A local kid remembers Circus Circus, which turns 50 this month, as the Las Vegas version of the malt shop
From Downtown to the Strip, from Nellis Air Force Base to the Nevada Test Site, Las Vegas in 1968 was bursting with ambition and enthusiasm like any good boomtown should. We were a desert island of opportunity, one not just isolated from the upheaval found in much of the country, but also providing an escape from it. Savvy entrepreneurs and risk-takers like Jay Sarno knew it. It was Sarno who, in 1966, opened Caesars Palace.
As grand as it was, Caesars was not unique to Las Vegas. It was, rather, the culmination of Sarno’s obsession with highly stylized, mid-mod Greco-Roman hotels. Historic photos of his Cabana Hotel in Palo Alto, California (1962), depict a Caesars Palace in miniature, replete with a breeze-block façade, a row of sexily lit fountains, and statues that reportedly made the move to the Strip. It wasn’t until two years later, in October 1968, that Sarno’s only-in-Vegas phantasmagoria — Circus Circus — would forever color the myth of Las Vegas.
Ironically, despite Circus Circus being featured in Diamonds Are Forever, Caesars was the James Bond setting, all posh and demure and civilized. Meanwhile, at Circus Circus (described by Hunter S. Thompson as “what the whole hep world would be doing on a Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war”), parents furiously pumped quarters into the machines downstairs while kids did the same upstairs. Cocktail waitresses in circus-styled leotards and fishnets scampered about as circus acts careened wildly above the gaming floor, a massive net placed to catch any falls. Ringmasters booming though the public-address system. Elephants and trained poodles prancing. Acrobats and trapeze artists tumbling and swinging. G-string-clad showgirls tossing phallic balloons from a “pony parade in the sky” to the kids on the second-flood midway. Not even kidding.
It was that midway that captured my preteen attention. Permanent carnival games like Kentucky Derby and the Clown Water Balloon Race (both still operating!) offered giant prizes (I once won a Sylvester the Cat bigger than I was). Later, into adolescence, weekend nights at Circus Circus were essentially the Las Vegas version of the malt shop. Teens would hang out in the sizable arcade, socialize, meet for dates (or find one), scarf pizza, and spend the evening making laps around the midway, waiting for something to happen. One night, it did; a parking garage confrontation with older kids from another high school left my friend Jeff with a sizable black eye. I don’t remember going back to Circus Circus as a teen after that.
Years later, Circus Circus served as the go-to for cheap eats while my girl and I put ourselves through school and survived on soup and potatoes. We’d save quarters we’d get in tips, and treat ourselves to a buffet gorging session — endless hot food! piles of soft serve! $3 a person! — once a week. More recently, a group of us rented a party bus on New Year’s Eve, starting our night at the legendary Circus Circus Steakhouse. Sadly, by that time, the notorious Horse-A-Round bar had stopped serving alcohol. Today, it’s just another ho-hum snack bar. Even the FrightDome Halloween attraction has ended its run.
As a Las Vegas native, I was born between the arrival of Sarno’s two gifts to the Strip. Thus it makes sense that I often find myself walking an emotional high wire, balancing between my own highbrow and lowbrow instincts. As much as I like the overarching influence of Caesars — the fancy dinners, the pricey martinis (stirred, with apologies) — there is something wonderful in knowing that all these decades later, Circus Circus still stands to remind us of what Las Vegas once was: a kaleidoscopic confluence of the id and the ego, the adult and the child, coexisting in a place on the fringes where one can indulge the desire to have it all, without decorum or apology, for what appears to be lowest price possible.