Today, let us hail Caesar. Caesars Palace, that is. August 5 marks the 50th anniversary of its opening. It’s been quite a ride … from its prehistory.
Jay Sarno gets most of the credit. He was hard to miss. As his biographer David Schwartz put it, he loved ACTION—gambling, women, partying, wild business deals. But Sarno also was surrounded by smart operators. After World War II, he settled in Miami. He and business partner Stan Mallin went into the tile business. They moved to Atlanta and turned to motels. Then they built a luxury spot, the Atlanta Cabana, and built several others around the country. They also met a financial angel: Jimmy Hoffa, who headed the Teamsters Union. They obtained loans from the Teamsters pension fund, run by Allen Dorfman. After they visited Las Vegas in 1963, Sarno became convinced that the time and market were right for a luxury hotel. He wanted to build it.
Sarno and Mallin added a new partner: Nate Jacobson. He was a Baltimore businessman and insurance executive who agreed to raise money for the project. He also knew something about Las Vegas, having done insurance work for the Flamingo Hotel. They leased land from Kirk Kerkorian, then better known as a high-rolling gambler and operator of flights in and out of Las Vegas. Sarno also met with Miami attorney Burton Cohen, who represented a potential investor. He wanted nothing to do with Sarno’s plans, but he later came west and worked for Sarno. Sarno also brought in an associate from one of his other properties, Harry Wald, and he would be part of the Las Vegas scene for decades to come.
Sarno worked with his designer, Jo Harris, and architect Melvin Grossmann. Sarno had been thinking of something grander than his Cabana motel chain, and then hit on ancient Rome as the theme. That’s the important word here: THEME. Early Las Vegas hotels had been western-oriented. Others had evoked the desert, or outer space. But that had belonged to the past. Sarno’s plan foreshadowed modern Las Vegas.
Sarno decided the original name, Desert Cabana, wouldn’t work. It became Caesars Palace, without an apostrophe, because everybody there would be treated like a king or an emperor. In turn, Jo Harris made the case that if he wanted a monument to ancient Rome, it had to stay true to the idea. Thus the statuary. And the marble columns. The Bacchanal gourmet room. And Cleopatra’s Barge, the floating cocktail lounge that Sarno originally wanted outside. And the dining option called the Noshorium. And the Circus Maximus showroom. And the staff wearing togas.
It opened on August 5, 1966, a 14-story high rise with more than 600 rooms. Andy Williams was the star in “Rome Swings,” which also featured Broadway star Elaine Dunn. Patrons dined on a million dollars worth of caviar and thousands of glasses of champagne. Gamblers had a run of great luck before the tide turned, and Caesars Palace was on its way. A galaxy of stars performed there, including Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte, Woody Allen, Aretha Franklin, and Andy Griffith, with Frank Sinatra joining the list after he left the Sands. All was well. And then it wasn’t, but it would be again. More on that next time.
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