11/10/2006 1:00AM

Twilight time has passed for an icon


With the last hand on the blackjack table, the last pull on the slot machine, and its landmark sign of twinkling stars that reached to the sky gone dim on the famous Las Vegas Strip last week, possibly the last Las Vegas icon bit the dust: the Stardust.

The Stardust was the last breathing hotel casino spanning the storied history of this gaming capital of the world. From its mobster-rooted opening in 1958, to introducing the first topless production show in Lido de Paris, a race and sports book that was the place for the colorful characters of sports betting - boasting a $100,000 betting limit - to headlining Mr. Las Vegas himself, Wayne Newton, the Stardust was Las Vegas. Even Ed Sullivan broadcast his famous Sunday-night show from the Stardust in 1964, some dozen years before Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal did his show at the race and sports book.

But, unlike its other counterparts that made way for the new Las Vegas Strip, the Stardust held at least one memorable moment for almost everybody of past generations that visited this town. Anyone who came to Las Vegas had his or her own Stardust story. Everybody went to the Stardust sooner or later. It was truly a special place.

I am no exception. So, at the risk of sounding melancholy, here are two of mine, asking in advance your pardon for not remembering the exact dates and times.

My introduction to Las Vegas was through the Stardust. In the mid-1970's, there used to be day junkets from Los Angeles to the Stardust. All it took was a friend who knew a travel agent and a $500 bankroll. You would get round-trip air transportation on the old PSA (we used to call it the Poor Sailors' Airline) and a ride from the airport to the Stardust. I'm sure you remember your first glance at the Las Vegas skyline from the air: Wow. Can't wait to try my fortune. Anyway, we roll into the Stardust, trade the cash for $500 in chips and go off to gamble. I went immediately to the race and sports book. Its reputation did not disappoint. There I was, betting on anything in the book. I lost, but I kept the ticket. It was proof that I was there. Although it took me only about half the eight-hour stay to blow my bankroll, I couldn't wait to return. That race and sports book was a place I could live in.

Then, about five years later, and gainfully employed, a roommate and I made annual summer trips to Las Vegas to golf, gamble, party, and drink. We stayed at the old Dunes, but played at the Stardust. The Dunes had the golf course. So, first thing in the morning we would taxi to the Stardust to get that $1.95 buffet breakfast, bet every race at every track at the race book - $2 quinellas were what the budget could stand - and then golf until dark. A quick shower and shave and it was back to the Stardust to squeeze out those quinella tickets, hoping for a winner or two. The brightly lit modern wallboards would chronicle our fate. Belts at the bar and the lounge show was our patented late-night fare, then back for another go the following day. The stay was never long enough, and the Stardust book was never dull.

The people, the locale, the reputation and energy that was the Stardust will never be repeated again. Nor should it.

But, I'm sure a future generation of first-timers will someday reflect on their first trip to Las Vegas staying at the Echelon - the new $4 billion mega-resort that will stand on the hallowed ground of the Stardust - and talk about those memories from their Jetsons-type digs, remembering how they were first "beamed up" to Las Vegas.

Time and progress marches on . . . unfortunately, sometimes over memories.