History of the Las Vegas Dunes Hotel

History of the Las Vegas Dunes Hotel

Las Vegas Dunes hotel, before its implosion

The Dunes was an iconic Las Vegas Hotel whose name even today is still remembered along the strip. It’s long gone now, of course – imploded in two stages to make way for The Bellagio in 1993 and 1994. This being Vegas, though, it’s demise was as spectacular as the old hotel’s reputation merited. The following post, therefore, provides a brief history of the Las Vegas Dunes hotel.

A brief history of the Las Vegas Dunes

Las Vegas Dunes Hotel aerial photo
Image courtesy of Nevada State Museum and Historical Society – 700 Twin Lakes Drive, Las Vegas, Nevada 89107. 702.486.5205

The Dunes hotel was one of the early hotels on the Las Vegas strip, opening its doors in 1955. Together with the Sand and Desert Inn hotels, it was known as one of the three Kings of Las Vegas.

Back then, the Dunes was at the southernmost tip of the strip, and due to its remote location, it struggled to make money.

Today, of course, The Bellagio, which stands proudly where the Dunes used to be, is located in the middle of the strip, with New York New York, MGM Grand, Excalibur, Luxor and Mandalay Bay all much further south. But in 1955, Las Vegas was a very different town, and the strip was much smaller. Even the hotels were smaller, with the Dunes having only 200 rooms when it was first opened.

The Dunes and the Mob

Early photo of the Las Vegas Dunes hotel
Photography by Erik Wunstell © April, 1977-2006

The Dunes achieved its legendary status thanks in part to decades of mob rule. Both the Mafia and money from the Teamsters’ pension fund helped to build the hotel, and it was owned for many years by Morris Shenker, who was allegedly associated with the St. Louis Mafia.

In addition to its mob links, the Dunes was also made famous by recruiting star performers such as Frank Sinatra to sing at the hotel, in an effort to lure the paying punters in. Still struggling, though, even with the might of Frank and co, it opened Las Vegas’s first topless show called Minsky’s Follies in 1957, which drew in an audience of 16,000, which, at the time, was a record for a single week’s attendance. The Dunes was saved, and lived for another 36 years.

The Dunes expands

Las Vegas Dunes hotel, before its implosion
© 2001-2002 University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Flushed with the success of its topless show, the Dunes had (some) cash in the bank, and added a golf course and a new exhibitor and convention center in 1959. A new tower called the Diamond of the Dunes was also added in 1961, bringing the total number of rooms to 450.

In 1964, the Dunes led the way in lighting up the Las Vegas skyline with the addition of 180 foot neon sign. Shaped like a giant onion, it apparently evoked images from A Thousand and One Nights , and had “electric lava” erupting through the sky every minute. Mmmm, classy!

Las Vegas Dunes hotel sign
Photo by Erik Lauritzen, NHS Photo Collection

Unfortunately, it was also expensive, costing $47,000 a year to operate, but the Dunes didn’t care – it was making money, and needed to tell the world (well, the Las Vegas strip, anyway!) where it was. Thus, the trend for ever bigger, ever more attention-seeking hotels and signages was born, which has ultimately led to the amazing hotels that currently grace the Strip. Las Vegas really is survival of the fittest, with onyl the most attention-grabbing hotels surviving, and the Dunes was the first to do this in style.

In 1979, a new 17-storey tower was built to bring the total number of rooms to 1,300. These rooms were lavish, and featured the most luxurious resort rooms in Las Vegas.

The final years

Las Vegas hotel implosion
Photos by John Gurzinski, Las Vegas ReviewJournal

By 1987, though, things were starting to go wrong again. The Dunes was bought by Japanese investor Masao Nangaku for $155 million, but it was showing its age, and he couldn’t make any money out of it. So he sold it in 1992 to Steve Wynn for just $75 million, who had no intentions of turning it round. Instead, he wanted to blow the thing up and replace it with a much, much grander hotel and casino – The Bellagio.

And so it was that on October 20th 1993, the first of the two Dunes towers was imploded in dramatic style, with one of the pirate ships from Treasure Island firing its cannon just before the implosion, in a mock attack on the Dunes.

It was also a hugely symbolic act, as it represented the overthrowing of the Mafia’s influence on Vegas, and the beginning of a new era, in which huge new mega resorts began to dominate the Las Vegas skyline.

The Bellagio was built in its place, providing a spectacular fountain show, the likes of which the Dunes could never compete with. Another Las Vegas legend passed into history, while a new one was built in its place.

[Source: Wikipedia, A2ZLasVegas, LegendsOfAmerica]

20 Responses

  1. Nick Pappagiorgio July 13, 2007 at 3:40 am #

    You forgot to mention the TV Show Vegas with Robert Urich – Dan Tanna. The location for his condo was at the back entrance of the Dunes and it used to be marked with spray paint on the Door before it was demolished of course.

    Great Article.

  2. Rusty Griswold July 26, 2007 at 11:50 pm #

    What the heck is Nick Pappagiorgio talking about!? a) Dan Tanna never had a condo b)the warehouse he lived in was no where near the Dunes. It was located just north of Circus Circus, which can be easily documented by anyone who watches the show. The building used as his home was demolished in 1986, the land went on to be the location of Ripleys Believe it or Not, and Arby’s fast food. It now is the location of a large condo project…

  3. Rogerio November 28, 2007 at 10:16 pm #

    Dunes is where I got my first real job after graduating from high school.I did everything from busboy,waiter,maintaince,etc.It was after two years there that I was drafted.I spent one year with the US Army in Vietnam.Am now retired and frequent Las Vegas 2-4 times a year.I have fond and beautiful memories of the Dunes.I spent a lot of time on grave yard shift at:Top O The Strip restaurant and Lounge.I remember Follies Begere.I met Cary Grant once on my job as a waiter.I wasa saddened to see it go.The Dunes will always remain one of the most exciting places and beautiful memories for me as long as I live.Thanks for keeping this memory alive-Rogerio

  4. Clark W. Griswold December 5, 2007 at 3:58 pm #

    Who cares. Just remember this:

    When a man can come to Las Vegas with a few extra bucks in his pocket, plunk down a 10 spot on a table, pay an extra buck for steak with his eggs….well, its a happy day for that man.

  5. melissa rice January 27, 2008 at 10:52 pm #

    I am sad that you fail to mention the truth about the Dunes and who really owned and ran it. It was my uncle BOB RICE and a group of men including my grand father Al Rice from RI. They were in the jewelry business not the mob. Maybe you could mention that somewhere in your “history of the Dunes” I would like my kids and their kids to see their family history portrayed correctly, PLEASE

  6. Dave January 30, 2008 at 4:16 am #

    I played the Dunes golf course back in 1990. Does anyone know where I can view photos of the course?

  7. Johnny Elvis Foster August 23, 2008 at 7:33 am #

    God Bless My Godfather Morris Shenker < Morris was the Best.
    I played in the Showroom for two years with My Elvis Show
    ” For The Love Of Elvis ” I use to go to the top floor for My Massages
    Johnny Elvis Foster :

  8. Lila Tarsey March 1, 2009 at 10:24 pm #

    When the Dunes was built Jason Tarsey was part owner in 1958 . He left The Dunes and got into another business I didn’t know him until 1972′ when I met him in Hawaii and married him. I know he mentioned Bob Rice and I believe
    he came to visit us once. I would here a few stories about how it was. I guess he preferred Hawaii and was very happy here in Honolulu. That’s all I really know.

  9. Robin Douglass May 2, 2010 at 11:46 pm #

    My grand parents used to visit the Dunes twice a year as guests of Big Julie Wientraub. My fondest memory of both the Dunes, Big Julie and Mr Shenker was when I was 6 and Mr. Shenker saw me sitting in the lounge outside the casio floor waiting, with my mother, for the rest of family to go to dinner. Mr. Shenker asked if he could “borrow” me for a few moments. He took me into the gift shop and told rthe sales girl I could have anything I wanted in the store. I picked out a princes doll and I still have it today…..

  10. Jennifer Shenker-Niles August 25, 2010 at 4:10 am #

    The Dunes was my childhood. I spent 1975-1984 there as my grandfather Morris was the Chairman of the Board, my father Arthur the President and my grandmother Lillian the vice President… I myself was between the ages of 3 & 12 yet had hotel id’s stating that I was not only the chairman of the board, but also a housekeeper, showgirl and 21 dealer! What a life! I was the “Eloise” of Las Vegas and long miss those days of my youth when Las Vegas still had an element of class. To this day I still have issues going to the Bellagio and shed a tear when in town and drive by!

    And I’m not sure about the above mentioned Robert Urich fact, however, I can confirm that not only was the Rob Lowe movie Varsity Blues filmed there, but so was an episode of the late television show B.J. & The Bear. I have pictures of Sam (chimp who played the Bear) playing slots.

    I could go on and on with stories from the Dunes…it was my home and I will miss it and my grandparents Morris & Lillian Shenker!

  11. Michelle Grimes October 25, 2010 at 4:48 am #

    My Step Father Arthur Fordonski worked for Mr. Shenker in the Junket Office. I even had the chance to work in their office’s during the summer stuffing envelopes and typing when I was just a teenager. It was the early 80’s. I had my 16th Birthday Party at the Dunes. I remember having Passover with the Shenker family when I was just about 14 years old. I loved going to the Dunes casino when I was a kid. It was a great memory.

  12. Denise Watson August 7, 2013 at 11:10 am #

    I worked at the Dunes from June 1977 until the day it closed…even made the front page of the Review Journal Sun edition explaining to ‘steve wynn’ that the closing of the Dunes was like pulling the plug on a parent in the hospital…I loved the Dunes…Mr Shenker and Lady Lillian…were wonderful people…I also remember Arthur Fordonski.. I worked in the cage at the Dunes. Anyone remember..Cupie Ritche, Mr Duckworth, Artie Sellman, …ooo..Art and Charles Weintraub…wow…I could go on forever.

  13. Kaitlin Lee December 17, 2014 at 9:30 pm #

    I as well grew up with the Dunes. I originally started as a PBX operator and then ended up singing in the casino lounge and eventually the Oasis Lounge. There are so many wonderful memories there! Does anyone remember the newest Dunes edition called the Oasis? There was a second floor to that dome that we were never allowed to go up to…. What was up there?

  14. Tami Ewert February 22, 2016 at 2:49 am #

    My first trip to Vegas was in 1989, and we stayed at the Dunes! It was showing it’s age, but have wonderful memories of it!

    The rooms had a glamorous vanity with lit up mirror, where we sat to get all dolled up, and who could forget the beautiful restaurant, Domes of the Sea!!

  15. louie Fiore March 16, 2016 at 11:24 pm #

    Jennifer, my dad Mario ran the Boston junket for 30 years and a good friend of your dad.i also was so sad when they knocked down the dunes I grew up going with my father. …real good times

  16. D alexander September 30, 2016 at 6:18 pm #

    My wife and I eloped in 1979 and married at the “We Kirk of the Heather Chapel in Vegas. We were in Vegas in 2015 and it was still there. But anyway, on our wedding night we stayed at the DUNES. I remember looking out our window we could see that fabulous sign. It’s been 37 years and were still together. Good memories. I’m glad we chose the dunes. Lounging by the pool, what fun.

  17. Ramona Rafferty December 15, 2016 at 6:55 pm #

    The Dunes was like a second home to me to, my mom worked there late 60’s to 93 she started out as a waitress in the Savoy room then top of the strip and went into cocktails she convinced me to try and get a job there when I was 19 started working there in 80 or 81 in the sea horse buffet, loved it there the bosses were great hung out with a few of them met many from my mom “Johanna Rafferty ‘Honey’ I learned of so many hiding places it was a great place to work and visit, I really miss it and the people to !

  18. geno lawrenzi jr. February 22, 2017 at 12:12 am #

    Johnny Moss ran the poker room at the Dunes for a while. He taught dealers how to scoop chips out of the pots to add to the house take. Johnny was good at that. I once played in a poker tournament at the Dunes. Got knocked out but it was a great experience.

  19. Stuart Timpa February 24, 2017 at 4:44 pm #

    Hi Denise Watson,
    This is Stuart Timpa.
    Miss you and the Dunes gang.


  1. Las Vegas Dunes Hotel implosion videos - July 15, 2007

    […] If you’re interested in finding out more about the Dunes, check out the History of the Las Vegas Dunes article. If its implosion videos you’re after, check out the Las Vegas Implosions category, where you’ll find many more over the coming months.   Posted on Sunday, July 15th, 2007 at 3:04 pm by Mike Evans Filed under Vegas Implosions   […]

Leave a Reply