The Storied Start of Caesars Palace
by MATT KELEMEN
Nineteen sixty-six was a year of flowers-in-your-hair revolution across the country, with counterculture gurus like Timothy Leary and Andy Warhol challenging the status quo. Alongside Highway 91 in Las Vegas, however, a different kind of visionary was at work: Jay Sarno was fulfilling a dream by opening Caesars, a palace where every guest would be treated like royalty.
Sarno thought big—VIPs were greeted opening day by stunning young ladies in costume with signs reading i am your slave—and lived large—a life of private jets and limousines, front-row seats for all the best shows, and dinners with the biggest celebrities. He so lived and breathed the sexy lifestyle of the ’60s, being fed grapes by demure hotel hostesses and catching late-night shows at the 980-seat Circus Maximus, that he practically lived at the hotel until the day he died.
“This hotel opened the year I was born,” says daughter Heidi Sarno Straus during a lunch interview at Spago in the Forum Shops at Caesars. “When my parents divorced, my father moved into the hotel. Weekends were spent here. My siblings even had their swimming lessons here.”
Indeed, in Sarno’s world at Caesars Palace, there was really no reason to leave: Gladiator epics had been a mainstay in movie houses for years, and he realized that a Roman-themed resort where every man was made to feel like a king (hence the plural spelling of “Caesars”) could be an irresistible enticement for visitors. Uniforms were designed to look like togas, and he named the fine-dining room the Bacchanal. Outside, in what was still a small desert town, Sarno built enormous fountains in front of the property to give the impression that guests were entering another world—the next year, those fountains would become one of the primary iconic images of Las Vegas, after daredevil Evel Knievel attempted to clear them in his infamously near-fatal 1967 motorcycle jump.
Caesars’ opening night, on August 5, 1966, made national news, with singer Andy Williams headlining. Caesars Palace soon became a mecca for musicians, including Vincent Falcone, who drove west from Syracuse in 1970 and went on to be the second pianist for Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Caesars’ house pianist and, eventually, music director for the biggest Caesar of them all, Frank Sinatra. “Caesars was the premier property in Las Vegas,” Falcone says. “It was the place, no question about it. If you were in the band at Caesars Palace, you were in the best band. The town was resplendent with entertainment, and Caesars Palace had the greatest roster of entertainers that you could imagine.”
Circus Maximus went on to showcase such stars as Liberace, Diana Ross, and Cher before closing in 2000. Steve and Eydie performed on the final night to a capacity crowd, which included Falcone. “That was a magnificent showroom,” says Falcone, who recalls his wife being thrilled to be sitting near Gregory Peck one night. “Every great star performed there. When Sinatra was there, Sugar Ray Robinson and Cary Grant would be at the front tables, and Dean Martin would come to see the show. Everybody wanted to be at the front tables.”
Sarno had sort of a Caesars Palace test-run via a series of cabana motels before taking the plunge in Las Vegas. It all started when he and his college friend and partner Stanley Mallin got funding for their kitschy Cabanas from operating partner Nathan Jacobson, who invested into the project after making money in insurance. A boys’ trip to Las Vegas got him thinking about taking his statues and costumed hotel hostesses to a huge new level, and a particular undeveloped tract of land caught his eye. Meanwhile, Las Vegas’s most notorious investor, Jimmy Hoffa, had taken a liking to the go-getting Sarno, which prompted the Teamsters’ funding the construction of Caesars Palace. Sarno, Mallin, Jacobson, and Jerry Zarowitz opened the property together in 1966 but sold it just three years later to brothers Clifford and Stuart Perlman. (Sarno Straus says her father sold out with no regrets: “For creative guys like him, it’s not about the operations. His skill set is coming up with something new, fantastic, cutting-edge. Once that is built, it’s time for the next adventure.”)
The next year, in 1970, Cleopatra’s Barge, where singer Matt Goss now pays tribute to the legacy of golden-age Vegas entertainers every Friday and Saturday night, opened. The British pop star is part of a new generation enamored with the Rat Pack and performs with a live band as he tilts a Sinatra-style fedora over one eye and croons hits such as “Lovely Las Vegas.” “I definitely want Vegas,” he says, “to have a swagger and a romance and glamour about it.” In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the hotel enjoyed a boxing heyday as major stars such as Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Gerry Cooney, and Larry Holmes fought for championships in an outdoor arena. “The Cooney-Holmes fight was the first one I saw live,” says current Caesars president Gary Selesner. “Caesars was the center of the universe, where everyone who was anyone wanted to be and where anything was possible.”
Caesars Palace’s expansion has been unparalleled on the Strip. Over the years, new guest accommodations—the Forum, Centurion, Palace, Augustus, and Octavius Towers—were added, with the newest, Nobu Hotel (the famed Japanese restaurant will be the anchor restaurant), scheduled to open this fall. The spectacular Garden of the Gods pool grounds were renovated several times, most recently in 2010, and are now an almost embarrassment of riches that includes eight pools spanning five acres. In December 2004, Caesars distinguished itself by leasing the space for Pure nightclub, which was instrumental in creating a new identity for Las Vegas as a nightlife destination with strict door policies, celebrity hosts, and expensive bottle service. The much smaller Light had brought that East Coast nightlife culture to Vegas, but as a mega-club, Pure took everything to the next level, especially in the arena of celebrity hosting. This year, the groundbreaking Forum Shops at Caesars celebrates its 20th anniversary. For many American cities, 20 years might seem young for a shopping mall, but Forum Shops was the first of its kind when it broke ground on raw land on the north side of the property. At the time, there were no upscale stores in Vegas—society women shopped in California, and the designers brought in gowns before big events for the most well-to-do ladies.
“I was there the day they broke ground on the Forum Shops,” says former Las Vegas Mayor (1991 to ’99) Jan Jones, who is now senior vice president of communications and government relations for Caesars Entertainment. “When they first went to build, you couldn’t even give away the leases. Why would anybody come to Las Vegas to shop? They found out, of course, that people would come to Vegas to shop.”
Forum Shops director of marketing and business development Maureen Crampton was present on May 1, 1992, when the doors between the casino and the Forum Shops were opened for the first time, and the crowds surged forward to see the new Gucci, Versace, and Louis Vuitton stores. “When you think about the impact we’ve had on the whole retail aspect of Las Vegas,” Crampton says, “you want to toot your horn, because you know it was instrumental in a lot of things.”
As more shopping complexes grew along Las Vegas Boulevard, through a casino-building boom and dizzying corporate consolidation, mega-brand Caesars Entertainment grew to own 10 casinos on the Strip and will soon launch its first hotel in China. At the end of the year, it will also welcome country superstar Shania Twain to her residency at The Colosseum, the grand finale to a two-year “renaissance” that has included the additions of Central Michel Richard and Old Homestead Steakhouse restaurants, the aforementioned upcoming Nobu Hotel, Rod Stewart's resident show, and the return of Celine Dion.
Sarno died in 1984 of a heart attack. He was in a hotel suite at Caesars Palace, the very heart of his empire. By then, he had built and sold Circus Circus, seen his protégé and colleague Steve Wynn buy his first strip of land (to open The Mirage Hotel & Casino), and was cultivating a new concept for a hotel-casino to have been called the Grandissimo that would—he hoped—transcend every other resort built up to that time. In 2005, Sarno Straus successfully lobbied Clark County to memorialize her father by naming the street that leads into Caesars Palace Jay Sarno Way.
“He was a creative genius,” says David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at University of Las Vegas, Nevada and author of an upcoming book on Sarno titled Grandissimo. “Sarno saw the need to create the mythology of Vegas and the drama of Vegas. He was ahead of his time. ‘What happens here stays here’ is just taking a page out of his book. The idea that you come to Vegas and have an adventure, and do stuff that you wouldn’t do at home, that’s Jay Sarno. That’s Caesars Palace.”
Selesner invited Sarno Straus back for Caesars Palace’s 40th anniversary, where a ballroom was decorated to resemble the Bacchanal and photos of her father were blown up and hung on the walls. The homage reminded her of a favorite quote: “Julius Caesar said, ‘It’s better to be the first one in the village than the second one in Rome.’ And my dad was the first one in this village.”
photography courtesy of lvcva (Caesars Palace 1966, williams, sullivan, knievel); chris smith/hulton archive/getty images (ali); courtesy of heidi sarno straus (sinatra, joyce sarno); courtesy of caesars entertainment (goddesses)