Jay Sarno

Courtesy of UNLV Special Collections.

The Circus Circus marked a turning point in themed properties, catering to middle-class customers and the rise of corporate dominance in Las Vegas.

Courtesy of UNLV Special Collections

Caesars Palace founder Jay Sarno believed strongly in excess, including a variety of Roman statuary to promote the hotel's theme.

Jay Sarno, one-time motel developer with ties to the corrupt Teamsters Union, arrived in Las Vegas in the early 1960s. He soon conceived of many innovations—some of them outlandish—in hotel design and promotion in his Caesars Palace and Circus Circus projects. Both greatly influenced the Strip's casino businesses from the 1960s onward.

Sarno was born in 1922 in Missouri, where his father was a cabinetmaker. He pursued a degree in business at the University of Missouri and then served as an airplane communications operator during World War II. After the war, he teamed with a college classmate to become a building contractor for office and hotel complexes in rapidly expanding Miami, Florida.

In the 1950s, as more Americans than ever traveled by car, Sarno turned to developing "motor hotels," roadside lodges where tourists could drive their cars up to the door of their modest-priced rooms. His first motel, the Atlanta Cabana, opened in Georgia in 1958. To finance the project, Sarno obtained a $1.8 million loan arranged by Allen Dorfman, overseer of the Teamsters Union Central States Pension Fund. James R. "Jimmy" Hoffa, the Teamsters Union's corrupt chief, took secret shares of loans the pension fund doled out and had hidden ties to organized crime figures. Starting with the Atlanta Cabana, Hoffa struck up a business relationship with Sarno that continued into the 1960s in Las Vegas.

The pension fund served as the source of more loans for Sarno, including $3.6 million for his second motor hotel, the Dallas Cabana, in Texas in 1959, and another loan for a Cabana outlet—designed after classic Roman architecture—in Palo Alto, California, in 1962. By then, Sarno, who ran his own craps game during the war, was a frequent visitor to Las Vegas where he indulged his taste for the dice game.

The Strip's casinos in the early 1960s had good accommodations, but Sarno viewed them as conventional, boring, and lacking in opulence and excitement. Intent on building the fanciest hotel-casino in town, Sarno moved to Las Vegas in 1961 and got a new loan from the Teamsters for his resort project, Caesars Palace. Sarno used the plural term "Caesars" because he wanted the hotel to pamper all of its customers, as though each were a Roman emperor.

In 1962, Sarno found a prime location for his project—on the Strip north of Flamingo Road—and signed a lease for the site with owner and real estate investor Kirk Kerkorian. In 1964, with additional Teamsters loans, Sarno started building Caesars, its design and theme based on ancient Rome. During trips to Europe, Sarno took photographs of sections of buildings on which he would base his design ideas. He hired respected resort designer Melvin Grossman as his architect.

When Caesars opened in 1966 with a lavish, days-long party, its front featured a series of Roman-like fountains and wide, curved wings that resembled St. Peter's Square in Rome. The front and inside of the casino included Italian stone, marble walls, and sculptures of ancient Roman figures, commissioned by Sarno. The hotel's fourteen-story tower raised the bar for luxury accommodations on the Strip. Sarno also conceived of a restaurant, the Bacchanal Room, where waitresses dressed like Roman goddesses poured wine and massaged the backs of male customers.

Sarno's $24 million experiment was a huge hit with the public, brought renewed attention to Las Vegas, and set new standards of quality for Strip hotels. To compete for the luxury-seeking gambler, builders of future Strip resorts would have to spend a lot of money on theme, design, and attractions. For decades to come, as a brand name, Caesars was the most famous hotel in Las Vegas.

In the late 1960s, the U.S. government investigated the financing Sarno received from the Teamsters to build Caesars and allegations of financial misconduct by some involved in managing the casino. Meanwhile, Sarno was already onto a new project, a circus-themed casino hall he called Circus Circus. When it opened (without a hotel) in 1968, it featured live circus acts over the casino and a circular midway with carnival games. This time, Sarno avoided lavish accommodations and frills. Some of his more peculiar ideas—such as a real "flying" elephant hooked to moving cables over the casino—failed. As a business, Circus Circus fared little better. High roller gamblers whom Sarno could count on at Caesars disliked Circus Circus's busy, distracting, and lowbrow atmosphere. Others criticized Sarno's decision to lease the upstairs midway games, some of which were run by dishonest vendors.

In 1969, after a successful if controversial three years, Sarno sold Caesars for the lucrative price of $60 million to the Miami-based Lum's restaurant chain, managed by Clifford and Stuart Perlman. (Organized crime figure Meyer Lansky also had a secret investment in Lum's.) But even Sarno's gift for promotion could not reverse the casino losses plaguing Circus Circus. He added a 400-room hotel in 1972, but it didn't help much. Sarno leased the casino in 1974 to former Del Webb hotel executive William Bennett and slot machine executive William Pennington. After changing some of Sarno's management practices, Bennett and Pennington eventually molded it into a successful venture geared toward families, with cheap hotel rooms and food, and bought the property from Sarno.

Always known as a witty and eccentric character in Las Vegas, Sarno also had a reputation as a local "whale"—big spending gambler—at Strip casinos and on golf courses. In court filings during his divorce from his wife, Joyce, Sarno owned up to losing $2.7 million in wagers from 1969 to 1971, and another $1 million over the following three years.

Sarno, who once had open-heart surgery, died of a heart attack in his hotel suite at Caesars in 1984, leaving four children. For years, he had been unsuccessful in his attempts to sell investors on a 6,000-room megaresort project on the south end of the Strip that he had named the "Grandissimo." His project presaged the "mega resort age" of huge Strip hotel-casinos that started with the opening of the Mirage in 1989, followed by such large hotel-casinos as the Treasure Island and Bellagio, all built by Steve Wynn, a Sarno admirer. Circus Circus Enterprises went on to build the Excalibur, Luxor, and Mandalay Bay, all reflecting Sarno's influence.

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