Two years after Jay Sarno opened Caesars Palace, he became ringmaster of the world’s largest permanent circus.
Circus Circus owner Jay Sarno, Mayor Oran K. Gragson, Senator Howard Cannon, Governor Grant Sawyer, and other bigwigs don top hats for the big top’s opening.
Perched on sky-high platforms barely wider than their waists, the leggy dancers at Circus Circus should have been the center of attention on opening night, October 18, 1968. But a look at the football field-size casino floor below revealed the real spectacle: the sparkling slot machines, buzzing craps tables, and live band that drew many to Las Vegas’s first “family-oriented casino.
Caesars Palace impresario Jay Sarno’s idea had been to create a haven for the city’s burgeoning population of middle-class visitors. But conventional it was not. To make the experience as authentic as possible, Sarno hired many of his performers away from actual circuses. Unicyclists, trapeze artists, even Tanya the Elephant could be spotted roaming the casino floor. And in a nod to Sin City’s youngest visitors, he erected a carnival midway filled with games and sideshows.
In the casino’s early years, Sarno was able to hit a room occupancy rate of 100 percent, but by the mid-1970s Circus Circus was in serious financial straits. Only some creative marketing (building the world’s largest slot machine) and expansion (an RV park was added in 1979, plus 810 more hotel rooms in 1980) saved it from ruin.
Today Circus Circus remains one of the Strip’s major tourist attractions. It’s been a location for such films as Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and Diamonds Are Forever and was the inspiration for Bazooko Circus in Hunter S. Thompson’s book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. With the 1993 addition of The Adventuredome—the largest indoor theme park in the world, featuring 25 rides and attractions, including the new El Loco roller coaster—Thompson’s words ring even truer today, 40 years after he wrote them: “[T]he place is about four stories high, in the style of a circus tent, and all manner of strange County-Fair/Polish Carnival madness is going on up in this space.” Family-oriented madness? Only in Vegas.