Jay Sarno was a man who loathed plain vanilla, and after a short trip to Las Vegas in 1962, Sarno found what he thought was a plain city, with small hotels and not enough gambling casinos to accomodate the gamblers. He envisioned a grand hotel that would have a wide appeal to gamblers - a real moneymaker. After signing a lease for the perfect site with owner and real estate investor Kirk Kerkorian, and with additional Teamsters loans, Sarno’s venture was set in motion by 1964 to build what many considered a European style hotel in the middle of the desert - a surefire business failure in the making. The magnificent Caesars Palace opened in ‘66, proving skeptics wrong, with its royal grounds, luxurious gambling theme, and rolling in the money while catering to tourists and celebrities alike.
He was the son of a Missouri cabinet maker and a homemaker; a very poor family. He came of age during the era of the Great Depression, graduating over the years from the school of hard knocks; ultimately becoming a Las Vegas business entrepreneur. He owned several high-profile hotels and brought fantasy to the Strip. He was the father of today’s more family-oriented Las Vegas.
Jay Sarno was born in 1922 in Saint Joseph, Missouri. His father and mother pinched pennies to make sure that Jay and his six siblings were able to attend college. Young Jay wanted a better way of living in the future. His compulsion earned him a degree in business from the University of Missouri. At college Sarno set up an on-campus business, delivering laundry and selling corsages. It was at the University of Missouri that he met Stanley Mallin, who would become his lifelong friend and business partner. Mallin said that Sarno “was already a plunger, even in those days. He would pawn his clothes for gambling money,” remembered Mallin. “One of his older brothers, who was a doctor, would bail him out every few months, letting him get his clothes back.”
Sarno and Mallin served in World War II and fought in the South Pacific Theater. The two pals returned to finish college, then teamed up as tile contractors in booming Miami. “If the season was good you got paid, and if it wasn’t, you didn’t,” said Mallin. After that initial business venture failed, they moved north, to Atlanta, Georgia. They tried their luck in building government subsidized housing. The downside of working with Sarno was his impracticality, remembered Mallin. “Once, we needed a truck to haul tile, and he took the money we had for that and bought a convertible.” The upside was that Sarno had good ideas. Jay Sarno had grown up in the hotel business; his oldest brother, Herman, was an Hotelier. The partners saw an opportunity in motor hotels, merging drive-up convenience with luxury accommodations, a service formerly associated with traditional hotels. The problem was that the banks wouldn’t loan them money.
The break of their lives came when they met Teamsters’ boss Jimmy Hoffa and the union’s money manager, Allen Dorfman. The first loan Dorfman ever arranged from the Central States Pension Fund was to build Sarno and Mallin’s Atlanta Cabana Motor Hotel in 1958. Jimmy Hoffa and Jay Sarno hit if off big-time. They were different in some ways, because Jay lived high on the hog, while Jimmy lived in the same house he bought for $7,000. The attraction though, was that they were both hard driving guys, impulsive to the point of being almost compulsive.
One day the female architect, Jo Harris, who had just finished school at Georgia Tech and was working as an interior designer, asked Jay Sarno for a job to decorate the Atlanta Cabana. Jay told her that he liked her work, “but if anybody is going to work for me, I expect her to be my girl,” Harris later recalled. Jo Harris snapped back, “I’ve been to Miami and I know that if I wanted to be a prostitute I could earn six times what you’re offering me.” She wanted to be hired for her ability, plus Jo was married. So that was the end of it, or so she thought, because two weeks later Jay Sarno called and said she wouldn’t have to be his girl. He offered Jo one hundred dollars a day, which in 1958 was all the money in the world. Jo Harris would wind up designing for Sarno for as long as he lived.
They filled the Atlanta Cabana Motor Hotel with fountains and statues and mirrors. The operation was an immediate success and soon other motel locations followed in Palo Alto, California, and Dallas, Texas. There were two other hotels on the drawing boards when Las Vegas and the god of craps changed their direction. Las Vegas fetched a temptation that Jay Sarno was unable to resist. In due course he took a short trip to Las Vegas, and found what he thought was a plain city, with small hotels and not enough casinos to accommodate the gamblers. He envisioned a hotel that would have a wide appeal to gamblers, consequently making much more money than the Hilton Hotel located there, which, unbelievable as it may seem, did not have a casino back then.
Jay Sarno was a man who loathed plain vanilla. Las Vegas hotels at that time just oozed mediocrity. They tried to distinguish themselves by adopting names that sounded vaguely French or Moroccan or even Western American, but the themes were skin deep. Nobody ever said that about the hotel casino Sarno started building. In 1962, Sarno found a prime location for his project, on the Strip north of Flamingo Road. They signed a lease for the site with owner and real estate investor Kirk Kerkorian. In 1964, with additional Teamsters loans, Sarno’s venture was set in motion. Sarno wanted a hotel whose name would sound European, yet at the same time appeal to Americans, and, he, alongside Mallin and Harris, began to build the Caesars Palace hotel. The idea was at first met with skepticism, because many considered a European style hotel in the middle of the desert to be a business failure in the making.
Caesars Palace was a fantasy world where every guest was a Caesar or a Cleopatra. This theme made it easy to escape the boring mores of mainstream America, to loosen up and bet a hundred on a hard way eight. Jay insisted that the employees be in complete uniforms. Sarno, Mallin and Harris sketched their ideas and then brought in a wardrobe mistress, as if they were costuming a show. Waitresses wore sexy, short, bare-shouldered togas; desk clerks wore tunics suggesting the Roman military fashions. Even the very notepaper in the rooms looked like parchment. Harris, however, designed it in a way that each of its amenities, showrooms, shops, restaurants, etc., radiated off the casino. Each had to be approached by passing the hotel’s casino first, this, in turn, would lead to people being tempted to try their luck, which, of course, made the hotel a very profitable business venture. “We hit lightning in a bottle with Caesars,” recalled Mallin happily. “It took right off. It was the nicest thing in Las Vegas and maybe in the country.”
The Caesars Palace hotel was inaugurated in 1966. It was the most successful in Vegas and new gambling resorts that followed would imitate Caesars, by carrying out their own escapist themes. Caesars opened with a lavish party that lasted for days; its facade featured a series of Roman-like fountains and wide, curved wings that resembled St. Peter’s Square in Rome. The front and inside of the casino included Italian stone, marble walls, and sculptures of ancient Roman figures, commissioned by Sarno. The hotel’s fourteen-story tower raised the bar for luxury accommodations on the Strip. Sarno also conceived of a restaurant, the Bacchanal Room, where waitresses dressed like Roman goddesses poured wine and massaged the backs of male customers.
Caesars cost $24 million, and by 1969, Sarno and his partners were able to sell the property for 60 million dollars.
Meanwhile, Sarno and Mallin hit upon what was one of Vegas’ first family-oriented venues. It was a resort embodying everybody’s childhood fantasy of running away to join the circus. Circus Circus was built in the shape of a tent, and trapeze artists performed overhead. A live pink elephant flew around the casino on an overhead tram. The tent casino featured all the daily acts you’d see under the big top, while Sarno would dress up as the ringmaster and attend to families and children personally. By adding a midway to the casino, Sarno had begun catering not only to families with children, but to children themselves. Sarno’s idea was that, while children could go and use their money having fun at the circus, their parents, likewise, would use their money at the casino. The $15-million Circus Circus opened on Friday, October 18, 1968. However, none of it worked well enough to turn a profit. The mistake was opening a casino without hotel rooms to provide a captive audience. The theory was that the place would be interesting enough to draw visitors from other casinos. It did, but most came to gawk and not gamble. It was a casino with, as its name implied, a circus.
A gas crisis began in the United States around that time which affected tourism to Las Vegas. “You could shoot a cannon down the Strip and not hit anybody,” Mallin once said. “We didn’t weather that. We lost five or six million.” The casino did not do well under Sarno and Mallin’s leadership, so Bill Pennington, and Bill Bennett, a Del Webb executive, leased the Circus Circus. Bennett had casino-hotel experience as an executive with Del Webb Corp., and Pennington was his partner in a slot machine business. The new owners struggled the first year and after awhile, conditions turned around. Pennington and Bennett exercised their option to buy after a few years, and Circus went big-time. Circus Circus became, by some measures, the most successful of all gaming companies, involved in Excalibur and Mandalay Bay, as well as casinos in Reno, Laughlin, and out-of-state locations.
Jay Sarno was sometimes called a “front” for mob interests associated with the Teamsters. In a 1979 trial involving skimming at other casinos, gaming executive Carl Thomas testified that he had skimmed Circus Circus profits. Mallin however, denies the Teamsters played any role except as a lender. Tony Spilotro, a Mafia street rackets boss, owned a gift shop concession at Circus Circus. “I think he was introduced by a Teamsters guy,” said Mallin, “but he introduced himself by the name Stewart.” When Sarno and Mallin learned his true identity, he was told to leave, because it was making problems for them. Spilotro left without making any objections.
Stanley Mallin became a full-time investor. After retiring from the Circus Circus, Sarno spent the rest of his time teaching would-be hotel owners about how to manage that type of business, and dreaming about a new hotel venture, which would have been called the “Grandissimo”. Sarno tried the rest of his life to raise money for the giant hotel. He envisioned 6,000 rooms. His project presaged the “mega resort age” of the huge Strip hotel-casinos to come. One of its key features was to be lots of waterfalls and fountains. If that sounds a good deal like Steve Wynn’s highly successful resort, it’s no accident. Steve Wynn was one of Jay Sarno’s students, who would later on become the owner of the Golden Nugget and the creator/owner of the Mirage, Treasure Island, and Wynn Las Vegas. Sarno did not complete his dream of opening the “Grandissimo”, but Steve Wynn often mentions him in his lectures, saying he learned a lot from him, attributing Sarno as his inspiration in the use of water and statues.
Jay Sarno later on grew frustrated because his dream of building the “Grandissimo” seemed impossible and, as bad luck would have it, death surprised him during the planning stages of what would have been his third business venture in Las Vegas. Sarno was never able to overcome his gambling addiction. Sarno died on July 21, 1984, while on a gambling stay at his beloved Caesars Palace.
Today, Sarno’s two casinos continue to delight millions, and his legacy lives on in the Sarno Award, a lifetime achievement honor that is the highest accolade given at the annual Casino Design Awards for any individual involved in the design and construction of casino resorts.
Many argue over who started the Las Vegas Strip, but there is no question, it was Jay Sarno who changed it forever. The fast-living genius behind Caesars Palace and Circus Circus invented the fantasy resort and the modern family resort, twin ideas that have guided the past three decades of Las Vegas’ growth.
Jay Sarno was elected to the Gaming Hall of Fame in 1989.
The Men Who Made Las Vegas is a series by Byron Craft chronicling the growth of Sin City and the men who made it possible.