Regular guest found home at Stardust, even in sickness and death |

Regular guest found home at Stardust, even in sickness and death

by John L. Smith

Many hearts sank when they turned out the lights at the Stardust last month. It’s a sure bet no one felt lower than Mary Girsch-Bock. Mary lives in Crowley, Texas, these days, but lately she has found her thoughts drifting back to the many good times she shared at the Stardust with her dear sister, Marge Durlak.

Marge was a regular at the Stardust since the mid-1980s.

Mary came to treasure the Stardust in large part because Marge adored it so much.

The girls were raised in Chicago. Mary’s life took her to several cities, including Las Vegas, but wherever they went, the sisters always wound up back at the Stardust to party, play by the pool and gamble their diminutive bankrolls at the slot machines and small-stakes tables.

Marge loved to celebrate her May 8 birthday at the resort by the pool and its hidden garden. It could be snowing in Chicago, but she was in heaven in Vegas.

Marge Durlak felt at home at the Stardust, and I can think of no higher compliment anyone could pay a Strip casino.

The girls checked out casinos up and down the Strip but always returned to their home away from home.

“If you walked back in the gardens behind the pool in the older part of the casino, it was so beautiful out there in May,” Mary said. “The flowers were so fragrant. It hadn’t gotten hot yet. Marge loved it there.”

Not long after Marge began making her annual trips to the Stardust, she was diagnosed with carcinoid cancer, a deadly but slow-growing type of the disease.

It’s the kind of news that floors most people, but she barely missed a beat.

When time permitted, it was back to the Stardust for margaritas and a little night magic. In a quiet moment, Marge turned to Mary and said, “I want my ashes to be spread at the Stardust.”

At first, Mary thought her sister was kidding. You know, laughing in the face of death. But then she saw that Marge was serious.

Spreading ashes in a casino?

Some religious types might be outraged at the idea, but in a hard life spent working in near-anonymity, where had Marge found refuge from her worries? Where had she found smiling faces and bartenders who knew her name and favorite libation? Where had she felt just a little bit special?

She found all that at the Stardust.

In May 2004, Marge’s health began to slip, and the girls knew it was probably her last vacation. She was on intravenous nutrition and losing weight. But they managed to celebrate her 48th birthday at her favorite Las Vegas oasis.

“It was really nice,” Mary said. “It was almost as if we knew that the end was coming. We went to a show, rented a limousine instead of walking places. We really did it the right way. It was a really beautiful experience.

“We stayed out until 4 in the morning in the older part of the Stardust, talking and laughing. It was just a pleasant experience, one of those perfect moments.”

Not long after her last vacation, Marge succumbed to cancer. Taking her sister at her word, Mary promised to spread Marge’s ashes at her favorite place.

Stardust management liked to accommodate its guests, but making funeral arrangements on-site went beyond the call of duty. So when Mary booked the reservation, she decided to leave that part out.

In May 2005, Mary and other family members returned to the Stardust with Marge’s ashes.

Taking plastic coin cups from the casino, they divided the ashes and set off to predetermined points: in front by the famous Stardust neon sign, out back by the pool, and, of course, near her favorite spot by the garden.

The coin cups were a particularly Vegas touch.

“She had a warped sense of humor, that’s why we used the coin cups,” said Mary, who wrote “Carcinoid Cancer, Zebras and Stardust” as an information resource about the disease. “I know she would have just been laughing hysterically.”

And if some ashes were spread in the casino near her favorite slot machine, no one was the wiser. And if some ashes reached her favorite cocktail lounge, not a soul registered a complaint.

Marge Durlak was home again.

Her sister Mary managed to smile through her tears.

• John L. Smith’s column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal’s Opinion page. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.