Caesars Palace Las Vegas
There are few places on Earth where the Eiffel Tower is within sight of one of the Great Pyramids. In fact, there is exactly one. Las Vegas is the gambling capital of the world, but it’s also an architectural menagerie—a collection of some of the most dazzling and uncanny structures ever built.
Much of the proliferation in fanciful edifices can be traced back to the imposing classical might of Caesars Palace. Though certainly not the oldest casino in Vegas, nor the first to toy with the idea of a special theme, the Palace revolutionized the developing Strip and opened the door to a new kind of aesthetic and luxury experience. Since its founding, Caesars Palace has been home to professional racing, daredevil stunts, mafia intrigue, and more famous acts and entertainers than you can count. Today, the Palace serves as the epicenter of the Vegas art scene, boasting some of the most prestigious galleries and showrooms in all of the United States.
From its not-so-humble beginnings to its role as cultural custodian of Vegas, the history of the Palace is fascinating, and it’s no wonder it still holds such a prestigious place both on the Strip and in the popular imagination.
Beginnings of Caesars Palace
Caesars Palace was not the first Vegas casino, but it preceded many of the other iconic and themed constructions on the Strip like the Venetian, the Bellagio, or the Luxor. Caesars Palace was founded by small-time motel owners Jay Sarno and Stanley Mallin. Sarno was the real brains behind the project and conceived of a resort experience based upon the aesthetics and luxury of the ancient Roman Empire. While other resorts like the Sahara and Tropicana had dabbled in the idea of a themed experience, the Palace would far outpace them with elaborate neoclassical facades, arcades, and statuary, spectacular networks of state-of-the-art fountains, and costumed attendants trained to act like true Roman servants.
The Palace first opened on August 5, 1966 with an inaugural feast befitting the ambitious and glamorous mission of the founders. 2,000lbs of filet, 50,000 glasses of champagne, crab, caviar, and every other delicacy were served to the illustrious guests as they were serenaded by the emotive virtuoso Andy Williams.
Despite its location on the Strip, for the first years of its operation, Caesars Palace operated primarily as a luxury hotel, with only a (relatively) small 30-table casino. In 1968, however, Sarno and Mallin managed to get the money together to build a dedicated casino just up the street. Known as Circus Circus, it stands today as another staple of the Las Vegas scene, but was only affiliated with the Palace until the early 70s, when financial difficulties and a slew of government investigations forced its sale to a third party.
Nonetheless, extensive renovations, including the construction of the iconic Centurion and Forum Towers, did provide for a newer and larger casino, and cemented the Palace as one of the most popular locations on the burgeoning strip.
Life in the Palace
During the first few decades following its completion, Caesars Palace accumulated a colorful history of fantastic spectacle, famous people, and shady intrigue.
The extensive fountain array crowning the entrance to the Palace was the site of one of daredevil Evel Knievel’s first major stunts. On New Year’s Eve 1967, Knievel attempted to jump his motorcycle over the length of the three main fountains. The trick failed, and Kneivel suffered serious injury to his pelvis, femur, hip, wrist, and ankles. Though unsuccessful, the Palace jump catapulted Knievel into the spotlight and helped launch his professional career.
The center of life at the Palace was (and is) the Colosseum—a massive multimedia stage styled to resemble the original Roman arena. Listing every star who has ever graced this venue would take some time, but among the ranks fall Sammy Davis Jr., Cher, Dianna Ross, Dolly Parton, David Copperfield, and Elton John.
Frank Sinatra was a regular performer during the early days of the Palace, making regular appearances at the Colosseum starting in 1967. His act was put on hiatus in 1970, however, after a spat over an unauthorized high-stakes game of baccarat. When Sinatra became indignant over the dealer’s refusal to further raise the betting ceiling, hotel executive Sanford Waterman reportedly pulled a gun on him and expelled him from the building. Luckily, Sinatra eventually made up with Palace management and became a mainstay of the venue during the latter half of the 70s.
During the early 80s, Caesars Palace even hosted a number of professional racing events in the resort’s spacious parking lot under the name Caesars Palace Grand Prix. From 1981-2, the race was part of the Formula One World Championship; in 1983 it was passed to the Champ Car World Series before finally being canceled after 1984 due to encroaching development.
Throughout its early life, Caesars Palace and its owners faced regular charges of conspiracy with organized crime. Allegations of tax fraud and racketeering were common and resulted in the loss of Circus Circus and the resignation of the Palace’s creator, Sarno. None of these early misfortunes however, could diminish the Palace’s fame and popularity, nor prevent its propitious expansion into the world of luxury commerce and high art.
In 1992, a commercial area was appended to the main hotel and casino area. Complete with twin spiral escalators and an animated fountain complex depicting the fall of Atlantis, this was known as the Forum Shops.
The Strip had long been a place of big money, but spending was limited primarily to lodging, eating, and of course, gambling. By creating a dedicated commercial marketplace for luxury vendors, Palace execs were trying to cater to the buying habits of wealthy tourists and international high-rollers. Everyone from Cartier to Versace, Rolex to Leica clamored for a spot, and today the Forum Shops constitute the highest-grossing mall per square foot in the United States.
While they may be something of a retail mecca, clothing and timepieces isn’t all the Forum Shops have to offer. Since their inception, they’ve become the epicenter of fine art in Las Vegas, with independent and institutional galleries from across the world maintaining galleries and showrooms there.
The largest, by far, is Martin Lawrence Galleries. With 27,000 sqft. of floorspace, the Las Vegas location of this famous chain of photography and art galleries is more akin to a small museum. There’s also the independent SKYE Art Gallery, showcasing up-and-coming artists from Europe and the Americas. Peter Lik maintains a gallery here, filled with his award-winning panoramas of the wild Earth in wild color. Vladimir Kush adds his name to the list with his works of metaphorical realism, and the Carnivale dedicates itself solely to the work of fine art photographers.
Even this short list should give an idea of the quality and uniqueness of the art to be found in the Forum Shops. What Caesars Palace started has now spread up and down the Strip, inspiring other art institutions and vendors like the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art and the collection of galleries in the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian. Even the evolution of the new Las Vegas Arts District can be traced to the renewed interest in art fostered by the Palace, and the Forum Shops are a must-see destination for all those lovers of art who pass through the city.
Today, Caesars Palace is still as iconic and eye-catching as the day it opened. For luxury and opulence, there is no higher standard, and it’s sure to remain a fun and fine art destination far into the future, with an enduring image and body of legend befitting its Roman heritage.