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Hail Caesars

Caesars Palace is still the capital of casinos as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of gaming's most iconic resort

Hail Caesars

When Jay Sarno came up with the idea for Caesars Palace, people laughed at him. The Atlanta motel owner wanted to build a themed hotel, which had never been done in Vegas. Until Sarno came along, casino themes in Las Vegas were just extensions of the motel names that were sprouting up across the American Southwest in the early ’60s—El Rancho, the Desert Inn, the Sahara, the Dunes, the Sands… Even Bugsy Siegel’s place, the Flamingo, named after his infamous girlfriend Virginia Hill, could have been plucked from the high desert in Southern California.

Since banks had never funded a casino, Sarno went to the source that had traditionally financed Las Vegas casinos, the Teamsters Union Central States Pension Fund, run by Jimmy Hoffa and organized crime. With $10.6 million—a fortune in 1965—he built on land owned by Kirk Kerkorian, later the man behind MGM.

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Jay Sarno with French singer Line Renaud at the grand opening of Caesars Palace, August 5, 1966

Sarno’s insistence on a heavily themed Roman experience caused costs to soar, including $1 million spent on the largest order for Ukrainian caviar ever placed by a private organization. But even before opening, it had generated $42 million in advance bookings (even at the then unheard-of rate of $14 a night). And that wasn’t even counting the gaming revenue, which has never been revealed completely (except that on opening night, Sarno had only $100,000 in the cage, potentially putting the casino at risk should a gambler get lucky).

In his seminal book on Sarno, Grandissimo, UNLV professor David Schwartz explains that the famous fountains of Caesars Palace lining the entrance to the hotel were part of the drama.

“The driveway was meant to do more than just guide cars from the boulevard to the front doors,” said Schwartz. “It was to transport the guest out of time, out of space, away from his workaday life and into a fantasy world—neither wholly real nor entirely imagined—that would let him be the man he’d always dreamed he should be, with gratification only a throw of the dice or the flash of a smile away.”

Even though Sarno sold Caesars Palace in 1969 for $60 million, the reputation of the property continued to grow. Frank Sinatra became the main performer, followed by dozens of his superstar colleagues. The property became the preferred destination for high rollers because of its unbelievable suites (featured in many TV shows and movies, like Rain Man). Themes became popular in Las Vegas, starting with Sarno’s second property, Circus Circus, and a theme was the only way to build in the ’80s and ’90s.

Several towers were added to the original 770 rooms. Today the resort features almost 4,000 rooms and suites, and boasts such groundbreaking developments as Caesars Forum Shops (which kicked off the retail binge still going today in Vegas) and the Colosseum (a 4,000-seat theater that hosts long-running performances by superstars like Celine Dion, Elton John, Rod Stewart and others).

Even though Caesars Palace has been sold many times over the years, it remains today the flagship of the Caesars (formerly Harrah’s) Entertainment empire. Even with parts of the company in bankruptcy, Caesars Palace continues to wow and amaze. The Nobu Hotel opened last year as a boutique hotel within the Caesars complex. Caesars was one of the first casinos to open a nightclub, Pure, which has since been replaced by Omnia.

Special events have always been a signature of the property, ever since Evel Kneivel attempted to jump the fountains in 1967. Formula One held two world championships there in the 1980s, but discontinued it because the heat was too much for the drivers. Boxing has long been the flagship entertainment event, with special bouts becoming home to such fighters as Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Roberto Duran, Riddick Bowe and many others. The Palace also hosted one of Muhammad Ali’s last fights in 1980 against Larry Holmes.

But beyond the building and events, Caesars Palace was the launch pad for many top gaming executives like Steve Wynn, who purchased a plot of land adjacent to the property, selling it for twice what he paid and using the proceeds to launch his career. Terry Lanni cut his teeth at Caesars Palace before leading MGM Grand to prosperity. Billy Weinberger was the first “rainmaker” bringing in thousands of “whales” over the years, creating the mystique of gambling at the Palace.

So, happy anniversary to gaming’s most important property, and may you have at least 50 more years of fun, excitement and profits.

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