From the House of Lords to Rehab: Celebrity in the Las Vegas Landscape

“There was a time in fabulous Las Vegas when Hollywood starlets mingled with world class entertainers, when comedians gathered after shows to laugh, drink and dine the night away, when brandy and wine flowed and succulent steaks were cooked to perfection and served not only with a smile, but a meaningful conversation. It was common to see Frank, Dean, Sammy ad Peter singing to guests while the sound of champagne bottles popped and the feeling of good times filled the room.” -Plaque at the Entrance to the House of Lords, Sahara Casino

Sahara Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas.

The Sahara’s House of Lords restaurant discretely inhabits a corner of its disintegrating casino. If the restaurant were representative of the Sahara’s present state, the casino’s closure in less than one month would be surprising—the House of Lords stands in pristine condition, its subtle fountains circulating beneath a shimmering, faux night sky, surrounded by a circle of booths backed with golden minarets. A more recent incarnation of the restaurant that originally opened in 1954, this House of Lords avoids the dire fate of the rest of the casino, which suffers from abandoned towers full of severely aged rooms, a swimming pool surrounded by empty fountains and a row of shops pushing sales of discounted halter tops and rhinestone flip-flops.

The House of Lords, Sahara. Image from vegastripping.com

The Sahara represents one of the last casinos on the Las Vegas Strip with ties to the city’s past image as a haven for celebrities and Los Angeles’s elite to escape Hollywood . Outside of their stage time, performers were known to frequent the casino floors and restaurants, providing an image of Las Vegas as a place uniquely accessible to the stars. The long defunct, tiki-themed Don the Beachcomber restaurant was the best known restaurant in the Sahara for celebrity sightings during the mid-century era, more so than the original House of Lords.

The current House of Lords integrates aspects of its own history with that of Don the Beachcomber to create a constructed time capsule aimed at an audience nostalgic for “old Las Vegas” and its celebrity-filled associations. Its overtly dark lighting, small number of tables, and seclusion within the casino communicates exclusivity, while the circular positioning of the booths creates the sense of intimacy often absent from contemporary Las Vegas restaurants. Photo murals of the casino’s original architecture and the stars who frequented the Sahara surround the room, offering a meager substitute for the unsurprising absence of celebrity presence at the present-day, modest casino.  The mid-century Las Vegas Strip was a place to become glamorous by association; the House of Lords attempts to bring back that moment as best it can within a vastly different Las Vegas landscape.

Postcard image of Don the Beachcomber restaurant, Sahara. Image from hmdavid on flickr.com

In contrast to the more observation-based celebrity experience valued by the Baby Boomer generation, the current Millennial generation now coveted by the Las Vegas Strip casinos integrates participation with their concept of celebrity; these Americans want to be the celebrity. The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, located several miles from the Strip, embodies this newer attitude, beginning upon arrival at the casino’s porte-cochere. Since the 1970s most casinos have amplified the porte-cochere feature of their entrance: the MGM Grand maintains an enormous, bulbous cover loosely referencing its overblown Art Deco décor, the tropical Mirage incorporates a thatched roof-like texture and oversized flowers, and seventeenth century oil painting reproductions hang salon style from the ceiling of the Venetian’s roundabout.

Hard Rock Casino, Las Vegas. Image from handycrafuniqe.com

Entering the Hard Rock through the back taxi entrance, in contrast, evokes the Hollywood red carpet arrival: shining mirror panels cover the porte-cochere surfaces, accented with white incandescent bulbs that suggest the  camera flashes of paparazzi at-the-ready. The hotel’s website describes the rooms as “designed with the discerning rock star in mind.” Once per week, guests can engage in tabloid-worthy activities at Rehab, the Hard Rock’s enormously popular pool party that initiated a city-wide trend of young adult-oriented pools and pool night clubs. The most prominent image throughout the casino is the Hard Rock’s trademark celebrity memorabilia. Worn jackets, sparkling costumes and floating instruments fill museum-like display cases every several yards: Shaun White’s flag-print jeans from a Rolling Stone cover shoot, Gwen Stefani’s pink, rhinestone halter top, Kurt Cobain’s signed guitar. Famous objects live here, devoid of their owners, the celebrity role open for casino guests to fill.

Hard Rock Casino interior, Las Vegas.

Mr. Lucky’s 24-7 resides in an alcove off of the Hard Rock’s circular gaming area, posing as a “retro” diner from an indiscernible era. Aged signs from motels and restaurants and motels line the walls, interspersed with archival photographs of Elvis, the Rat Pack and the other mid-century Vegas icons seen on the walls of the House of Lords. The most recent incarnation of MTV’s series The Real World, the reality television show in which a cast of seven unknowns become instant celebrities while their lives are filmed for six months, the cast inevitably inhabits the Hard Rock Hotel; countless scenes of these readymade celebrities take place inside Mr. Lucky’s 24-7.

Mr. Lucky's 24-7, Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.

In the background of several shots of the show hovers vintage “H” and “R” neon signs, abbreviating “Hard Rock.” Anyone familiar with the Las Vegas landscape would recognize the letters’ distinctive font; they came from a sign once spelling “Sahara.” The signifiers of celebrity in Las Vegas have been similarly changed: reorganized, restored, polished and painted. Ultimately, indicators of celebrity, both past and present, represent a fascination still ever-present in the American fantastical landscape.

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