Room and featured Lou Costello, of Abbott and Costello fame, as the star.

The uproar was immediate from the local Catholic priests and the Legion of Decency to the City and County officials who were fielding phone calls to the halls of the State Legislature.  Bare breasted girls on stage in Las Vegas, we can't have that! the newspaper editorial column were filled with columns denouncing the move away from wholesome entertainment.  With straight faces they worried that it would bring the wrong element to Las Vegas while overlooking the obvious.  Even Jack Entratter weighed in with the opinion that Minsky's was not suitable for Las Vegas.

Miller and Riddle didn't care.  The show was a smash.  In the first week it set a record for attendance, 16,000 (that stood until the 1990s).  The show ran for an unprecedented six weeks.  Gamblers were more than happy to stay around and gamble after seeing the show.  Minsky's Follies, in various editions, played the Dunes for the next four and a half years.

The idea paid off.  The hotel began to get its financial bearings.  An office for reservations was opened at 204 N. Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, CA.  Many of the hotels had reservation offices on Wilshire or Beverly Drive and those offices were still there until about 25 years ago.   Riddle had the logo updated and made more colorful.

Pinky Lee ,a vaudevillan comic and television host, was the star of the Minsky's Follies in the summer of 1958.  He broke Lou Costello's six week run record by being held over to standing room only crowds for eight weeks. 

But finances were always on Major Riddle's mind.  In an interview he gave in 1958 he was quoted:

"The physical problems are always pressing.  Take that pool of ours, we pump 285,000 gallons of water a day into it, all of it from our artesian wells.  And air conditioning, keeping an establishment of this size about 45 degrees cooler, 24 hours a day for about six months a year costs so much I don't want to think about it.  Then there is the maintenance, the payroll, food, drink and entertainment - all of which must be run at a loss."  (Yeah, I know what you are thinking, why a loss?)

Riddle went on to lament that gambling costs at the Dunes for the nine-month season were exboriant.  It was getting harder and harder to draw tourists because of all the choices they had for accomodations and the hotels were in a never-ending competition for those dollars.  Riddle said that the Dunes needed more rooms.  He hinted that a 20-story tower would be added to the property which would be the tallest structure in Nevada.  He envisioned it having a 1,500 seat convention center that would rival the under-construction Convention Center being erected near-by on Paradise Road.  The tower would also have nursery facilities, 1,000 seat dining room, a gym and at the top of the tower would be a lounge called "Top o' the Strip".  Riddle believed that if you "could get the rooms, you could get the tourists" and once you had the tourists you could make a profit. 

In 1959, Riddle opemed the famed Dunes Golf Course and Country Club.  He had insisted upon having a Golf Course styled after the one at the Desert Inn.  He also saw how that hotel's Tournament of Champions helped bring publicity and tourists to the hotel.  He purchased additional land from Dunes Road to Tropicana Avenue from Mel Close and banker Jerry Mack.  Called the "Miracle Mile" the course was an 18-hole, 72-par layout among a sea of emerald green. 

In April, Riddle presided over the ground-breaking for the new Convention facility he had dreamed of.  It would be 6,600 square feet and accomodate conventions, trade shows and public meetings. 

In May, Harold Minsky signed a two-year extension contract to continue to produce shows for the Dunes.  The contract paid $100,000 a year.

In July, the Flying Indians of Peru, which had been a diving group, were replaced by the Aztec Birdmen.  The Aztec Birdmen performed ritual dances on a platform atop a 100-foot pole.  No safety net was required.

As the 1950s was coming to close, Riddle had big plans for the hotel but he still faced financial difficulties which would requre taking on partners.

But as the 1960s were dawning, Riddle was making plans. 

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Early Matchbook

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Another early Matchbook

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Back cover of early matchbook

 

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The original pool with the sculpted sea horse fountain

 

Special Thanks to Eric Lynxwiler and UNLV Special Collections for letting us use these image. 

 

 

Coming Up:

The Dunes in the 1960s:

The Sultan's Table,

the Dome of the Sea,

Casino de Paris and more! 

 

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