Las Vegas Sun

September 19, 2019

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50 years of facts and fiction: A look back at Evel Knievel’s jump at Caesars

50 Years of Caesars Palace

Jerry Abbott / Las Vegas News Bureau

Evel Knievel attempts to jump the fountains at Caesars Palace on Dec. 31, 1967, in Las Vegas. Knievel’s attempt came up short, and he crashed upon landing, suffering a crushed pelvis and femur, fractures to his hip, wrist and both ankles and a concussion that kept him in a hospital.

On Dec. 31, 1967, a daredevil who previously had performed before small crowds in places like Missoula, Mont., and Barstow, Calif., twisted the throttle of his Triumph motorcycle and roared up a ramp at Caesars Palace.

What happened in the next moments, days and weeks would launch the daredevil — Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel — on a trajectory that would make him an international celebrity and a multimillionaire.

But he would pay a heavy price for his fame.

Knievel missed the jump, as Americans of a certain age are well aware. He suffered several broken bones and would spend weeks in the hospital. But when film footage of the jump was picked up by ABC — that era’s version of going viral — it put him on the map.

The spectacle at Caesars 50 years ago this week was a legendary moment in Las Vegas history.

But as with other legends, embellishment and falsehoods became attached to it over the years.

So what was truth and what was myth about the jump? Here’s a look at a few of the stories about the jump, which the Sun vetted by referencing several online sources and books. For those interested in exploring more, we’d recommend starting with two excellent books: “Gradissimo: The First Emperor of Las Vegas: How Jay Sarno Won a Casino Empire, Lost It, and Inspired Modern Las Vegas,” by David G. Schwartz; and “Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend,” 2011, Leight Montville.

The story: Knievel conned Caesars’ owner Jay Sarno into agreeing to the jump

Truth meter: True

The details change depending on who’s recounting the story, but Knievel definitely played Sarno, who initially wanted nothing to do with the event.

To get Sarno’s attention, Knievel peppered him with hoax phone calls in which Knievel impersonated reporters, business representatives and lawyers, and asked Sarno when and where the jump was taking place.

In his final call, Knievel fronted as a lawyer representing Evel Knievel Enterprises and said his client had been flooded with phone calls asking him about the Caesars jump, which Knievel/lawyer said his client knew nothing about. The volume of calls had gotten so heavy, Knievel/lawyer said, that Knievel was considering suing Caesars for using his name without permission. But Knievel/lawyer said he also represented musician Lawrence Welk and had to leave the next morning to go on tour with him. He suggested a meeting between Sarno and Knievel to discuss the jump.

That call got Knievel in the door, and he and Sarno cut a deal. Knievel was to jump three times — on Dec. 31 then on Jan. 3 and Jan. 6. He would receive $4,500 plus a complimentary room, food and drinks from Caesars.

The story: Knievel was in a coma for 29 days after the jump

Truth meter: Disputed

The story has been heavily reported, including in obituaries for Knievel after his death in 2007. But it’s been widely discredited by serious researchers, including Montville and the Discovery channel. Sarno’s two sons and some of his associates have said Sarno admitted to them that he and Knievel exaggerated the daredevil’s injuries to milk publicity from the jump.

“It was all a fabrication, all (expletive),” Jay Sarno Jr. said in Montville’s biography. “My father and Knievel were like two giggling, sneaky teenagers. They were putting something over on everybody. They were a couple of promoters.”

The younger Sarno said his father told the boys Knievel had suffered broken bones and that his femur had been pushed into his pelvis, so there would possibly need to be an operation. But the doctors’ biggest concern was that he’d walk with a limp.

Knievel was badly injured, however, with several broken bones and a concussion. He left the hospital on crutches on Feb. 12.

The story: Actress Linda Evans shot a much-replayed film of Knievel missing the jump

Truth meter: True

Knievel had met Evans’ husband, director John Derek, at a boxing match, and the two had agreed to producing a biopic about Knievel. Its working title: “Why?”

Derek brought two cameras to Caesars Palace to film the jump. He manned one, which panned the crowd and the jump site. Evans, then the star of the TV Western series “The Big Valley,” operated a smaller camera at the end of the jump.

Evans’ camera captured the footage of Knievel tumbling after landing short.

The movie was never made. The night before the jump, Derek pulled out when Knievel told him the jump would be a failure. Derek, horrified, said he wouldn’t want to glorify a tragedy. He said he’d film the jump because it was too late for Knievel to find anyone to shoot it, but he gave Knievel the film.

The story: Knievel’s jump put Las Vegas on the map

Truth meter: False

Las Vegas was already a major tourist draw and was growing fast. The jump did, however, make Knievel and the Caesars fountains famous.

After Evans’ film was shown on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” then a popular sports variety program, Knievel gained international recognition.

Knievel would later say “the crash was the foundation of his entire career, the moment he was delivered to the American public,” Montville wrote.

“No one can say what would have happened if he had completed the jump, then completed the next two fountain jumps, but a pretty good guess is that the news would not have moved outside of Las Vegas,” Montville wrote.

The imagery of Knievel flying over Caesars’ fountains stayed with the public, too. At the time, they were billed as “the world’s largest private fountain display,” with 18 fountains pumping 350,000 gallons of water per minute.

“The jump fixed the Caesars Palace fountains in the public consciousnes,” Schwartz wrote. “Since it opened, the property has been expanded, renovated and remodeled so as to make it unrecognizable. But one featured remained untouched: Jay Sarno’s fountains. Had Knievel’s jump not rendered them so iconic, they might have gone the way of the Circus Maximus (Showroom), Bacchanal (gourmet room) or screen block exterior. But the fountains remained.”

As a postscript to Schwartz’s biography, which was written in 2013, part of the fountains currently are covered by a temporary retail space.

Another insight from Schwartz: The jump was a launch point for Caesars becoming a venue for major sporting events like prize fights and even Formula One racing.

The story: Knievel spent little time preparing for the jump

Truth meter: Largely true

Knievel didn’t prepare or participate much in the planning, leaving it mostly to his team. Without the aid of computer modeling, motorcycle jumping was a crude exercise 50 years ago. Knievel didn’t even use a speedometer or make test jumps. He relied on feel. The ramps were angled using a naked eye and were built out of 2-by-4s and plywood.

When Sarno’s secretary, Evelyn Cappadona, asked him about preparation, Knievel said: “You don’t understand, Evelyn. This is a one-shot deal. You do it or you don’t.”

Knievel would later be closely identified with Harley-Davidson motorcycles, but he jumped the fountains on a Triumph T-120. It was heavy and primitive by modern standards, with rudimentary shock absorbers.

The jump distance was 140 feet. Knievel launched at an estimated 80-90 mph. Jumping from the north to the south, he came up short, hitting a safety ramp that had been placed flat across the top of a van to keep him from decapitating himself if he fell short. He was bounced off of the motorcycle and tumbled on the tarmac.

After the crash, he was carried about 100 feet to an ambulance and rushed to Southern Nevada Memorial Hospital. He was conscious and alert the entire time.

Knievel’s longest successful jump would come eight years later, when he cleared a distance of 133 feet at Kings Island amusement park near Cincinnati, Ohio. That jump set a record that stood for 24 years.

The story: On his way out of Caesars to the jump, Knievel reportedly put a $100 bet on red at roulette, and lost when the ball landed on black. As was his custom, he took a shot of Wild Turkey whiskey before getting on his bike.

Truth meter: Maybe not 100 percent true, but it's a great story.

The betting part hasn't been verified but is believed to be true, and the whiskey part is almost certainly true. Sometimes, Knievel took more than one belt before his jumps.