Skokie, Illinois is about 15 miles north of downtown Chicago. It’s a diverse village of about 65,000 people, and while it’s just beyond city limits and certainly maintains a small-town feel, it’s essentially a Chicago suburb.

Skokie is 1,750 miles away from the Las Vegas Strip, a four-hour flight. If you’re a 10-year-old growing up out here, Vegas might as well be on another planet.

When Sabrina Ehmke was about that age, she took her first trip to Las Vegas with her parents via Amtrak’s Desert Wind passenger train (which stopped running in 1997). Forget four hours on a plane; it was a two-night ride into the west. “That was a whole experience in itself, especially for a 10-year-old,” says Ehmke, a high school teacher and marathon runner who still lives in Skokie.

Sabrina Ehmke at the Mirage during a family vacation in Las Vegas in 1992.

Sabrina Ehmke at the Mirage during a family vacation in Las Vegas in 1992.

When the family arrived, they checked in at the newest and most exciting hotel in Vegas. The Mirage opened in late 1989, the world’s most expensive resort at $630 million, constructed on the site where the Castaways once stood. “After two years of planning and two years of construction, Steve Wynn’s Polynesian-styled resort finally was ready: 6,400 employees, 2,300 slot machines, 115 table games, 29 floors, 3,049 hotel rooms, 1.1 million square feet of public space, 40,000 shrubs, 1,000 palm trees, a salt water tank behind the reception desk with sharks and tropical fish,” reported the Las Vegas Sun. “A ‘live’ natural gas-burning volcano, on a 50-foot waterfall fronting the strip, erupts every 15 minutes from dusk to about 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.”

For the Ehmkes, the Mirage and Las Vegas was love at first sight. “That was our summer vacation. A lot of people grow up going to national parks or Disney World. We were a Vegas family,” she says. “At that point in time, it seemed like most of the hotels had a special arcade spot for kids. The Mirage had tigers and dolphins.”

The wonders of the first modern megaresort on the Strip kept her coming back, returning for multiple visits with the parents to see Siegfried & Roy perform their magical spectacular and always visiting the tropical pool for a non-alcoholic version of the “best strawberry daiquiris.” As a teenager she experienced a bit of Vegas freedom, bringing a friend along and getting “our own hotel room, which brought a whole new set of trouble,” Ehmke jokes, recalling how they would roam the Strip and frequent the “party pit” at Harrah’s. As a grown-up, she went to Vegas for her bachelorette party, and took her husband for his first visit as part of their honeymoon adventure.

“I’ve been to Vegas 20 or 30 times and stayed at different places, but always made it a point to visit the Mirage, whether I’m seeing a show or just walking around,” Ehmke says. “It’s always felt a little more elegant. It allowed for a different kind of Vegas experience. I don’t know if this is just my family’s perspective because we were there so much during our first few trips, but it set the tone for what we expected out of Vegas. I’ve had plenty of crazy nights in Vegas, but as a whole, the trips are always a little bit of fun, a little relaxing, just an even-keel good time. The Mirage offered that.”

The Mirage is closing on July 17 to begin a long transition into a new Hard Rock Hotel. Owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Hard Rock International purchased the resort from MGM Resorts International in 2022 (MGM had acquired the Mirage in 2000 from Wynn, the original developer). The new Hard Rock project is aiming for a 2027 opening.

A veterinarian specialist visits with white-striped tiger cubs at Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden at the Mirage in 2010.

The Dunes became Bellagio. The Sands became Venetian. The Desert Inn became Wynn Las Vegas, and eventually, the Stardust became Resorts World. The Strip has always demolished iconic properties to make way for something new, always primed to bring more excitement and tourism to Las Vegas. One of the oldest resorts on the Strip, the Tropicana, shuttered in April of this year in order to build a Major League Baseball stadium at its famous “four corners” site.

Perhaps more than any other single development, the Mirage changed the course of the Strip and altered the perception of Las Vegas. It diversified the winning equation of gambling and entertainment with luxury and spectacle, created new reasons for new visitors to come to Las Vegas, and did it all on an unprecedented scale.

“The influence of the Mirage can’t be overstated. I think it’s impossible,” says UNLV’s David Schwartz. “It did totally change every aspect of casinos in Las Vegas, even though other casinos may have superseded it in some ways. You really can’t take away from what was accomplished there.”

Currently serving as ombuds and working to solve various campus issues, Schwartz has been a faculty member since 2001 and was the director of the Center for Gaming Research for 17 years. He’s written seven books on gaming history, and he grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Wynn opened a Golden Nugget casino in 1980 before the Mirage began development.

“For me a real inflection point was that they had land in Atlantic City they were going to use, but Wynn had frustration there [with New Jersey gaming regulators] so he sold the Golden Nugget and didn’t build there. Instead, he built the Mirage,” Schwartz says.

Some version of the Mirage also could have ended up in Downtown Las Vegas. Journalist Steve Friess wrote in Las Vegas Weekly in 2014 that Wynn told him he offered Union Pacific railroad $50 million for 50 acres of land where the Clark County Government Center now stands, back in 1984. The utility turned him down. “I would’ve built the Mirage down there,” Wynn said. “I went to the Strip in ’89, and then the Strip exploded.”

Roy Horn, Steve Wynn, and Siegfried Fischbache

Roy Horn, Steve Wynn, and Siegfried Fischbache

In the first year of operations, the Mirage grossed $800 million, Wynn said in that Weekly piece, “$400 million gaming, $400 million non-gaming. … It was the $400 million in non-gaming that caused the $400 million of gaming.”

Themed family-friendly resorts, the expansion of Cirque du Soleil shows, the explosion of fine dining and celebrity chef restaurants, the boom in nightclubs and dayclubs and pop-music headliners to attract younger visitors, the enlarging of venues and eventual arrival of major league sports—all of these Strip trends can be traced in one way or another to the Mirage, and its pioneering endeavor to put all possible pieces together in one place, to be all things to all people. And that movement has helped Las Vegas blossom into an international destination. In 1990, visitation blew past the 20 million mark for the first time, and it’s only dipped below that number once since then—down to 19 million visitors in 2020, when COVID shut down the Strip for several months.

Before the Mirage’s opening, a new resort with thousands of hotel rooms hadn’t been built on the Strip in 16 years, since the original MGM Grand (now Horseshoe Las Vegas) arrived in 1973 at Flamingo Road and Las Vegas Boulevard. The following years brought a furious charge of massive openings: Excalibur, Luxor, Treasure Island and the new MGM Grand, all by the close of 1993; then Stratosphere, Monte Carlo, New York-New York, Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, Venetian and Paris all opened before 2000.

Essentially, the Mirage supercharged the machine that led to its demise: The never-ending cycle of the growing, evolving Strip. The nature of Las Vegas is constant movement, infinite change.

“This was the casino that really did transform Las Vegas, but I guess it shows how Las Vegas is not a sentimental city,” Schwartz says. “If somebody thinks they can get higher revenue per room, they’ll re-theme it, or do whatever they need to do.”

Regular visitors like Ehmke understand that, even if they’re sad to see a favorite destination finally say goodbye. “I guess there’s good in all the changes. With all those people coming, you’ve got to do something to keep it fresh,” she says. “Some people will get bored, some won’t, some will love the same type of trip every time.

“The Mirage was an important piece of family history for us and those trips just had a huge impact on me and shaped a lot of how I thought about travel. Exposing me to that kind of travel early on gave me the idea that these things and places are possible. And it was fun.”

The hallway to The Beatles Love theater at Mirage.

As monumental as the original Mirage may have been, it remained consistently popular, relevant and comprehensive as it made its way through the decades. Those other ’90s resorts may have stolen the spotlight upon their arrival, but the Mirage’s signature attractions—its volcano, rainforest atrium, dolphin habitat and garden populated by white tigers—endured in a unique way.

Dining, nightclub and retail offerings at the Mirage didn’t always specifically set new trends, but the blueprint established there through amenities like the Renoir restaurant and the lobby design were stepping stones to Bellagio’s game-changing dining portfolio and the Dale Chihuly glass flowers installation. The Mirage also occasionally competed with the Las Vegas Hilton with major boxing matches, including the “Uno Mas” third bout between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran just a month after opening.

Mirage truly excelled in the entertainment category, starting with Siegfried & Roy—easily one of the most celebrated and influential shows in Las Vegas history—and continuing with Danny Gans, Terry Fator, Boyz II Men, and illusionist Shin Lim, who recently announced he’s moving his show to Palazzo. When Siegfried & Roy’s show ended after Roy was attacked onstage by a white tiger in 2003, its theater was completely renovated and Cirque du Soleil’s fifth Las Vegas residency show, The Beatles Love, came to life—an appropriate placement considering the very first Cirque performance in Las Vegas, Nouvelle Expérience, was held in a tent behind the Mirage in 1992.

The Beatles Love will perform for the last time on July 7 in Cirque’s largest Vegas venue, where it first opened in 2006. Some cast and crew members will be shuffled to other local shows, according to senior artistic director Kati Renaud, who’s been with the company since she worked on the creation of Mystère at Treasure Island in 1993.

“Many of the cast and crew members grew up with The Beatles’ music and to work so closely to the context of why and how these incredible songs were created is truly special,” Renaud said via email. “We also have a generation of artists who were not as familiar with the Beatles’ music, and therefore its was our responsibility to integrate them into that wonderful world.

“With any situation like this, of course the announcement is sad, however everyone is so supportive of each other and helping in any way we can to prepare for the next chapter.”

Renaud said the possible resurrection of The Beatles Love “has been a talking point over the last little while,” but there are no specific plans to relocate the show.

The entrance of the old Revolution Lounge.

Relocating the more than 3,000 Mirage workers has also been a talking point since the closure was announced. Hard Rock has stated it will hire 6,000 people—not including an estimated 2,500 construction jobs needed to build the new resort—and Mirage workers have the opportunity to apply. The new ownership is providing other resources, and local unions are of course very involved in protecting transitioning workers.

Marcus Lucas, a utility porter for 17 years, is going to miss his co-workers at the Mirage. A Las Vegas native who graduated from Rancho High School, Lucas worked at other hotels while raising his family here, and says his experience at the Mirage was next-level.

“The hospitality is first-class in all areas, and everybody is so professional,” he says. “The Mirage was built and designed as a world-class resort, and even though I came in with experience, I was able to get more training and work with people with more experience than me, and people who had been there since day one. They’re just good people, and we’re all going to miss each other.”

Lucas is planning to take advantage of his severance package to go back to school and get his degree. “Maybe it will lead me back to the hotel business or somewhere else, but I wouldn’t have been able to do this if they just shut the doors and kicked us in the butt. It’s the same with a lot of other workers. I’ll see where it will take me,” he says. “I would like to see the Hard Rock succeed, and it’s the same with a lot of people. I don’t know too many people taking it worse than that. It was bad news but at the same time, people are able to move on, and that’s the character of the people I work with. It’s a rare place.”

Click HERE to subscribe for free to the Weekly Fix, the digital edition of Las Vegas Weekly! Stay up to date with the latest on Las Vegas concerts, shows, restaurants, bars and more, sent directly to your inbox!

Source link