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Desert Companion

Books: Founding father

When Jay Sarno visited Las Vegas in 1963, he wasn’t impressed. Surveying the city’s second-class hotels and cheesy Old West themes, the Atlanta hotel developer found nothing fabulous about it. But Sarno did think the place had potential. “They don’t have one good hotel here,” he told his business partner. “If I could build one, we’d make a fortune.”

Three years later, Sarno presided over the opening of Caesars Palace, a Roman-themed resort that put the rest of Las Vegas to shame. “Sarno had fussed over every detail,” writes David G. Schwartz in Grandissimo: The First Emperor of Las Vegas (Winchester Books, 308 pages, $18.95), his fascinating new biography.

Sarno’s attention to detail and creativity immediately set a new standard on the Strip. Customers loved the Bacchanal restaurant, where “wine goddesses” peeled grapes and massaged men’s temples. They enjoyed A-list entertainment in the Circus Maximus showroom. And high-rollers fled the Sands and Desert Inn to play in the casino.

Although Sarno was the undisputed visionary behind Caesars Palace, he never really ran it. After the doors opened, his primary role was to put on special events to drum up publicity. He came up with some good ones, the most legendary being Evel Knievel’s ill-fated 1968 motorcycle jump over the Caesars fountains.

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Dissatisfied with his marginal role, Sarno turned his attention to another idea: a casino catering to families. “Imagine something like Disneyland, but with gambling for the adults,” Sarno said. He called it Circus Circus.

Unlike Caesars, Circus Circus was not an immediate success after its 1968 opening. The lack of hotel rooms and Sarno’s insistence on a $2 admission fee put the casino in dire financial straits. Not until a hotel was built and the operation was leased to William Bennett and Bill Pennington did Circus Circus become a moneymaker. Still, Sarno’s basic vision — bringing the whole family to town — proved to be a key building block of modern Vegas.

Sarno’s biography is ultimately a somber narrative. He was a degenerate gambler, losing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. He battled with gaming regulators and the Internal Revenue Service because of his associations with disreputable characters. He was a serial adulterer, and a gluttonous diner, resulting in obesity, heart trouble and diabetes.

Grandissimo is a carefully researched work of history, but in the interest of creating an engaging narrative, Schwartz invents scenes and dialogue that clearly do not reflect exactly what happened or what was said. This might not sit well with purists, but there’s no indication Schwartz has done this to alter the essential facts of Sarno’s life. Rather, it’s a device to give the reader a more vivid portrait of his gregarious personality.

While documenting Sarno’s faults, Schwartz pulls off the neat trick of drawing a sympathetic portrait. After all, Sarno’s unbridled desires and unwavering belief in the next roll of the dice are bedrock attributes of the city he helped to invent. If you like Las Vegas, you have to like Jay Sarno.

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