In 1966, 385,300 U.S. soldiers were stationed in Vietnam, the first woman completed the Boston Marathon and race riots erupted in Chicago and Cleveland. The Beatles spent 17 weeks atop the charts, Muhammad Ali was boxing’s heavyweight champion, nuclear weapons were detonated at the Nevada Test Site and the U.S. lost—and found—a hydrogen bomb off the coast of Spain.
In Las Vegas, meanwhile, hotel developer Jay Sarno was resurrecting Ancient Rome on a rough patch of dirt, building a $25 million casino hotel that launched a new era of construction and came to redefine the city. On August 5, 1966, Sarno welcomed Batman, Jimmy Hoffa and about 1,000 other guests to an “orgy of excitement” inside Caesars Palace.
It’s hard to comprehend now what Caesars meant to Las Vegas’ nascent tourist corridor when its fountains first began to spew. The resort that opened in 1966 had just 680 rooms (today: 4,610), but it was bigger in every sense than anything else in town. Caesars was grander, more luxurious and more flamboyant. It was an A-list playground, where Andy Williams valeted his kelly-green Rolls-Royce, civilians rubbed elbows with celebrities and everyone dressed like movie stars. Decades before what happened here stayed here, Caesars embodied that infamous attitude, shocking guests with its nude statuary and toga-clad “goddesses,” paid to pour wine down your throat or massage your temples. It was a Roman fantasy, risen from the desert like an outrageous oasis and ready to deal you in.
“No other hotel compared,” says Benny Figgins, who started as a casino porter in 1966 and has worked at Caesars ever since. “Caesars Palace was the place to be. It was special to work at Caesars. It was the crossroads of Las Vegas.”
In many ways it still is. The modern Strip has grown up around Caesars Palace and in its model. Not only is the property at the geographic center of the tourist corridor, it has been the nucleus of the Strip, birthing numerous now-ubiquitous trends, from all-encompassing resort themes to luxury retail, celebrity chefs and resident headliners.
“There are only a handful of properties in Las Vegas that have lasted 50 years, and only one that has lasted in a spectacular, culture-changing way like Caesars Palace,” casino president Gary Selesner says. “It has always remembered that its job was to not only provide luxury but provide entertainment and fun that you can’t get at home.”
You could forgive a 50-year-old casino for showing its age, but Caesars still gleams. It remains a sensory buffet, where gilded columns and muraled ceilings compete for attention with classic statues and polished marble. You can almost forgive Zach Galifianakis for asking, “Did Caesar live here?” in The Hangover.
Figgins is a blackjack dealer in the Palace Court, the oval-shaped original casino from 1966, where he has handled the cards for 43 years. “Two weeks ago I was just looking around and I noticed everything was set up just the way it was the first day it opened,” Figgins says. “The craps tables are where they were the first day it opened; the pit is where it was. That’s about the only thing in the hotel that’s still the same.”
That and Sarno’s founding philosophy: to make sure everyone who walked through its pillared entrance feel like a special person in an extraordinary place. Like Caesar coming home to his palace.
March 25, 2003: Queen Celine
“When the Colosseum was built and the decision was made to invite Celine Dion to sing 170 times a year, there weren’t two people in Las Vegas that would have bet that that would be successful,” Caesars President Gary Selesner recalls. But in its first year on the Strip, A New Day … grossed $80.5 million, according to Pollstar. The next year: $80.4 million. By the time her first residency wrapped in 2007, Celine had brought in $385 million and kickstarted the modern headliner trend still in full swing today.
Memories of a champion: Sugar Ray Leonard on fighting at Caesars Palace
“I just remember going to Caesars Palace and watching Muhammad Ali and watching other great fighters, and it was always magic in that arena. You fight in Vegas, Caesars Palace in particular, and you’ve made it. That’s like the Oscars. So major.
The beautiful thing about it was that it was always packed, always full. And there were always other celebrities and famous people there. It wasn’t just a fight; it was an event—a highly anticipated event. You see your face all over, not just billboards but the signs, your name up in lights. You walk into that casino and it’s like, wow. There’s such an electricity, there’s such an energy that is in the air.
People just don’t know what it requires to be in that ring. First of all, to have gotten the courage to step in that ring with a [Tommy] Hearns or [Marvin] Hagler or Roberto Durán or [Wilfred] Benítez. You’re standing in there, and your left eye may be closed or you may have a cut over your eye or you’re just exhausted because there’s so many rounds—I’m talking about 15 rounds back in the day—and it’s 100 degrees outside. All those things are major experiences. And I live with that. I feel that. I remember looking at Tommy Hearns, I remember Roberto Durán’s breath and what it smelled like. I remember those key things, those incredible memories that will live with me forever. You push yourself beyond the human body. You push yourself so hard, and you know there’s nothing better than winning that big one. You win that big one and it just resonates throughout your body. I couldn’t wait to read the paper the next morning.
They ask if I miss boxing. I don’t miss boxing, I miss the camaraderie. I miss that motion of having your hands raised.”
The original uniform for the doormen was gladiator attire, including breastplates and capes. “Jay Sarno would come out and say, ‘I want to see you flourish those capes,’” remembers 50-year valet Jim Dunbar. Then one of the gladiators’ capes got caught in a taxi. That was the end of the cape flourishes.
August 5, 1987
“I told my wife to get a bondsman, a lawyer, newspaper reporters and my nicotine gum.” –Rusty Erickson, who was questioned by state gaming agents after his 19-year-old son won $1,061,811 on a Million Dollar Baby slot at Caesars Palace. The underage gambler was denied his windfall, and the Erickson family lost their subsequent suit against the casino. (Source: people.com.)
December 1992: Inception of a scene
Wolfgang Puck is widely credited with launching the modern dining era in Vegas when he opened Spago at the Forum Shops in 1992. What brought Puck to the Palace? He was hungry.
As Spago Vegas opening executive chef David Robins recalls, boxing fan Puck regularly visited town to catch the fights. When he complained that there was nowhere to eat on property, the casino president had an easy answer for him: Open a restaurant. Puck did one better: He created a dining destination that earned $12 million in its first year and proved that Strip visitors wanted more than chicken dinners and cheap steaks.
“We did wild numbers in the early days,” Robins says. “We would cook from 5 o’clock till 1 in the morning because there was a line out the door.” But Spago did encounter some perception problems initially. “Ironically, the first day we opened was during the rodeo in December. Cowboys kept walking up to the line and saying, ‘Where’s the buffet?’”
A true bacchanalia
$11.50. That was the original price for dinner at the Bacchanal Room, the legendary gourmet room inside Caesars Palace presided over by Las Vegas’ first celebrity chef, Nat Hart. The equivalent of spending $85 today per person, that tab included a seven-course meal with appropriate wines served by so-called “goddesses” who offered complimentary massages with your meal.
Historian and Nevada State Museum Director Dennis McBride, who grew up in Boulder City, remembers dining there with his parents when he was 11 years old: “Oh my gosh. It was like an orgy. I just remember plate after plate, piled with stuff that I’d never seen in my life. It was new on every level. It raised the bar for everything.”
Day 1 employee Jim Dunbar spent 21 years as the graveyard shift valet at Caesars Palace and met plenty of the casino’s celebrity guests on the job. “Lots of times Fats Domino would come out and say, ‘I lost all of my money. Jim, lend me $5.’ I think he still owes me $5.”
December 31, 1967 & April 14, 1989: Smash and soar
“Faulty landing ruins exhibition” That surprisingly stoic headline in the Las Vegas Sun on January 1, 1968 hints at one of Caesars’ most memorable flops: Evel Knievel’s bombastic attempt to jump a motorcycle 150 feet over the Caesars Palace fountains and the equally dramatic crash that sent the young daredevil careening off his bike and into Las Vegas lore (not to mention the hospital).
About 10,000 people witnessed Knievel’s pelvis-shattering return to Earth, but 5-year-old Robbie Knievel was not among them. Knievel’s son was home with a babysitter that night, but 10 years later he made a decision: He’d complete the stunt that had sidelined his father. It took more than a decade for Robbie to get permission to try the jump—and rider Gary Wells suffered his own brutal failure in the intervening years—but on April 14, 1989, another red, white and blue-clad Knievel revved his engine and faced the Caesars fountains.
“There’s always a worry. Every time there’s a different place, different take off, different landing. Sometimes it’s cockroaches, sometimes it’s butterflies, but mostly it’s cockroaches,” Robbie Knievel said recently. He calls that moment in the Vegas spotlight—in front of a crowd of 50,000, broadcasting live on Showtime with spectators hanging off the buildings—“the biggest night of my life.”
And when Knievel hit the ramp, he didn’t just live up to his father’s legacy or conquer the specter of Caesars Palace. He flew.
November 6, 1993
‘’It was a heavyweight fight, and I was the only guy who got knocked out.’’ –James Miller, aka the Fan Man, who paraglided into the seventh round of a bout between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe at Caesars in 1993. Miller died in 2002.
August 5, 1966: Work in progress
When Caesars’ 48-hour grand opening party kicked off, the resort was still under construction. As the New York Times reported on August 8, 1966, “Guests checked into assigned rooms only to find that carpenters, plumbers and carpeting crews were still at work in them. One of Hollywood’s leading television executives was advised by a chambermaid to check into another hotel because, ‘They don’t even have enough sheets here.’”
Caesars Palace president Gary Selesner had his first date with his now-wife of 33 years at the casino long before he became an executive. The date? Dinner and a show—starring none other than Frank Sinatra.
What you get for $35,000 per night
The 10,300-square-foot, David Rockwell-designed Nobu Villa, complete with three bedrooms, a Zen garden, a media and game room, a full bar and an outdoor terrace the size of a large house. Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift and Drake have all crashed there, so you’re in good company.
April 15, 1985
He called the “Miracle on Ice” and the earthquake-interrupted 1989 World Series, and for legendary play-by-play man Al Michaels, a 1985 middleweight bout at Caesars Palace ranks among the top sporting events he’s covered:
“It was ‘Marvelous’ Marvin Hagler against Tommy Hearns, and as Sports Illustrated said on its cover the following week, ‘Eight minutes of fury.’ The first round, in the minds of many longtime observers, was the round of the century. I’ll never forget it, and I’ll never forget how jazzed I was and how jazzed the crowd was and just the electric feeling that you can only get at a great championship fight.” (Source: 2015 Premier Boxing Champions press conference)
January 1, 1992
75,000. That’s the average number of people who visit the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace every single day. “It’s a long day,” concedes Maureen Crampton, director of marketing and business development for the shopping center. Retail wasn’t always a foregone conclusion on Las Vegas Boulevard. Before Simon Property Group broke ground on the Forum Shops, the idea of a luxury mall on the Strip was laughable. People didn’t come to Vegas to shop. They came to gamble, and maybe they’d pick up a shiny watch if they won big in the casino.
But when the Forum Shops opened at Caesars, decked in marble and statuary and topped with a cloud-covered ceiling that changed before your eyes, the proof was in the emptying shelves. “There were actually stores that were running out of inventory and had to overnight inventory from other locations,” Crampton says.
Twenty-four years later, there’s still a waiting list for potential tenants, and it’s still the top-selling enclosed mall in America based on revenue-per-square-foot. But the real proof of the Forum Shops’ pioneering success is visible outside Caesars Palace, in the landscape of high-end retail all over the Strip. “We were the originators,” Crampton says.
Every year, the Bacchanal Buffet goes through 634,550 pounds of crab legs and 87,600 pounds of clarified butter. That’s like 106 elephants each carrying about three Brock Lesnars.
5 things you don't know about playing Caesar at Caesars Palace
After 20 years ‘wearing the armor,’ Read Scot lets us in on some of the big man’s secrets:
1. You roll with an entourage. Caesar doesn’t stroll the casino solo. He parts the tourist seas accompanied by Cleopatra, two Egyptian guards and a pair of muscle-bound centurions who yell, “Make way for Caesar,” over the slots. It’s easier than saying, “Excuse me.”
2. The armor is no joke. “When you put on the chest plate you’re like a turtle, you can’t slouch. It makes you stand very straight. You can look at yourself in the mirror, and you think, I really look like I’m out of that era.”
3. Caesars may never cross paths. Multiple actors play the role of Caesar at the same time, but never in the same place. “It’s like having two Mickeys in the same room.” The universe would probably implode.
4. You have your own toast. “May all your years be full of cheers, may your pain be only Champagne and may your love and life reign as long as the Roman Empire ruled.”
5. It’s the best job. For Scot, playing Caesar wasn’t just work, it was a chance to be the host with the literal most (ahem, an entire palace), and to give guests and team members an extra hit of magic. The last time he put on the regalia was for the internal new-hire video, so he gets to welcome new staff to Ancient Rome a la Vegas. “I bleed Caesars,” he says. Hail that.
Before it was Caesars Palace, Sarno’s casino was due to be dubbed the Desert Cabana. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.