The Dunes… “The Miracle in the Desert”

      When the Dunes Hotel opened in Las Vegas, Nevada in the spring of 1955, Dick Haymes had been married to Rita Hayworth for over a year and a half. Looking at the photographs from the Dunes that are re-printed here, it is hard to believe that in a matter of months their marriage would go up in flames. At this late date, they were perfectly aware that both of their careers were permanently damaged by all of the bad press their union spurred. But nonetheless, they look like they are enjoying all of the paparazzi recording the memories of Dick Haymes’ opening night at this Las Vegas landmark in June of 1955.
      During Dick and Rita’s stay at the Dunes, veteran Bell captain Rudy Wolf remembered dealing with the diva. “I went up to Miss Hayworth’s suite to deliver an item. She greeted me in a terry cloth robe and curlers.” I jokingly said, “Is Miss Hayworth here?”, to which she replied in a haughty tone as if right out of a movie, “I’M Rita Hayworth!”
       Rudy Wolf also recalled, “Wally Cox played at the Dunes in 1955. He was on stage for about 11 minutes during the first show and he was immediately cancelled before having a chance to go on to the second show!”
      The Dunes Hotel, with its 200 rooms opened on May 23rd 1955 with the “Magic Carpet Review” starring the beautiful and talented Vera-Ellen accompanied by a cast of 60 dancers and singers. It was 8 years earlier that Dick starred with her in “Carnival in Costa Rica”.
      Six years later the hotel expanded to contain 450 rooms under its roof by adding a new 24-story hotel tower titled “Diamond of the Dunes”. The Dunes tower was the tallest building in the state for a short while. With all of the construction going on in Nevada it was only a matter of time before it shrunk back down to size.
      In the 1950s the wedding industry helped make Las Vegas one of the nation’s most popular venues for celebrity nuptials. Dick and Rita were married on September 24, 1953 at the Sands. Other famous couples married at various hotels in Las Vegas were Joan Crawford and Pepsi chairman Alfred Steele; Carol Channing and television executive Charles Lowe; and Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
      Bright lights are what Vegas is all about so the signage at the Dunes in the late 1950s included a 35 feet tall fiberglass giant sultan that was perched on top of its roof. The sultan, in all of his glory with his billowing cape and plumed turban was moved to the golf course during the 1964 renovations. An electrical short in the stomach of the legendary character, apparently started a fire that destroyed the pictogram in 1985.
      Probably the most recognized sign was the onion dome silhouette, measuring 180 feet tall by 80 feet wide illuminated the skies in 1964. The onion dome evoked a “Thousand and One Nights” fantasy with electric lava erupting into the sky every minute. It was rumored that the sign, which contained 10,000 lighting units and several miles of neon tubing, cost the Dunes $47,500 a year to operate and the salaries of 3 full-time employees to service it.
      In 1959 a golf course was added to the Dunes growing landscape but it wasn’t until 1980 that the complex had a course that was real winner. It took 21 years for them to upgrade their mediocre golf course to unveil the 18-hole Emerald Green Championship Golf Course which extended a full mile from the back of the hotel. The course was the largest in the state totaling 7,240 yards with a par 72. This brilliant business venture brought nationally televised sporting events to the Dunes such as the PGA’s Tournament of Champions.
      In December of 1979, the Dunes expanded once again adding to its character a 17-story hi-rise to accompany the “Diamond of the Dunes”. The luxurious suites in the new tower were designed with multi-level floor-plans. Now the hotel could crow that their rooms totaled 1,300.
      With all of the problems the Dunes Hotel suffered through the years, it is hard to believe that it stood for almost 40 of them. The trouble started early during the planning stages. Movie magnate Al Gottesman, along with two friends from Las Vegas, purchased a horse ranch for $58,000. After several collaborations that didn’t work, Gottesman ended up with two other unlikely partners, one of them was Bob Rice, a Beverly Hills costume jeweler and the other was Joe Sullivan of the Rhode Island Group. Before the Dunes broke ground $2 million had been invested. They secured an agreement from an investment group from Rhode Island and additional monetary assistance came from the Teamsters Pension Fund.
      Even with the catchy slogan, “The Miracle in the Desert” the resort struggled. During the first year the Sands Casino owner Jake Freedman bought the Dunes and still could not make it work. The casino closed after one year even with the assistance of the Sands’ management team. In 1957 Jake Gottlieb bought the Dunes and hired Major Auterburn Riddle, to turn it around.
      Little did Gottlieb know how much the resort needed Riddle. He was always coming up with original ideas to keep people coming to the casino. One of the most brilliant business moves Riddle made was booking the “Minsky’s Follies”. Major Auterburn Riddle made history on January 10, 1957, by bringing bare-breasted stage shows to Nevada. Even with an initial uproar in the State Legislature, the show set a record for attendance of 16,000 people in a single week.
      In 1970 Howard Hughes considered purchasing the Dunes. He was trying to monopolize the casinos by buying the Desert Inn, Castaways, New Frontier, Landmark and the Silver Slipper. When he approached the Gaming Board with this contract he was told that he already had enough gaming licenses. Hughes could have dropped his license for the Castaways so he could close the deal but he decided against it and bowed out gracefully.
      At this time the property held acres of free parking, two giant swimming pools, a complete laundry, a dry cleaning plant and a staff of more than 2,300 employees. The resort also contained five outdoor tennis courts and a pro shop.
      In 1987, Japanese mega-millionaire investor Masao Nangaku purchased Dunes for $155 million but could not make it a financial success. Steve Wynn bought the Dunes for $75 million in 1992 and closed it down.
      The famous hotel met it’s demise in 1993, when cameras televised its implosion. Five years later on October 15th, 1998, the magnificent 36-story Bellagio Hotel & Casino opened to rave revues on the grounds that once held the Dunes Hotel. The $1.6 billion resort is the largest in “sin city” with a total of 3,026 rooms. Just try to get a reservation, even with all of those rooms, it is almost impossible, unless you are planning your trip at least 4 months in advance.
      Probably today when a celebrity performs in Las Vegas the event is taped. Unfortunately 50 years ago when Dick Haymes stood in front of a screaming crowd there were no video cameras. Perhaps one of our members was there and could tell us what it was like seeing the great Dick Haymes perform in Las Vegas…

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