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When you talk about Las Vegas, certain people or places or institutions are icons. One of those icons turns fifty in October. Let’s look back at the history of the Circus Circus, opened in 1968.
The group behind the Circus Circus also had opened Caesars Palace just two years before. The central figure was Jay Sarno. One of his key partners was Stan Mallin. They met in college at the University of Missouri and later worked in contracting and construction in the southeast. They got into the business of building motels, opening motor hotels in Georgia, California, and Texas. Their financial help came from the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund. Through Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, they met Allen Dorfman, who ran the pension fund. He also had ties to the Chicago mob, which would become part of this story.
The group at Caesars made that resort a big success. And big was the operative word: it was big, and Sarno thought big. But he and a couple of the top executives, Jerry Zarowitz and Nate Jacobsen, weren’t getting along. And as Sarno’s biographer David Schwartz put it, “Barely a year after his triumph at Caesars Palace Sarno could feel the dice getting cold.” He applied to the Clark County Commission to build a thirty-four thousand square foot casino with a lounge and restaurant—no hotel. The Commission approved it in December 1967.
Exactly what Sarno would build wasn’t entirely clear. As always, Sarno had a bunch of ideas. There would be attractions for children, but gambling for adults, with a theater for a burlesque show and topless shoeshine women. As architect, he hired Homer Rissman, who had designed the Hacienda and several other Strip properties. The plans called for entry into the casino to be on the second floor, where there would be arcade games, funhouse mirrors, carnival games, shopping, and dining options. The gambling was on the first floor, and guests could get there via a grand staircase, a chute, or a firehouse pole. He put in more slot machines than most casinos at the time.
To run the proposed casino, Sarno hired Burton Cohen, an attorney who had been with the Howard Hughes casino empire. Cohen went on to return to the Hughes company and run the Desert Inn, work with Kirk Kerkorian, and become a legend in Las Vegas gaming in his own right. Cohen said of Sarno, “He had a champagne appetite with a beer income.” Getting the money to build the Circus Circus, as Sarno envisioned it, was a slog.
Finally, though, came the grand opening—October 18, 1968. As you might expect, there were VIP’s everywhere, including Senators Alan Bible and Howard Cannon and Oran Gragson, who was the four-term mayor of Las Vegas. Governor Paul Laxalt issued a proclamation in honor of the Circus Circus. Sarno wielded a giant pair of shears on a ninety-foot streamer, cut it, turned on the fountains out front, sent five thousand balloons to the sky, and then about fifteen hundred opening night guests poured in. Sarno led them, going down the slide, dressed as a ringmaster in top hat and tails.
The Circus Circus had ample dining and entertainment, but it was in financial trouble. In an unprecedented move, Sarno charged admission to the casino, since the circus acts were all free. The Ape Man who roamed the casino scared away gamblers. There was no hotel. Cohen left for the Flamingo. But the circus would go on, as we’ll discuss next time.
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