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The first emperor of Las Vegas

This month Las Vegas’ most famous casino, Caesars Palace, celebrates 50 years as the least subtle place on the planet. And it’s all thanks the vision of one man

The first emperor of Las Vegas

Text by Tracey Davies Photography⁄Catherine Hyland & Felicity McCabe

Love it or loathe it, Las Vegas is one helluva place. A desert city built on mobster money, its glitzy, ostentatious façade disguises a steely determination that has turned this one-horse town into one of the world’s most-visited destinations, attracting 42 million tourists a year. 

And if there’s one place that embodies the spirit of Vegas more than any other, it’s Caesars Palace. The Roman-themed pleasure dome in the centre of the Strip was described by writer David Foster Wallace as “Vegas’s synecdoche and beating heart… The granddaddy.” It is, he wrote, “as big as 20 Walmarts end to end. Real marble and fake marble, carpeting you can pass out on without contusion, 130,000 square feet of casino alone. Domed ceilings, clerestories, barrel vaults. In Caesars Palace is America conceived as a new kind of Rome: conqueror of its own people.”

On 5 August, Caesars will celebrate half a century with two months of parties, special events and limited-edition golden Starbucks frappucinos. But while many will come to mark the occasion, few will remember Jay Sarno, the man who made its successful conquest possible, and whose “impossible dream” changed Las Vegas forever. 

An ambitious motel owner from Atlanta, Sarno was a rapacious womaniser and compulsive gambler – his long-suffering wife reported that he once won US$100,000 in one day, and lost it the next. A larger-than-life character, Sarno thrived on risk and was obsessed with European architecture. It was these two factors that persuaded him to move his young family to Vegas in 1965, following his dream to build the most expensive casino in the world.

In the end, Caesars took 18 months and $25 million – around four times as much as the venues that surrounded it on the Strip at the time. Most of the money came from the then mob-dominated Teamsters Central States Pension Fund, and much of it was splashed on Sarno’s dream of recreating Rome down to a near-ridiculous level of detail. 

From the grape-peeling cocktail waitresses in their tiny, white togas to the parchment-style stationery, everything had to adhere to Sarno’s vision. Despite flailing in the desert temperatures, cypress trees were imported from Italy to line the drive. Inside the casino, domed ceilings adorned with ornate Italian frescoes and a magnificent 27.4m-wide chandelier were held up by marble columns, while armies of Greco-Roman statues – Venus de Milos, Julius Caesars and barely dressed vestal virgins – marched through its halls. 

“[Sarno] was the first one to appreciate the total concept, right down to the matchbooks,” explained » Vegas publicist Don Williams in Jack Sheehan’s The Players: the Men who Made Las Vegas. “Caesars was  totally Roman. Everything was thematic, Jay should have been in marketing.” 

His hands-on approach extended to other areas of the business. He invented a new kind of concrete shape – “Sarno blocks”, formed like a double horseshoe – that gave the hotel a distinctive façade, both delicate and durable. He also planned every detail of his grand opening – a three-day Bacchanalian bender to kick off the “World’s Largest Toga Party”. 

Invitations went out to 1,800 esteemed guests, including politicians, high rollers, and Hollywood stars like Adam West and Eva Gabor, not by post but by centurion. The official greeter was a blonde Cleopatra with a 40-20-37 figure. Sarno embraced the role of First Emperor of Las Vegas by arriving on a Roman chariot festooned with flowers. 

Andy Williams and Phil Richards became the first of many big-name acts to perform here, on that opening night, while attendees dined out on nearly two tonnes of fillet steak, 140kg of crab and 50,000 glasses of champagne. The whole shebang cost Sarno a cool $1 million, much of which the casino made back that opening weekend.

The hotel was an immediate success. Despite room prices higher than anywhere else in town, guests queued up to be pampered like emperors in the  680 rooms, which  were considered Nevada’s most opulent, with thick shagpile carpets, circular beds, mirrored ceilings and marble-clad whirlpool tubs made
for two. It was all part of Sarno’s aim to turn every guest into a king (or queen) for a day. Despite offending grammar pedants worldwide, Sarno claimed the lack of apostrophe was intentional. “It’s not a palace for one Caesar, it’s a palace for all the Caesars, for all the people,” he would say. 

According to David G Schwartz, author of Grandissimo: The First Emperor of Las Vegas, this was the secret to Sarno and Caesars’ success. “Caesars Palace was the first place in Las Vegas where people were free to dream,” explains Schwartz. “It was more than just a cheap room, a cheap steak and gambling, it was a fantasy. He was making the guest the Caesar.” 

From the start the place was seen as something special, even compared to the other shining stars of the Strip. “I used to visit Caesars with my folks,” remembers Steve Beauregard, who runs casino blog Gamboool.com. “I remember pulling up outside in my parents’ station wagon. It was bigger, bolder and grander than anything else in town. Inside, the place just oozed money and there was a nervous energy that even a child could sense. The only noise louder than that of the beautiful, clanking of silver dollars dropping into metal trays were the shouts of the players at the craps table hitting their point.”

Within weeks Caesars was also attracting the heavy gamblers from the East Coast, thanks to the connections of its casino manager, Jerry Zarowitz, a former bookmaker who had previously been in jail for attempting to fix a championship football game. 

“Up until the opening of The Mirage in 1989, Caesars Palace was the place for high rollers,” says Schwartz. “A lot of these guys were investors, but they were also big gamblers too. The casino would fly them in, they wouldn’t pay for their rooms, food or drinks, pretty much everything would be comped.”

Star talent was flown in too, as the Palace built up a reputation for entertainment. The Rat Pack would regularly hang out at Caesars, and Circus Maximus, its 800-seater theatre, billed everyone from » Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr to Judy Garland, Liberace and Cher. Although one-time Vegas resident Elvis Presley never officially performed there, he did attend the shows of his good friend Tom Jones. At one gig in September 1974, Jones invited him up on stage. As Presley was under an exclusive contract with Hilton he wasn’t permitted to sing, so instead he performed a karate demonstration dressed in his signature stacked heels and oversized, gold sunglasses.

“Sarno brought a carnival atmosphere to Vegas casinos, turning them from gambling halls into magical entertainment compounds,” says Pete Earley, who wrote Super Casino, a book about post-mob Las Vegas. “I believe he was the real visionary who gave birth to today’s Las Vegas.” 

Behind the sparkling façade, however, there were signs that Sarno’s business wasn’t always legit. Many Vegas casinos were also used as fronts by the mob, who would “skim” off money by fixing games or diverting pre-tax profits. Sarno’s son revealed last year that he thought his father might have been forced by his mobster investors into allowing skimming to go on in the casino. 

“In the 1970s, the FBI raided the cashier’s cage of Caesars and found a lot of money in safe-deposit boxes,” Schwartz says. “They said it was bookmaking, not skimming, but who knows?” 

The gravy days for the mafia came to an end in the late 1960s, when billionaire Howard Hughes bought several casinos on the Strip, signalling the start of corporate America’s interest in Vegas. It was the end for Sarno as Caesars’ emperor too. In 1969, under pressure from Jerry Zarowitz – and to pay off rising debts – Sarno sold his beloved casino to Lum’s Inc restaurant group for $60 million.

He promptly built Circus Circus, which still exists a couple of blocks down the Strip, but it didn’t achieve quite the same success or cachet. Designed as a family experience, where parents could gamble while their kids enjoyed the circus, it was less popular with high rollers, who found the overhead trapeze distracting. 

In the early ’80s, Sarno set about finding investors for his third dream project, Grandissimo – set to be twice as big and bold as his first – but he didn’t get the support he needed before his health let him down. The man who ate steak and salami for breakfast every day had a fatal heart attack aged 62, while gambling at Caesars. Ironically, the hotel that made him also claimed him.

It’s for this reason, says Schwartz, that the man isn’t more famous. For many years, “Las Vegas was uncomfortable with Sarno, despite the drama of his story and his enduring legacy.” Why? “He committed the only unpardonable sin in that corner of America: he was honest about his weaknesses. Jay Sarno pushed everything Las Vegas stands for to its farthest extremes; he shows what happens when too much of a good thing turns bad. For this, he has been cast out from the pantheon.”

Still, even if the man himself has no marble statues, Caesars Palace still stands – testament to
his single-minded vision. Over the last five decades it has grown into a multimillion dollar entertainment complex, complete with almost 4,000 rooms, six looming towers, The Forum megamall and US$108-million (around NOK840m) concert venue, The Colosseum. So while the birthday celebrations rage on, no doubt eclipsing even the three-day orgy of the glory years, spare a thought for Sarno: the emperor who started it all.


Norwegian flies to Las Vegas from Copenhagen and Stockholm – and from London and Oslo starting 31 October. Book flights, a hotel and rental car from norwegian.com


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