A Kingdom of Darker Magic

How Jay Sarno became the Walt Disney of Las Vegas

Sarno at the Circus Circus grand opening on Oct. 18, 1968.

Sarno at the Circus Circus grand opening on Oct. 18, 1968.

Plenty of people, from mobsters to magnates, have gotten credit for creating modern Las Vegas. But if Las Vegas, as we’re constantly assured, is an adult Disneyland, who is the city’s Walt Disney? Steve Wynn, some might say. Howard Hughes, maybe, or Bugsy Siegel. But the real answer should be Jay Sarno, who brought us Caesars Palace and–45 years ago this month–Circus Circus, recasting a trip to Las Vegas as not simply an escape but a fantasy. With his ethic of the casino as a portal to a different place and time, Sarno inspired most of what has been built on the Strip since the 1960s.

Fittingly, both Sarno and Disney came from the Show Me State: Sarno was raised in urban St. Joseph, Missouri; Disney in small-town Marceline and, after the age of 9, Kansas City. Walt later used Disneyland to evoke an idealized Marceline, circa 1910, and even built a workshop barn on his California estate that was a precise copy of the barn he’d known from his father’s farm. Sarno, on the other hand, used every concrete block and piece of faux statuary to put distance between himself and the lean years of his childhood in St. Joe’s slaughterhouse district. Different as their creative responses to Missouri boyhood were, the two men shared an affinity for fantasy: Disney offered his customers–children and adults alike–nostalgia and security. Sarno presented his guests with luxury, sophistication and overabundance.

Disney was not a master animator, but he had a genius for developing appealing characters, gags and plot–in short, for telling a more compelling story. Long after he had put down his pencil, Disney continued to supervise the artists who actually created his cartoons. So even though he didn’t draw so much as a line on any of his cartoons after 1926, each one produced was nevertheless a thoroughly Disney product. He exercised a similar control over Disneyland, overseeing every detail of its planning and construction–even moving palm trees a few feet to create the particular effect he’d had in mind. Draftsmen created the plans and contractors saw to the logistics, but Disneyland was supremely a product of Walt’s personality. He was a storyteller rather than a technician, and he had his finger unmistakably on the pulse of the American public.

Sarno, similarly, had no formal training in architecture or design. But he discovered a gift for intuitively knowing what his customers would want. So while he didn’t personally draft the blueprints of his casinos, each is–like a Disney cartoon–very much a work of art envisioned by a master and executed by subordinates.

When it came to building resorts, both Sarno and Disney wanted to wrap a complete world around their guests. “To step through the portals of Disneyland,” the cartoon magnate had told potential backers in 1954, “will be like entering another world.” Ten years later, when construction began at Caesars Palace, Sarno said the same thing.

Disney saw his Magic Kingdom not simply as a theme park, but as the essence of America itself, reflected through the prism of his own imagination: “a place of warmth and nostalgia, of illusion and color and delight.” Like Sarno, he knew what he wanted, and he knew that it wasn’t yet out there. Taking his daughters to a series of amusement parks, he later recalled sitting on a bench eating peanuts and thinking, “Dammit, why can’t there be a better place to take your children, where you can have fun together?”

Designing Disneyland, Disney had used a few tricks that recalled Morris Lapidus, designer of Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau hotel, a major Sarno influence: He placed “weenies,” or lures, to guide visitors toward attractions, much like Lapidus used ornaments and lights to pull patrons to specific parts of retail stores. Lapidus called his technique the “moth effect,” and Disney’s term evoked the frankfurter used by a trainer to reward dogs for performing tricks. In Disneyland, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle drew guests down Main Street; from there, they headed to other lures in other parts of the park.

When Sarno first came to Las Vegas in February 1963, he hated what he saw. There was legal gambling, sure, but there was no drama, no excitement to the hotels. High-rollers were chauffeured from McCarran Field in station wagons. Dealers dressed like extras on a low-budget Western. The steaks were tough, the drinks watered down, the architecture, for the most part, merely functional. Caesars Palace, when it opened in 1966, changed that: Las Vegas moved once and for all from frontier to fantasy.

Sarno is the Disney of Las Vegas because he grasped that it wasn’t enough to give visitors what they wanted: He knew that to make them fall in love with Las Vegas, he’d have to give them what they never even knew they wanted. Like Disneyland’s version of the great American small-town street, Caesars Palace evoked a tempting but imaginary history. Disney consciously avoided the historical authenticity of a Colonial Willamsburg for a more comforting vision of what a turn-of-the-century Main Street should have looked like. For both Disney and Sarno, building castles wasn’t about re-creating history. It was about creating the dream of a past so impossible that it became the future.

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How Jay Sarno Made Las Vegas

Jay Sarno

How Jay Sarno Made Las Vegas

By David G. Schwartz

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.