By Chet Yarbrough
By: David G. Schwartz
Narrated by: Eric Martin
David Schwartz captures the heart of a gambler in Grandissimo. Schwartz introduces Jay Sarno, a man willing to bet everything on an idea. Schwartz researches 1950’s history to recount Las Vegas’s transition from gambling mecca to bacchanalian resort. Schwartz suggests that Jay Sarno was the man with the plan.
An apocryphal story of Sarno’s enlistment in the Army Air Corp sets the stage for Schwartz’s opinion of Sarno’s impact on Las Vegas. Sarno is asked for his middle name at an enlistment station. Sarno says he has no middle name. The recruiter insists on being given a middle name. Sarno invents the name Jackson. Schwartz speculates that Sarno’s choice of name is a marker for a man obsessed with action; i.e. an “Action Jackson” for the 20th century.
Schwartz is suited to write about Las Vegas’ flash and cash. Employed by UNLV (University of Nevada, Las Vega), Schwartz became the Director of the Center for Gaming Research in 2001. Grandissimo is about Jay Jackson Sarno, one of the least known casino developers in Las Vegas. The best known are Wynn, Adelson, Binion, “Bugsy” Siegel, Kerkorian, and Howard Hughes. Though not acknowledged by Wynn in Schwarz’s book, Wynn is considered by some to be a protégé of Sarno’s vision of Las Vegas as a resort town.
(Wynn’s only comment about Sarno in Schwartz’s book is about styrofoam construction material used in Sarno’s first casino, Caesars Palace.)
Ironically, in spite of Sarno’s obscurity, Schwartz’s history suggests Sarno exemplifies what Las Vegas became. Sarno came to Las Vegas around the time of Bugsy Siegel’s death.
Some suggest Siegel, a Jewish American mobster, created the flash and cash image of Las Vegas. In Schwartz’s book, Siegel is barely mentioned. When Sarno comes to town, the idea of Caesars Palace is born and the history of Las Vegas changes; i.e. in the 1950s, Vegas still had a reputation as a mobbed-up gambling town but Sarno added flash and fantasy to the gambler’s paradise.
Schwartz notes that one of Sarno’s most intimate friends is Evel Knievel. Sarno sees Knievel as an alter-ego who not only risks millions of dollars on bets, but wages his life for the thrill of a win, or the ultimate loss. Sarno and Knievel are two sides of a flipped coin. Sarno hires Knievel to jump the fountains at Caesars in a death-defying motorcycle ride that nearly ends Knievel’s life.
Sarno is characterized as an addict of high stakes gambling with a gift for gab that seduces women and attracts investors to an industry founded on flash and cash. Sarno shakes the hand of anyone that will lend him money to fulfill his dream; i.e. the biggest and flashiest hotel/casino ever built. With other people’s money, Sarno opens Caesars Palace in 1962. Other people’s money is mostly from the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund, controlled by Jimmy Hoffa. Schwartz notes that Hoffa becomes a close and trusted friend of Jay Sarno.
Schwartz explains that the land for Sarno’s Caesars development is owned by Kirk Kerkorian. Without having the cash to meet financial obligations on a lease for the land, Sarno signs a contract with Kerkorian. This is one of many stories Schwartz recounts that show how addicted Sarno is to action; i.e. making the big bet.
In spite of millions lent by the Teamsters, Sarno realizes he needs more money to fulfill his vision for Caesars. Sarno turns to a money man associated with organized crime–Jerome Zarowitz. Sarno gets the money he needs but the tradeoff for the loan is Zarowitz is to be hired as the casino’s financial manager. The inference is that Zarowitz’s role is to systemize skimming of gambling proceeds to satisfy mob-related investors. Schwartz explains that Sarno always chose action to make his dreams come true; i.e. Sarno sees the dream and is willing to do whatever it takes to make the deal real.
The iconic fountains at the entry to Caesars became a symbol of Las Vegas transition. Wynn goes on to create The Mirage with a volcano erupting in a lake. The Bellagio, also built by Wynn, has a water fountain display considered one of the most photographed entertainment events in the world.
Schwartz explains how Sarno loses Caesars but rises again with the idea of Circus Circus. Sarno envisions family entertainment as a new venue for Las Vegas. Once again, Sarno scrambles for investors. The teamsters become Sarno’s primary investor. Unlike Caesars, Circus Circus fails to make enough money, beyond the skim, to be profitable. Sarno is audited by the IRS for tax discrepancies at Circus Circus. Sarno and his partner are caught in a federal sting operation at Circus Circus. They attempt to bribe a tax auditor. Sarno is defended by Oscar Goodman, a reputed mob lawyer who, much later, becomes a celebrated mayor of Las Vegas. Sarno and his partner are acquitted.
Sarno loses his casino license because of the bribery indictment. In 1974, Circus Circus is sold to William Bennett and William Pennington with Sarno leasing the land to Bennett and Pennington until his death, from a heart attack, in 1984. When Sarno recovers his casino license, he has one more dream, a six to eight thousand room casino called Grandissimo. Apocryphally, Sarno dies in a suite at Caesars, with a woman 30 years his junior, trying to recapture the thrill of life.
One concludes from Schwartz’s biography, despite unethical behavior, thrill-seeking habits, and a high-stakes’ gambling lifestyle, Sarno turned Las Vegas toward the idea of a resort community with adult entertainment and family appeal. Circus Circus, The Excalibur, and the Luxor offer entertainment for the whole family. From gambling, to circus acts, to bowling, to non-gaming video parlors, Las Vegas became the world’s playground. Much of that transition is attributed by Schwartz to Jay Jackson Sarno.
(As a final irony, Schwatz notes Sarno dies owing $1,000,000 in back taxes to the federal government.)