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The Legend Begins – How A Vision Built An Empire

To hear Jay Sarno tell it, he wasn’t very fond of Las Vegas when he made his first trip here in February 1963. He thought it lacked originality. There was no real ‘wow’ factor to attract the rich and famous to the middle of the desert. But Sarno saw the “lack of first class accommodations as an invitation to do better,” says David Schwartz in his book Grandissimo: The First Emperor of Las Vegas.

So Sarno built it.

“In 1963, he came to Las Vegas and absolutely hated it,” Schwartz reveals in a recent interview. “He thought it was terrible. It was hokey and bland. That’s how he got the idea for Caesars Palace.” At the time of his visit, Sarno owned cabana hotels in Atlanta, Dallas and Palo Alto, California. Sarno saw the Strip as an opportunity. He was convinced he could inject life into Las Vegas, but he wanted to build a place that guys could escape to and live out their fantasies. And it had to be majestic and grand. America, at the time, was captivated by everything Greco-Roman. Ben Hur and Cleopatra were huge successes at the box office and the comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was a hit on Broadway. A Roman-themed hotel with columns and statuary seemed ideal.

“This was the first time that a resort in Las Vegas took the idea that the guest was to be the center of attention,” Schwartz explains. “That meant Goddesses peeling grapes and feeding you. [Sarno] was egotistical in the belief that this was the way people wanted to be treated,” he continues. “And people did. This was the beginning of ‘What Happens Here, Stays Here.’ The thought of coming to Las Vegas to get away from reality.”

At the time, Caesars Palace was the most expensive casino ever built. It opened on August 5, 1966. Of the $25 million spent building the resort, $1 million was spent on the three-day grand opening party. A blonde Cleopatra welcomed each of the 1,800 guests arriving at the 14-story, 680-room hotel.

And so it began…

A lot has happened at the legendary resort over the last half century. Here’s a look back at some of the best of the past 50 years.

1966

Andy Williams in 1966 Caesars Palace Grand Opening

Andy Williams

ANDY WILLIAMS’ first song at the grand opening party on August 5, 1966 was an acapella rendition of “Danny Boy.” The evening’s performance in the Circus Maximus Showroom also included Williams in a stage production of “Rome Swings” with Phil Richards playing Caesar.

Jay Sarno’s GARDEN OF THE GODS was a desert oasis. The Olympic-size swimming
pool copied the design of Rome’s Pompeii baths. More than 8,000 pieces of marble quarried from Carrara, Italy, was used to line the pool.

Tony Bennett first show at Caesars Palace in August 1966

Tony Bennett

TONY BENNETT launched his first string of shows on August 25, 1966, just 20 days after the resort opened. Another regular at Caesars Palace was JACK BENNY, who played to his first full house on October 27, 1966.

Evel Knievel attempted to jump Caesars Palace's fountains

Evel Knievel

In a near-fatal stunt, EVEL KNIEVEL failed in his attempt to jump the Caesars Palace fountain on New Year’s Eve in 1967. On April 14, 1989, ROBBIE KNIEVEL did what his father couldn’t and successfully made the jump.

1970’S

While still a standup comic (before quitting to devote his attention to filmmaking), WOODY ALLEN
performed here on February 12-25, 1970.

Heavyweight boxing champion JOE LOUIS was a hotel greeter at Caesars Palace in the 1970s.
Sequin-suited pianist LIBERACE played the resort in the 1970s and ’80s. He played his final Las Vegas shows in 1986 during a two-week engagement at Caesars Palace.

Merv Griffin, Tom Jones, Elvis Presley and Norm Crosby in 1970

MERV GRIFFIN, TOM JONES, ELVIS PRESLEY and NORM CROSBY

A photographer captured this rare image of MERV GRIFFIN, TOM JONES, ELVIS PRESLEY and NORM CROSBY at Caesars Palace on July 20, 1971.

The Osmond Brothers performed at Caesars Palace in 1972

The Osmond Brothers

THE OSMOND BROTHERS performed at Caesars Palace on March 7, 1972. Today, Donny and Marie Osmond have a residency across the street at Flamingo Las Vegas.

Ella Fitzgerald performance in 1974

Ella Fitzgerald

ELLA FITZGERALD performed at a show with Frank Sinatra and Count Basie in 1974. That same year, DIANA ROSS recorded Live At Caesars Palace during a run February 1-14.

Tina Turner and Kent Norton at Caesars Palace

Tina Turner with Ken Norton

TINA TURNER jumped rope with Ken Norton at Caesars Palace on November 2, 1977, before his fight with Jimmy Young.

 

FRANK SINATRA celebrated his 40th anniversary in show business with a televised event from the Circus Maximus Showroom in 1979.

1980’S

On October 2, 1980, Caesars Palace became the first casino-resort to host a boxing event, LARRY HOLMES VS. MUHAMMAD ALI. The arena seated 24,000 fans. Holmes retained his World Championship title when Ali’s corner stopped the fight after the tenth round.

Sammy Davis Jr. performed at Circus Maximus in the 1970s

Sammy Davis Jr.

SAMMY DAVIS JR. performed at Circus Maximus throughout the 1970s and ’80s CHER headlined Circus Maximus from 1979 to 1982 during her transition from disco to rock. She returned for a three-year residency (2008-2011) at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace. Marketed as “The Showdown,”

Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns 1981

Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns

SUGAR RAY LEONARD VS. THOMAS HEARNS was a star-studded welterweight title fight, September 16, 1981. Leonard won by TKO.

Michele Alboreto won the CAESARS PALACE GRAND PRIX on September 25, 1982. It was Mario Andretti’s final F1 race.

From 1972 to 1983, the ALAN KING/ CAESARS PALACE TENNIS CLASSICS attracted the biggest names in the sport.

MARY LOU RETTON took part in the Caesars Palace Gymnastics Invitational on February 4, 1984. Later that year, Retton became the first American to receive the all-around gold medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics.

1990’S

In January 1991, Caesars hosted GEORGE BURNS 95TH BIRTHDAY celebration with the Pointer Sisters, Hall & Oates, Julio Iglesias, Joan Rivers and David Copperfield.

Wayne Gretzky at Caesars Palace in 1991

Wayne Gretzky

WAYNE GRETZKY led the Los Angeles Kings to a preseason ice hockey victory over the New York Rangers on September 27, 1991 at Caesars Palace. It was the NHL’s first outdoor event since 1925.

The Forum Shops At Caesars Palace 1992

The Forum Shops At Caesars Palace

The OPENING OF THE FORUM SHOPS AT CAESARS PALACE in January 1992 brought luxury retail and fine dining to Las Vegas.

Martina Navratilova and Jimmy Connors played a BATTLE OF THE SEXES tennis match at the resort on September 25, 1992.

Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania 1993

Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania

WRESTLEMANIA IX, was highlighted by Hulk Hogan’s return to the ring on April 4, 1993.

On November 6, 1993, RIDDICK BOWE AND EVANDER HOLYFIELD squared off in a heavyweight
championship rematch. The fight was interrupted when “Fan Man” parachutist James Miller careened into the ring.

Ice skating legends SCOTT HAMILTON, VIKTOR PETRENKO, TARA LIPINSKI and KATARINA WITT displayed their show-stopping artistry during an exhibition on an outdoor rink constructed atop the resort’s front fountains on October 11, 1996.

2000’S

In September 2000, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme played the final show at CIRCUS MAXIMUS. The theater hosted the biggest names in entertainment for 34 years.

The Colesseum at Caesars Palace

Colesseum under construction

 

Specially constructed for CELINE DION’S A New Day… show, THE COLOSSEUM at Caesars Palace opened in March 2003. ELTON JOHN has been playing The Colosseum since 2004. The first of his two residency shows was called “The Red Piano.” His follow-up, “The Million Dollar Piano,” still rocks the theater.

Elton John performing at the Colosseum

Elton John performing at the Colosseum

On February 20,  2006, Celine Dion, Elton John and Jerry Seinfeld shared The Colosseum stage for the HEART BENEFIT CONCERT. The event raised $2.1 million for the company’s Gulf Coast employee recover fund.

Another benefit concert, COMIC RELIEF 2006, raised money for victims of Hurricane Katrina and featured Chris Rock, Louis C.K., Jimmy Kimmel, Ray Romano and many others. For four years, THE COMEDY FESTIVAL (2006- 2009) brought the country’s top comics to Caesars Palace.

On May 4, 2006, “The Godfather of Freestyle Motocross” MIKE METZGER broke the world
record for the longest motorcycle backflip at 125 feet, as he soared over the front fountain.

QUA BATHS & SPA redefined relaxation with the opening of a sprawling 50,000-square-foot spa in 2007.

2010’S

Bette Midler premiered The Showgirl Must Go On

Bette Midler

On February 20, 2008, BETTE MIDLER premiered The Showgirl Must Go On. Her two-year residency closed in 2010.

Quirky variety show ABSINTHE arrived in April 2011 bringing its unique jaw-dropping comedy and acrobatics to a tent in front of the resort.

ROD STEWART launched “The Hits” at The Colosseum in August 2011.

Shania Twain arriving on horseback

Shania Twain

SHANIA TWAIN, on November 14, 2012, arrived on horseback closing down The Strip. Her two-year residency began that December.

Nobu Hotel at Caesars Palace

Nobu Hotel

The world’s first NOBU HOTEL made its debut at Caesars Palace on February 4, 2013.

Omnia Las Vegas Nightclub

Omnia Night Club

OMNIA Las Vegas Nightclub opened in March 2015.

On April 27, 2015, MARIAH CAREY rode in a pink Cadillac to her Caesars Palace arrival. Trucks with the names of all 18 of her No. 1 hits preceded her.

Reba & Brooks and Dunn at The Colosseum

Reba, Brooks and Dunn

REBA, BROOKS & DUNN began their residency at The Colosseum beginning June 24, 2015.

Hosted by ELTON JOHN AND BILLIE JEAN KING, Mylan WTT Smash Hits took place on
October 12, 2015. It raised more than $1 million for the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

 

About The Author

Ryan Slattery grew up in Boston. It wasn’t until he moved to Las Vegas in 2003 that the city’s sports teams started winning championships—eight since he left. Now, he’s only allowed back to visit. Ryan is the managing editor of Vegas Player magazine and also writes about travel, entertainment and dining for a number of national publications.

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