It's not every day you can draw a line from one of our joints to legendary comedian Don Rickles, "The Insultin' Sultan," so when opportunity arises - even if it's a bit of a curvy line - you gotta go with it.
Let's start in present-day: Al's Den at the Crystal Hotel in downtown Portland is hosting late-night comedy acts on Friday and Saturday nights, from 10:30 p.m. 'til midnight. Admission is free and it's for the 21-and-over crowd.
Are we saying then that Al's Den hosted comedy back in the building's former, gloriously notorious Desert Room days of the '50s-'60s? Well, no. However, Al Winter, namesake of Al's Den and big-time Portland-dark-lord-of-the-underworld, was no stranger to the stand-up game. You kind of had to be when you were a high-roller in Las Vegas, like Al was. Ever heard of the Sahara Hotel and Casino (below, in its early days)? Al Winter and his "Portland Mob," as they came to be known among Nevadans, were the primary force in building and operating the Sahara.
The Sahara was in operation under that name for 59 years from 1952 to 2011 (Al Winter cashed out his interest in the late 1960s). With 1,720 guestrooms and suites with a casino covering more than 85,000 square feet, it sat on 55 acres at the northern end of the Strip. Its taglines included "Every Night's a Party!" and "Featuring the Most American Girls in the World!"
Until its closing in 2011, the Sahara was the last remaining vintage "Rat Pack" casino-hotel - in fact, the original Ocean's Eleven (1960) was in part filmed there, starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and Sammy Davis Jr. The hotel is currently undergoing a rebranding a renovation and will reopen in Fall 2014 as SLS Las Vegas Hotel & Casino.
From the outset, the Sahara earned a stellar reputation for its entertainment offerings, and Don Rickles was one of the early headliners. By the late 1950s, he'd already developed his reputation as one who hurled insults at his adoring crowd. He didn't even have a set act, but would ad-lib his performances depending on who showed up in the audience. Managers would seat "funny-looking" people right down in front. His home nightclub at that time was Slate Brothers in Hollywood. When Frank Sinatra stopped by one night, Rickles didn't even hesitate to aim his signature sarcasm and acerbic wit at him. Sinatra loved it, howling with laughter. The two became pals, and Sinatra was Rickles' biggest supporter.
This undoubtedly helped Rickles land his big break at Casbar Lounge in the Sahara Hotel in Vegas in 1959. He was hired by Stan Irwin, entertainment director at the Sahara and Al Winter's longtime employee. In 2012, our historian Tim Hills interviewed Irwin while doing research on the recent opening of the Crystal Hotel.
Stan Irwin: With Don Rickles, he was playing the Slate Brothers club in LA. and was causing quite a positive stir. I went to see him three times, and then booked him at the Sahara. Jack Entratter at The Sands wanted him.
Tim Hills: Yeah, I bet!
Stan: But, um, I already had 'em... Well, history was made of course with Don Rickles at the Sahara... So, I had the best late-night operation, the Casbar. The last show in the Casbar, in those days, was 5 A.M. 'til a quarter to 6.
Tim: [laughter] Did you ever sleep?
Stan: Um, rarely.
Rickles was an immediate success at the Sahara, and became the "in" comic among Hollywood stars, all of whom hoped to be roasted by the acid-tongued funnyman. It was no slouch gig, though - he performed three times a night: 12 a.m., 2:30 a.m. and the 5:10 a.m. "breakfast show" that Irwin mentions above.
By 1969, Rickles was signed to a new contract to headline in the hotel's main room, which established him as one of Las Vegas' top performers. But according to Rickles, the true sign that he'd finally arrived was when he received a bathrobe monogrammed with "The Rhino," his nickname back in the day, that allowed him entry into the Rat Pack's after-five club in the Sands Hotel steam room.
At age 87, Rickles is going strong, although performing perhaps a touch less often than he used to back in 1959. However, he maintains the biting humor for which he gained fame. Enjoy him here in Jerry Seinfeld's online show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
If you're into comedy and history, or maybe historic comedy, head to Al's Den on Friday and Saturday nights for a taste of what it might have been like back in the late '50s in Vegas.