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Caesars Palace Turns 50: An Oral History of the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino

Ten of Vegas' major players who've seen it all dish on the iconic destination's past, including Evel Knievel's crash, Frank Sinatra's gambling, Muhammad Ali's big defeat and "The Hangover" cast swimming in the fountain.

Originally it was going to be called the Cabana Palace. Then it was the Desert Palace. But when the front doors opened Aug. 5, 1966, there was no mistaking who this gigantic columned temple belonged to: The greeters dressed as gladiators and waitresses in Cleopatra outfits made it clear this was Caesars Palace.

The idea to erect an ancient Rome-themed hotel and casino in the middle of the Nevada desert was the brainchild of Jay Jackson Sarno, an Atlanta motel mogul who — with partners Nate Jacobson and Stanley Mallin and buttressed by a $10.6 million loan from the Teamsters — built what would become the most historic Las Vegas property of them all. During the past 50 years, Caesars has been at the red-hot center of the town’s biggest sports and entertainment events. It’s where Evel Knievel crashed — and nearly died — while attempting history’s most famous motorcycle jump, where Muhammad Ali got clobbered by Larry Holmes in one of boxing’s most-watched bouts and where Frank Sinatra and countless others played the Circus Maximus showroom (until it was torn down and replaced by The Colosseum, where Celine Dion performed as Vegas’ first “resident artist”).

In other words, if it has happened in Vegas, chances are it has happened in one of Caesars’ nearly 4,000 rooms, as THR presents an oral history of a place where centurion guards still hold open the front door for guests and scantily clad Egyptian queens still deliver cocktails. “It has such an old-school, classic feel to it,” says Todd Phillips, director of The Hangover, the 2009 blockbuster comedy that introduced a whole new generation of millennials to the hotel. “It was always my favorite casino, even before we filmed there. Now it’s like a second home to me, as awful as that sounds.”

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STANLEY MALLIN We were living in Atlanta — we had hotels and motels there — and were invited on a junket to Las Vegas. It must have been 1961 or 1962. We were not impressed — we knew we could do something better. That was the start of Caesars Palace.

JAY CAMERON SARNO, Son of Jay Jackson Sarno We moved to town in June 1965. The home my mom had bought wasn’t ready, so we moved into the Dunes. I used to look out the window and watch Caesars Palace being built — I was fascinated. All I knew about building a hotel was a lot of screaming, yelling and cussing from hearing my father on the phone.

My dad was a huge fan of Disney. If you go to Disneyland and walk through a tunnel into the Magic Kingdom, it’s supposed to psychologically take you out of the real world — and you merge into an imaginary world. When [Jay Jackson Sarno] built the driveway past the fountains, he set the entrance way back from the street. People said that was a huge waste of land; he said, “I want people to leave the real world and enter this fantasy world.”

From left: Ed Sullivan toured the hotel with co-founders Jacobson and Sarno a few days before it opened in August 1966.

MALLIN We were still putting furniture down the night we opened. We opened with Andy Williams — big crowd. All our money went out on markers [for players], but Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters was there and was impressed, and he gave us a couple million to tide us over.

SARNO I was 8 when Caesars Palace opened. It became our other home. When we got out of school, our mother put us in a suite. It was a safe place: We could swim, get food and run around the place. It was like going to grandma’s house. Having dinner with Rodney Dangerfield or talking to Frank Sinatra in the steam room was no big deal. When I was 10 years old, if you would have asked me if I knew who Frank Sinatra was, I would have said: “Yeah, he’s a singer. He works for my dad.”

BILLY WEINBERGER, Former Caesars Palace vp and son of Bill Weinberger, the hotel’s first food and beverage director and later president Jay Sarno was a creative genius and came up with the concept of the Bacchanal restaurant. The theory was that you could get anything you wanted, prepared any way you wanted it. If it was something exotic, they would say to come back tomorrow and they would have it. The wine was poured from these goatskin bags with spouts into silver-lined chalices, and the girls would give all the men at the table a neck massage while they were eating. In the middle of the restaurant we had a big reflecting pool. Jay’s idea was that he was going to bring in piranha fish: The busboys would scrape the plates into the pool, and the piranha would eat the garbage. But they couldn’t bring in the piranha for many reasons, one being the liability if someone stuck their finger in.

Caesars under construction in 1965.

MALLIN Sinatra was our biggest draw in those days — he drew the biggest gamblers. But Sinatra used to get drunk and gamble. We decided one time, with his attorney, to let him gamble, but we didn’t pay him and he didn’t pay us.

ROBBIE KNIEVEL, Son of Evel Knievel, who crashed after jumping the Caesars Palace fountains in 1967 I was 5 years old, and my mom got a babysitter and left my brother and me in Montana [before the jump]. But the film is embedded in everybody’s mind: my dad driving down the Strip, jumping the fountains. I just wonder what he was thinking.

SARNO My dad’s idea behind marketing research was, “I’ll do what I think is fun, and everyone else will think the same thing is fun, too!” It turned out he was right. He didn’t have to work to get into the mind of the customer because he was the customer: He wanted to go gamble, see beautiful women, be immersed in this fantasy world. For him, being self-centered and being customer-focused was exactly the same thing.

Cher was etched by artist LeRoy Neiman before a show in 1981.

ROBIN GREENSPUN, Filmmaker and founder of Cinevegas Growing up in Vegas in those years, we all knew the backway to the casino, to the showroom, through the kitchen. We knew every shortcut and nobody ever walked through the front of the hotel. My dad was [Caesar’s] first entertainment director and then he went into television production. We did all of the television that came out of Las Vegas and a lot of it came out of Caesars Palace. My dad was also friends with Orson Welles and we did an in-room gaming tape for Caesars Palace with him in the late ‘70s when he was living in Las Vegas. You turned on the TV and there he was, teaching you how to play craps, roulette and baccarat. We shot it back in the private casino, which was near the Palace Court [restaurant] at that time. We had all these beautiful women that were hanging around Orson Welles.

WEINBERGER One morning [during the late 1970s] I was asked to see what it would take to have a Formula One race in Vegas. I called the Sports Car Club of America and was told that if we paid them a sanctioning fee of $50,000, they would help us get a race. It took four years before we could make a deal, then we had to build a racetrack, which cost us $7 million. [The races lasted four years; the land later was sold to Steve Wynn, who on it built The Mirage, which opened in 1989.]

Knievel’s jump in 1967. He ended up crashing then being a coma for nearly a month.

HEIDI SARNO STRAUS, Jay Jackson Sarno’s daughter While my father didn’t own Caesars Palace after selling it in 1969 [to restaurateur brothers Clifford and Stuart Perlman, for $58 million], he was a fixture in so many ways, not just as a customer and a gambler. We had access to all things Caesars until the day he died. He passed away in the hotel in 1984. He did everything he loved that day. Twenty-seven holes of golf. He ate in the Bacchanal restaurant, played gin and then went upstairs with a beautiful girl [Sarno and his wife, Joyce, had divorced in 1974].

ANTHONY CURTIS, Professional gambler and publisher Rain Man [shooting at Caesars] was huge. It was known that Caesars was going to be challenged by Steve Wynn and The Mirage. What Rain Man did was set it apart. Rain Man comes out in 1988; The Mirage opens in ’89 and steals a lot of thunder, but not as much as it could have. If you didn’t know Las Vegas and you didn’t know about The Mirage, but you’ve seen Rain Man, then there’s only one place in Las Vegas and that was Caesars Palace. Everyone was always talking about the Rain Man suite.

Justin Bieber celebrated his 21st birthday at Caesars in March 2015.

KNIEVEL Dick Clark called my dad [in 1989], because he was on American Bandstand in the ’70s, and he said, “What’s Robbie doing these days?” We flew to his office in Burbank, and that’s who got me the fountain jump. The night of the jump, I didn’t think I had the speed. I did five runs and I finally went. It was the biggest night of my life. There were 50,000 people and the Strip was shut down. People hanging off the Flamingo — it was crazy! Every friend, every family member, every boxer, everybody was here.

MICHAEL SHULMAN, Author and Las Vegas expert The Forum Shops opened in 1992 and turned shopping into a tourist destination. People come to Vegas predisposed to spend money: Even if it’s a place they have at home, they’re more likely to splurge because psychologically the strings on the purse are loose. Caesars Palace had moving sidewalks that only brought people in; when you were leaving, you were on your own.

Jerry Seinfeld (left) and Chris Rock yukked it up in the green room during the 2005 Comedy Festival, which took place in the Palace Ballroom.

READ SCOT, Actor who played Caesar at the resort during the 1990s Just before the entrance of The Forum Shops there was a stage, and a program ran seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. It was a big production, with a cast of six to eight performers in two shifts. The costumes were as good as any show. You had so many things you could sink your teeth into as an actor — you never broke character. And our dressing room was right by Circus Maximus, so any of the headliners that worked the showroom would walk right by: Diana Ross, David Copperfield, Julio Iglesias.

SHULMAN Entertainers made a fortune in the ’70s by doing Vegas acts, but they were a bit of a novelty. All of a sudden, with Siegfried & Roy at The Mirage, you had people paying north of $100 for a show. So Caesars Palace knocked down Circus Maximus, settled on a huge $100 million deal with Celine Dion and built The Colosseum for her [the venue opened in 2003].

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GARY SELESNER, President of Caesars Palace since 2005 The biggest theater then was 1,500 seats, and The Colosseum opened with 4,000. That was the origin of the star residencies. Until then stars came in and out every weekend, doing two to three shows. All of a sudden we were talking about one star, Celine, singing 170 times a year from one room. Of course, it was a great success. Other stars heard about the financial success, and this was quickly followed by Elton John, Cher, Bette Midler and then, moving forward, Mariah Carey, Rod Stewart …

JOHN NELSON, Senior vp, AEG Las Vegas I knew that this would be the new model for entertainment in Las Vegas. It’s pretty straightforward in Las Vegas: In gaming, the math works for the casinos. In star entertainment, for the math to work, Las Vegas needed larger theaters. For a star performer to succeed with a sustainable one show per night, the theater need to be twice as big. And Celine, an artist with the biggest recording success in history, how could that not succeed? A lot of people didn’t understand it, didn’t believe that it would work, but I never doubted it.

Dion, in 2002, helped construction workers build The Colosseum, where she performed 170 shows a year during her first residency.

JUDY STONE, Former marketing director at the nightclub Pure, among the first to use celebrity guests as a marketing ploy Pure was built in 2004 on the former site of the Magical Empire, which had magic shows. Some of us who worked there always felt like Pure retained some of that magical spirit — we had so much celebrity success based on luck. We would do red carpets, and the crowd outside was so deep, getting in the door was impossible. We were the first club to have Kim Kardashian; we got Denise Richards right when she broke up with Charlie Sheen. We would book celebrities who generated sales — people wanted to be [in the club] with the hot celeb. It fit what was going on in pop culture at the time.

ALYSSA BUSHEY WYSZYNSKI, Director of public relations from 2006 to 2009 In 2007 we filmed Iron Man — we did a couple shots right in front of The Colosseum. Then we started filming The Hangover at the end of 2008 for three months. The cast was living there — it was full-on. I would get calls at all hours of the day and night — calls like: “Oh, Bushey, it’s not good. Zach [Galifianakis] really, really wants to go swimming in the fountain.” “By Zach really wanting to swim in the fountain, do you mean Zach is already swimming in the fountain?” “Yes, Zach is already swimming in the fountain.” There were plenty of things [we told them they couldn’t do], like streaking through certain areas. Trashing of the suite was off-limits.

Sammy Davis Jr. onstage in 1974.

TODD PHILLIPS I have a lot of fond memories filming there — and some not so fond. I was often spotted by the cast and crew at the blackjack tables late at night, gambling in my pajamas. It was a real problem. You know you’ve got issues when the dealers and pit bosses all know your name. Contrary to popular opinion, I probably lost money on the first Hangover thanks to those late-night sessions. But as a location Caesars is wildly cinematic: The ceiling in the main casino is completely iconic; [then there’s] the entryway, the check-in area, the endless hallways — and, of course, the rooftop.

SARNO The place is in a nonstop state of evolution. There are a few [original] elements that are intact, like the [oval] casino, but within two years of its opening the expansion phase began. It had 680 rooms when it opened, and it’s just below 4,000 now. The people that have owned it over the years have to keep up with the times and evolve the product. [The hotel now is owned by a public company called Caesars Entertainment Corp.]

But my father brought immersive theming to Las Vegas. Ancient Rome is not contextually connected to the desert — it’s not supposed to be. It’s absurd; it’s theming; it’s fantasy immersion. Once everybody got that, suddenly the doors were open to anything — you couldn’t do anything that was too bizarre. Now you’ve got New York New York, you’ve got the Eiffel Tower, you’ve got a pyramid — it’s insanity. If you brought somebody in who had never heard of Vegas and drove them down that street, they would think the world had lost its collective mind.

Liberace onstage at Caesars in May 1971.

A version of this story first appeared in the July 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.