Monday, March 3, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Jay Sarno’s name may not mean much to the average tourist on the Strip, but his legacy is everywhere in Las Vegas.
It can be seen in the mammoth casinos that whisk patrons away to Paris, Venice and Rome with a simple check-in at the front desk. He founded the iconic Caesars Palace in the 1960s and the big-top hotel, Circus Circus.
UNLV hosted a panel Sunday with Sarno’s children, a former casino executive, executive producer of Ralston Reports Dana Gentry and former Mayor Oscar Goodman to discuss Sarno's legacy and larger-than-life personality.
David Schwartz, director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming, moderated the panel through discussions of Sarno’s life in Las Vegas during the 1960s. The panel members talked about Sarno's court battles with the FBI, his legacy on the Strip and his eccentric lifestyle that made him a divisive figure in Las Vegas.
“There was nobody in Las Vegas who was neutral on the subject of Jay Sarno,” Schwartz said. “People loved him and people couldn’t stand him. There was no middle.”
Gentry, whose father was friends with Sarno, described him as a man who loved good food, beautiful women and good game of craps.
Goodman recalled his time defending Sarno in a court case against the FBI, who attempted to charge him for bribery. Throughout the controversy, Goodman said Sarno remained calm enough to bet him that he could win 18 holes of golf — and win.
Still, Sarno’s vision for Caesars Palace shaped the Strip of today. The casino allowed patrons to escape into ancient Rome, a place where waitresses fed patrons peeled grapes and massaged their backs as they ate. Nothing like it had existed before, Goodman said.
“He does not get the respect for creating the Vegas as we know it today,” Goodman said. “He did something nobody had ever done before.”
His children remember him for his idiosyncratic parenting methods and how they grew up in a world where Jimmy Hoffa was Uncle Jim and Frank Sinatra was just a “singer who works for my dad.”
They recalled how their father gambled constantly, his penchant for a toupee because he was afraid of getting old and his way of speaking his mind that made people react negatively to him.
“Being our father’s kids was not your typical cookie-cutter relationship, but I wouldn’t change it for anything,” Freddie Sarno said.
Jay C. Sarno recalled how his father’s lifestyle was so big, he once heard him say he couldn’t live off the $1 million he was going to make that year.
Still, underneath the gambling, limos and his penchant for women, they said he was a caring father who lived life his own way.
It’s that personality and vision that has allowed his legacy to survive in a city that buries its history under a pile of rubble.
“I think he was a visionary, a dreamer and a believer,” Goodman said.