How Jay Sarno Made Las Vegas

One day, one dreamer and the city-defining debut of Caesars Palace

An excerpt from Grandissimo, the new Jay Sarno biography by David G. Schwartz

Sarno with French singer Line Renaud at the grand opening of Caesars Palace on Aug. 5, 1966, and with Ed Sullivan and casino president Nate Jacobson a few days before the opening.

Sarno with French singer Line Renaud at the grand opening of Caesars Palace on Aug. 5, 1966, and with Ed Sullivan and casino president Nate Jacobson a few days before the opening.

Jay Sarno was used to bad luck, but this was ridiculous.

He’d gone home to his wife, Joyce, and the kids to get one last night’s sleep before the opening of his dream project, Caesars Palace, but he’d spent most of the night tossing and turning, sick over what was going on across town at the hotel. More than two years of planning, and so much was still up in the air. As he lay in bed on the morning of Friday, August 5, 1966, he ran through some of his problems.

First, there was the money: There wasn’t enough of it. Although the Gaming Control Board had warned Sarno and his co-owners about having a sufficient bankroll before the place was ready to take bets, they had only $100,000 behind the cashier’s window, not $350,000. This was a gamble: With a run of luck, winners could break the bank. The casino would have to close.

Then there was the airline strike. Virtually all commercial airline traffic had been grounded for nearly a month now. With the rates he was charging (Caesars’ lowest room rate was $14, well above the average of $9), Sarno needed to draw a wealthier visitor than Las Vegas had seen before, the kind of jet-setters who wouldn’t drive or take a train, let alone a bus. The Downtown places were booming despite the strike, and the other Strip casinos that relied heavily on weekenders driving up from Los Angeles were limping along. None of them were as vulnerable to the airline strike as he was. Even if they bused people from Los Angeles and filled the hotel, it wouldn’t help in the casino. Without the East Coast high-rollers, without the machers, this might be a big bust.

The aging emperor:  Sarno in 1983. | Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh; Jay Sarno courtesy UNLV Special Collections; Caesars exterior courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

The aging emperor:
Sarno in 1983. | Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh; Jay Sarno courtesy UNLV Special Collections; Caesars exterior courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

Third, he and Nate Jacobson, the casino’s president and the man who’d arranged much of the financing, weren’t getting along. They had an agreement: Jay would be the idea man, and Nate would be the money man. But each wanted to be the boss. Jacobson infuriated Sarno with his penny-pinching; Sarno’s disregard for the bottom line drove Jacobson nuts. Sensible adults who respected each other could see past these differences, but the tension between the two would-be bosses grew. Maybe it was because they were both self-described degenerate gamblers who figured that one of them winning meant the other was losing. But, fundamentally, they just didn’t like each other.

Fourth, the place just wasn’t ready to open. The night before, contractor Stuart Mason had given him an honest assessment of how much work remained. The casino was mostly done, but guys were still laying carpet in the lobby. Half of the rooms wouldn’t be ready for another three days; the first guests were due to arrive in three hours. Most of the rooms that overlooked the pool didn’t have their plumbing hooked up. Sarno lost track of how many rooms didn’t have all their furniture; several thousands of dollars worth of beds and chairs were still sitting in the parking lot. At least it hadn’t rained.

Then there were the less immediate troubles. Sarno’s friend Jimmy Hoffa had nearly exhausted his appeals and would probably be sitting in prison in a few months. Without Hoffa’s help at the Teamsters Union, Sarno might be cut off from the loans he’d need to expand the hotel, and he’d be without a powerful ally. Right now, declaring “Jimmy says so” ended more than one argument. A few months from now, who knew?

Plus there were rumors swirling in the papers that Sarno’s casino was overrun by mobsters, that a crew of Mafiosi had already divvied up control of the joint. Had they? Sarno knew that unofficial casino boss Jerry Zarowitz didn’t answer to him or Jacobson, but he couldn’t say whether this would be a problem.

There were plenty of reasons not to go ahead with the opening, to say that he’d given the casino business his best shot and slink back to Atlanta, where his Cabana hotel guaranteed a living. But Sarno never thought of backing down. The uncertainty was wonderfully excruciating.

Sarno and staff at Caesars’ Bacchanal Room in 1967.

Sarno and staff at Caesars’ Bacchanal Room in 1967.

He wasn’t the only one holding his breath. Las Vegans awaited a casino opening the way Roman Catholics look for white smoke wafting from the Sistine Chapel. In a town built on an understanding of gambling odds and good public relations, each new resort was an act of civic affirmation, a reminder that as long as the hotels kept rising and the dice kept rolling, all would be well. Caesars Palace’s debut promised to be one for the ages. It was the most expensive casino ever built, anywhere, costing about four times more than earlier casinos like the Sands or Dunes; this was true even though Sarno was a master of squeezing the most out of a budget. At Caesars, every dollar mattered, but Sarno’s dream casino demanded a lot of dollars.

The sun was shining as Sarno waited for the driver to pick him up. He considered this a good omen, even though the sky was just as cloudless about 310 days a year in Las Vegas. Like every Friday, it was the real start of the workweek for many of the city’s inhabitants. By the time Sarno’s car arrived, the mercury was already in the upper 90s. It would reach 111 degrees that day.

But this was no ordinary Friday. In place of an opening party, Sarno planned a three-day Roman debauch. Even the invitations were part of the gag. You didn’t just get one in the mail: A centurion knocked on your door, his armor glittering over his taut abs, and unrolled a scroll with charred edges (to suggest fiddling while the world around you burned). Then he read the Roman script that formally invited you to “the gala preview of Las Vegas’ newest and most exciting resort.”

The invitation described the party as an “orgy of excitement” including “libations, feasting, casting of dice, spinning of wheels, turning of cards, and revelries of entertainment featuring the noblest Roman of them all … Mr. Andy Williams.” The orgy would continue “on and on until the collapse of the participants … or sunrise, August 8, whichever event shall first occur.”

Those who knew Sarno got a chuckle out of the cartoon logo at the top and bottom of the scroll: a chubby, toga-wearing Caesar who looked suspiciously like Sarno reclining on a couch, with a scantily clad blonde who bore a remarkable resemblance to his wife draped across his lap, dangling a bunch of grapes over his open mouth. Sarno might not have his name on the hotel, but he’d personally welcome guests to the property in a series of invitations, brochures and guidebooks, in caricature at least.

Now the day was here, Sarno thought; the die was cast. As the driver approached Las Vegas Boulevard, Sarno leaned forward.

“Drop me off in front,” he commanded. Instead of being left off in the back, by the construction entrance, he’d walk through the front door like a paying guest. No, better than that, like an emperor. At Las Vegas Boulevard, the driver made a right, then a quick left, and Caesars Palace was upon them.

Sarno had visualized every brick before a shovel had been turned; he had walked every inch of the property while it was being built. There were still pickup trucks and delivery vans surrounding the hotel. But seeing it on the day of the opening, Sarno felt like he was laying eyes on his casino for the first time.

The fountains were working just as he’d imagined they would. Eighteen of them centered the 135-foot driveway from the Strip to the porte cochere, jetting water 60 feet in the air. Italian cypresses lined either side of the drive, enclosing arrivals in a cocoon of forest and water.

Sarno with Ed Sullivan and casino president Nate Jacobson a few days before the opening.

Sarno with Ed Sullivan and casino president Nate Jacobson a few days before the opening.

The driveway was meant to do more than just guide cars from the Boulevard to the front doors; it was to transport the guest out of time, out of space, away from his workaday life and into a fantasy world—neither wholly real nor entirely imagined—that would let him be the man he’d always dreamed he should be, with gratification only a throw of the dice or the flash of a smile away.

As his driver eased the car toward the entrance, Sarno saw a phalanx of uniformed bellmen. Passing the water on one side and the slender cypresses on the other, he left the world where he was just another hustling developer and stepped into a Roman fantasy where he was the emperor.

Nate Jacobson and Jerry Zarowitz might have disagreed, but Sarno knew he really deserved the title: Caesars Palace was his creation, and if it was different from everything else in Las Vegas, he was the reason. With no stomach for the merely practical, Sarno had stubbornly insisted on creating a place that looked more elegant than the regal squares of Europe. That meant a colonnaded entrance modeled on Bernini’s St. Peter’s Square, and, at the center of it all, more fountains than Versailles.

“It’s perfect,” Sarno said to himself as the car stopped.

A bellman wearing an outfit that looked like a toga crossed with a jumpsuit opened the car door, and Sarno stepped out a new man. The real purpose in life—chasing action—spread out before him in all its grandeur. Everything else—his wife and children, the debts still hanging over him from the Cabanas, the million distracting delays and annoyances—disappeared.

He was a Caesar.

Grandissimo: The First Emperor of Las Vegas
By David G. Schwartz, director of the UNLV Center for Gaming Research
Winchester Books, 2013; $18.95 paperback, $5.99 e-book (Kindle, Nook, iBook, Kobo); Released Oct. 7; official launch Oct. 19;

Upcoming readings by David G. Schwartz:
Oct. 19 at The D (as part of the Vegas Internet Mafia Family Picnic); Nov. 2 at the Vegas Valley Book Festival, 2-4 p.m. in the courtyard of the Historic Fifth Street School.