Last time, we talked about the beginnings of the Circus Circus, which turns fifty this year. Now it’s a success story. At first, it wasn’t. Let’s look at its evolution.
The Circus Circus opened in October 1968. Its guiding force, Jay Sarno, had all kinds of financial problems and eventually had to give up control of it, briefly. But in 1971, he got what he needed to turn it around: a loan from the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund to build a hotel. It would be fifteen stories and more than four hundred rooms.
But there were still problems, and they became bigger. Already, a Circus Circus casino executive, Carl Thomas, was involved in skimming money for midwestern crime families. With the Teamsters loan from Dorfman, another figure from Chicago became involved: Anthony Spilotro got the concession to run a store at the casino. From there, he would oversee the Chicago mob’s activities on the Strip and on the streets.
Sarno and his partner Stanley Mallin had legal issues; eventually, there were mistrials and acquittals. But between Sarno’s legal troubles and continued issues at the Circus Circus, state officials wanted him out of power. In 1974, he and Mallin leased the casino to William Bennett and William Pennington, and a new era began. Bennett and Pennington finally bought the property in 1983.
Bennett had been in the furniture business before entering gaming. Pennington had been in the oil industry, then a maker of electronic gaming devices. They took over and made major changes in the look and operation of the Circus Circus. It was making a profit by the year’s end, and a new hotel tower opened in 1975. They also added an RV park.
Bennett and Pennington made the Circus Circus more family-oriented. The rooms were cheap, with none of Sarno’s high-roller suites. They kept the games but not the scantily clad women Sarno wanted around. The showroom became a buffet, and the Circus Circus became well known for its gourmet steakhouse. The number of slots expanded. Under Mel Larson’s management, the marketing grew. So did the profits. Bennett and Pennington opened a Reno Circus Circus and added properties on the Strip and in Laughlin. The corporation obtained land south of Tropicana on the Strip and in the 1990s opened the Excalibur, the Luxor, and Mandalay Bay. It also opened the Monte Carlo in partnership with Steve Wynn.
The corporation grew, but so did the hotel that began it all. The Circus Circus added two more towers by the early 1990s, with more than two thousand rooms. In 1993, the ninety-million-dollar Adventuredome added an indoor amusement park. In 2017 came Splash Zone, a water park. In 2004, MGM Mirage obtained what was now Mandalay Resort Group for about eight billion dollars. The deal included the Circus Circus, which remains an anchor of the north end of the Las Vegas Strip, now with nearly three thousand, eight hundred rooms, still making big profits, and catering to families and middle-class customers, with free circus acts and a carnival midway, fifty years after it opened as Jay Sarno’s dream of a Disneyland with gambling.
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