The Dunes Hotel History - The Miracle in the Desert -1960s

Dunes%20Dome%20of%20the%20Sea%20pcard%20copy.gif 

 

 

 

As the 1960s began, Major Riddle had big plans for the Dunes Hotel. He was planning on bringing a French spectacular to the show room but before making the investment he decided to test the waters.

"Vive Le Girls!" was the show he tested the waters with. The show would anchor the Parisian Room Lounge. He hired Fredric Apcar to produce the show. Apcar and his wife, Florence, had been adagio dancers in the famed Folies Bergere in Paris. They created one of the most lavish production shows for its day. "Vive Le Girls!" also became one of the longest running shows on the Strip. Cassandra Peterson of "Elvira" fame would one day dance in the show on her way to Hollywood.

The costumes and scenery were lavish. The feather budget alone was rumored to be in excess of $165,000 (and this is 1961!)

"Vive Le Girls!" was so successful that Riddle continued his plans to bring a French spectacular to the Las Vegas Strip.

Another of Riddle's innovations that year was the opening of the Sultan's Table, the gourmet room. It opened on March 4, 1961. It was the first real gourmet room to open on the Strip and Diner's Club hailed it as "America's finest and most beautiful new restaurant."

The Sultan's Table was inspired by the Villa Fontana in Mexico City. Riddle had dined there once and was taken with the restaurant's atmosphere. He had enjoyed listening to Arturo Romero's Magic Violins and imported them to play the Sultan's Table. The chef, Jean Bertraneau, was from Beverly Hills. The maitre d' was Joaquin Norriega. The restaurant was a success from the day it opened. Its "snob appeal" quotient was through the roof and celebrities made a point of dining there when in town. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton often had their dinners sent over when they were in town.

Perhaps Riddle's biggest innovation was his prized "Diamond of the Dunes" high-rise tower. The tower would help bring a new clientele to the Dunes but it was a few years off. In the meantime, Riddle publicized the opening of the Olympic Wing, which included a new Olympic sized pool and an additional 250 rooms. The Dunes now had 450 garden-style rooms.

The front of the Dunes still had the famed Sultan atop the main entrance.

The Arabian Room boasted such stars as George Burns with Ann-Margaret as his opening act, Carol Channing, Frankie Laine, Tony Bennett, Patty Page, Polly Bergen and Eleanor Powell.

The Parisian Room was anchored by the over-the-top "Vive Le Girls!" still drawing nightly crowds with its no cover, no minimum policy.

The Sea-Horse Wing featured "Luxurious cabana rooms with a sun-deck overlooking the Sea Horse pool and the Parisian gardens as well as delightful bedrooms and magnificent suites just steps away."

The Olympic Wing and Pool featured the new Olympic sized pool making the Dunes the first hotel on the Strip to offer two pools. The Olympic Wing also featured regular rooms and suites.

The Convention Facility claimed to be the "most modern and efficient Convention Hall in America" and adjoined the Dunes large Exhibit Hall. "The ultra-plush marble titled Executive Conference Room is ideal for important Convention board meetings and business sessions."

The Sultan's Table, catering to the "see and be seen" clientele offered "Continental dining in a romantic atmosphere with cuisine to delight the world-travelled gourmet. All modestly priced!"

The Aladdin Room offered a nightly buffet that featured a "Tantalizing array of delicacies of over 50 items including piping hot dishes, beverage and dessert."

The innovations that Riddle was implementing though cost money and Riddle soon himself needing more cash. He went looking for investors. He sold 50% of his stock to veteran gamblers Sid Wyman and Charles Rich as well as Wendell Fletcher and Geoge Duckworth. Duckworth had invested, at various times, in the Sands, the Riviera and the Royal Nevada hotels.

With new investors, Riddle held groundbreaking ceremonies on October 20, 1962 for his Diamond of the Dunes tower. Governor Grant Sawyer, Congressman Walter Baring and Clark County Commissioners were on hand. The tower would cost $8 million to build.

Still thinking about the French spectacular that would anchor the new showroom, Riddle approached Frederic Apcar about possibilities. Apcar suggested that the famed "Casino de Paris" be brought over. Riddle sent Apcar to Paris to persuade show producer Henri Varna. Varna was 84 years old and thought the only city that mattered was Paris.

According to Frederic Apcar, "Varna felt that to send his show out of the country would be like sending a national treasure to be debased." But Varna did admire Apcar and agreed to talk with him.

Before coming to America, Apcar had befriended Line Renaud who was now the star of the "Casino de Paris". Varna adored his star and Apcar now promised her that if she came to America as the star of the show in Las Vegas, he would make her an international superstar. Renaud and Apcar convinced Varna to at least visit Las Vegas.

Dunes publicist Lee Fisher recalled in an interview with writer George Stamos in 1979:

"I remember when we picked Varna up at the airport and took him into the casino. We gave him a nickel to play a slot machine. He jackpotted. Then we gave him a dime. He jackpotted again. We gave him a quarter and he jackpotted a third time. Varna simply never had a more exciting time in his life. He was captivated by Las Vegas."

Riddle convinced Varna that the Dunes would do justice to "heritage of the Casino de Paris." Varna countered by reminding Riddle that he did not need Varna's permission to use the concept or the name of the show. Riddle replied "if we can't bring a legitimate and authentic Casino de Paris to Las Vegas, then we'd rather not offer it to the American public. We prefer to pay for the cost of the original rather than pay for an imitation."

Varna was sold and Riddle had his French spectacular. The Apcars went to work on producing an authentic version of the show. An octaramic stage was designed and built in Scotland for the show. Riddle imagined the show in his new showroom once the Diamond of the Dunes tower was completed.

In the meantime, Riddle continued to get publicity for the hotel. Steve Allen featured the hotel on 90 minute special he was doing for network television. United Artists held the world premiere of "Love is a Ball" at the Huntridge Theater and Allen filmed segments at both the Dunes and the Huntridge.

Riddle appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson where he talked about his latest promotion, "The Weekend Gambler's Handbook". Phone calls flooded into the hotel from around the country with people asking for copies. The first printing of the "Handbook" sold out.

In preparation for his upcoming bout with Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson used the Dunes as his training camp. The heavy-weight championship fight was held at the Las Vegas Convention Center's Rotunda.

On November 29, 1963, Riddle announced that Frederic Apcar and the cast of "Casino de Paris" were coming to Las Vegas. The show was scheduled to open on December 23rd, a relatively quiet time on the Las Vegas Strip. Christmas time found many hotels shutting their showrooms as tourism dropped off dramatically prior to the holiday and would not pick up until New Year's Eve grew closer.

The Casino de Paris was a success. Apcar stayed true to his promise to its star, Line Renaud. The show made her an international superstar.

In May, 1964 the beloved Sheik was removed from the roof of the hotel and placed into storage. The hotel underwent structural changes as the new "Diamond" tower began to rise. The Sheik would be brought out of storage once the new Interstate freeway, I-15, was completed. He would be placed on the back of the Golf Course near the freeway exit for Dunes Road and encourage motorists to exit now for the Dunes Hotel.

A new neon sign was added to the front of the property that year. Designed by Lee Klay of Federal Sign and Signal Company, the Dunes sign was 180-feet tall and shot neon into the heavens as flicker bulbs lit up the word: Dunes. The sign's foundation was 80 feet wide and it took several miles of neon tubing to light. Three full-time service men were hired to care for the sign.

The onion dome at the top of the sign evoked, according to author Alan Hess, "a Thousand and One Arabian Nights fantasy but when it is read as a stylized spade, the sign reflects the roadside tradition of buildings in the shapes of the things they sell." The sign cost $250,000 to design and fabricate. It was, until the Stardust sign came along, the tallest, free-standing neon sign in the world.

The architect of the "Diamond" tower did not like the sign. Milton Schwartz, of Chicago, objected to the size, shape and placement of the size in relationship to his tower. He had designed a spire sign that tied in with the new porte cochere. Major Riddle however, wanted a sign that could be seen for miles and was in keeping with the neon fantasy land that the Strip was becoming. Schwartz fought but Riddle prevailed. Because of the cost of the sign, Riddle leased the sign on a yearly basis. The contract was for 30 years at $5,000 a month.

The "Diamond of the Dunes" would more than double the number of rooms available at the hotel. The addition was designed, like many of the older properties going vertical, for the tourist that arrived by jet. McCarran Airport had opened a new jet-age terminal in 1962.

The thing that set the remodel of the Dunes apart was that it was part of a master plan for the resort. This master plan called for an additional five towers to be built over the years with the intention of the Dunes becoming a major resort. Schwartz, a graduate of the University of Illinois, "designed the kind of well-crafted mainstream modern buildings in which Chicago specialized," according to Alan Hess. It was owner, Jake Gottlieb, who lived in Chicago and admired the work that Schwartz had done on the Executive House there, that hired Milton Schwartz. It was Schwartz who had designed the Olympic Wing and the Sultan's Table.

The "Diamond of the Dunes", though it was a concrete frame structure, was creased on two broad sides "like the side panel of 1963 Buick Riviera" is how Alan Hess described it "and it appeared machined like the Exective House in Chicago." Deeply inset balconies protected the windows from the glaring heat of the summer sun. A nightclub, the Top O' the Strip and a healthclub occupied the penthouse. There was an "Alice in Wonderland" theme nursery as well. "Without possessing the Landmark's techno-romance or the Desert Inn's prosaic up-to-dateness, the Dunes managed to project the elegance and progressiveness of Modernism."

Gottlieb flew to Las Vegas frequently to chart the progress of the tower. He approved everything. He worked with Major Riddle to upgrade the clientele of the hotel. Both men wanted to attract well-heeled gamblers and high-rollers.  Major Riddle worked a contract with junket entrepreneur (and Las Vegas legend) Julius "Big Julie" Weintraub to bring New York gamblers to the Dunes. 

Schwartz redesigned the porte-cochere and added a second, high-end restaurant, the Dome of the Sea. The Dome was a clamshell of a room "suspended from six legs of sculptered concrete by a web of stainless steel and threads. The legs sat in a free-form pool of water that reflected the onto the bowl-shaped underside of the structure." The designer of the restaurant, Sean Kenney, projected fish, seaweed and subaqueous images on the wall. There was a small stage that held harpist Kippy Lou who was dressed as a siren. Schwartz specified that she be 5'6, blonde, dressed in gold and white and she was to sit in a large seashell that moved through a pool on a figure eight track.

The porte-cochere tied to the Dome of the Sea with its twin tapering pylons sweeping upward giving a visual sense of dynamic lightness. Schwartz designed it while flying back and forth from Chicago. The five hour trip left him plenty of time to think. He told author Alan Hess, "It was my feeling of what it would be like to enter this fabulous world."

The interior of the new tower featured modern technology materials such as stainless steel for elevator doors and stainless-covered carbon steel rods suspending floating stair treads. This material was balanced by rougher, more colorful materials such as the ceramic tiles used to accent walls.

Opening prior to the "Diamond", the Emerald Green Golf Court had its opening ceremony in April, 1965.  This extended the golf course to the back property line and could be seen from the new Interstate freeway, I-15. 

On June 4, 1965 the nightclub atop the "Diamond" tower officially opened.  Called the "Top O' the  Strip" if featured entertainment from noon till 4:00 am.  The Queen Elizabeth buffet, featuring roast prime rib of beef and costing $3.75 was served at lunch.  The Russ Morgan Orchestra would anchor the entertainment.  Pianist Mafalda and her trio performed there nightly as well as the Sultan's Table.

The Dome of the Sea opened a week later on June 12th.  Film legend Cary Grant flew in for the opening of the new restaurant.  Grant liked the Dunes Hotel and had stayed there when visiting.  He and actress Dyan Cannon were married there.  Jane Fonda married Roger Vadim at the Dunes as well. 

The Casino de Paris moved into the new showroom.  The show had been a success from the moment it opened.  As in Paris, Line Renaud was the star.  For one particular number in the show, she entered from the back of the house because the train of her Jose Luis Vinas costume stretched from there to the stage.  

In 1967, Apcar added Rouvan to the cast.  Rouvan was a powerful opera singer and he, too, became an international star thanks to Apcar.  He signed a three year, $1.5 million contract.  Rouvan was born James Haun but chose the stage name instead.  The highlight of his performance, according to George Stamos, "was his rendition of "Vesti la Guibba" from "Pagliacci".  He was said to be the heir to the musical throne of Caruzo and Mario Lanza.  Audiences adored him.  He became the first artist to star in two successive editions of Apcar's extravaganza.  Rouvan would likely have had a storied career but he died at 45 after a prolonged illness. 

In 1968, Riddle did an exchange of stock with M & R Investment and Continental Connector Company located in Brooklyn.  As a result, Continental Connector became the Dune's  parent corporation.  Not long after that, Meschulam Riklis and Isadore Becker, owners of the American International Travel Service and the Riviera (at the time) purchased 30% of Connector stock to gain control of the hotel.  Riddle, however blocked them by teaming with Irving Kahn, a prominent Dunes stockholder.

After Kahn's death, his attorney, Morris Shenkar arranged with Kahn's estate to buy his interest in Continental Connector.  Thus, Shenkar became Chairman of the Board and Chief controlling officer.  Shenkar and Riddle continued to work together as the 1960s came to close.

They had big plans for the Dunes as a new decade was dawning. 

Dunes%20S%20Table%20Violinists%20photo%20copy.gif 

Sultan's Table

 

Dunes%20sign%20night%201966%20copy.gif 

The Iconic Sign

 

View%20of%20Dome%20of%20the%20Sea%20Daytime%20copy.gif 

The Dome of the Sea

 

Dunes%20Casino%20Brochure%20copy.gif 

The Casino

 

Dunes%20Casino%20De%20Paris%2068%20Rouvan%20copy.gif 

Casino de Paris program

 

Dunes%20Postcard%20with%20sign%20day%20copy.gif 

The Dome of the Sea, the Diamond of the Dunes tower and the iconic sign

 

Special thanks to UNLV Special Collections, RoadsidePictures and As We Knew It for allowing us to use these images. 

 

UP NEXT:

The Dunes from the 1970s to the 1990s 

 

bttn_prev-arrow.gif                                           bttn_next-arrow.gif