I-Team: The Man Behind Modern-Day Las VegasPosted: Feb 14, 2014 2:26 PM PSTUpdated: Feb 14, 2014 5:00 PM PST
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LAS VEGAS -- While some might think the father of the Las Vegas Strip is mobster Bugsy Seigel, or casino titans Kirk Kerkorian or Steve Wynn, the true architect of modern Las Vegas might be a self-described degenerate gambler named Jay Sarno.
While there is no statue to honor Sarno's memory, there is a new book that tells his amazing story, warts and all.
Sarno saw Las Vegas for the first time 51 years ago this month and he was not impressed. He was Las Vegas in human form, a bubbling cauldron of ideas and energy who indulged every dark desire and was eventually consumed by his lusts. But, along the way, Sarno created the twin pillars of Strip economics and inspired a new generation of casino titans.
The new book by David Schwarz is called Grandissimo, the name of what would have been the largest, most extravagant casino resort in the world. Sarno would settle for nothing less. Las Vegas in the late 50s and early 60s probably ranked as one of the raciest towns in America, but it was too bland in the eyes of ambitious hotelier Sarno.
"It was too plain. He didn't think the hotels were well built. He didn't think there was enough drama, so he said he could do better," said David Schwartz, the author of "Grandissimo: How Jay Sarno's Wild Life Changed Las Vegas."
Sarno was a small time businessman with big time dreams and an insatiable hunger for action, especially gambling. For Sarno, too much of everything was just enough.
"He really was Vegas personified. Whatever you had, he wanted more of it. So, if he would be betting $100 a hand one day, the next day it would be $1,000 a hand, then $10,000 a hand. It was always more and more," Schwartz said.
Schwartz, Sarno's biographer, writes that Sarno parlayed a seemingly odd-couple friendship with teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa into a Las Vegas empire. With teamster backing, Sarno's idea for a Desert cabana eventually morphed into the first fully-themed resort in Las Vegas, still the most iconic name in the casino industry -- Caesars Palace. Everything about the Roman resort was extravagant. Skeptics predicted that a joint so expensive would never break even.
"The entire hotel was about excess. You don't just go to dinner. You go to dinner and have wine goblets and people massaging you and peeling grapes and putting them in your mouth. Everything was over the top and people loved it. They still do," Schwartz said.
Caesars was a huge success. Sarno wallowed in it and lived like an actual Roman emperor by indulging all manner of appetites, balancing his very public persona with the responsibilities of a growing family.
Merely two years after Caesars opened, Sarno debuted another themed resort, Circus Circus, with himself as the ringmaster. While Caesars captured the high roller market, Circus was the first property aimed at middle America and families.
"At Circus he planted the seed for the low-end hotel, from the low-end to perfection. For awhile, they were the two most successful hotel casinos in the world."
Federal law enforcement viewed Sarno -- and many other Las Vegans -- with suspicion. Sarno's friendship with Hoffa was real, Schwartz says, but the Teamster loans came with strings attached meaning, casino employees who had mob ties. The feds wondered why rackets boss Tony Spilotro operated a gift shop at Circus Circus.
"Jay needed them to get the casino built. These are the guys with the money and if they were going to give you money, they were going to be in there. So, that was the bargain."
The IRS went after Sarno and his partner in a sensational case that dragged on for years. The defense team of Harry Claiborne and a young Oscar Goodman eventually prevailed, but the fight hurt Sarno's ability to put together the biggest project of his life -- Grandmissimo, a 6000-room luxury resort and mall featuring waterfalls and lush landscaping that may have inspired Steve Wynn's mirage a decade later.
"Would have happened in the late 70s if he got the money. He had the vision, but couldn't talk Wall Street into getting the money, which was really the final tragedy of his life."
Sarno died of a heart attack in 1984 while staying as a guest at Caesars Palace, the resort he built.
Today, Caesars is the flagship and namesake of the largest casino company in the world. Sarno's other property, Circus Circus, begat a second gaming empire that was later absorbed by MGM-Mirage. Steve Wynn has said that he was inspired by Sarno in his own reinvention of Las Vegas in the 80s. Las Vegas would still exist if Sarno hadn't come to town, but it would be a very different place.