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Stan Mallin, co-creator of Caesars Palace and Circus Circus, dies at 98

Updated September 12, 2021 - 9:33 pm

Stan Mallin, a pioneering Las Vegas hotel and casino developer who was inducted into the Gaming Hall of Fame in 2019, died on Saturday night, according to his wife, Sandra Mallin. He was 98.

Mallin met his longtime business partner Jay Sarno when the two were roommates at the University of Missouri. He and Sarno built motels in Georgia, Texas and California, before they visited Las Vegas on a “junket,” Sandra Mallin told the Review-Journal on Sunday.

“They were shocked that there were no hotels and upscale stuff,” she said. “And they had this vision of creating something.”

The two opened Caesars Palace in 1966 at a cost of $24 million. It sold three years later for $60 million.

“We hit lightning in a bottle with Caesars,” Mallin told the Review-Journal in 1999. “It took right off. It was the nicest thing in Las Vegas and maybe in the country.”

Meanwhile, Sarno and Mallin were looking for the next new idea — a resort embodying everybody’s childhood fantasy of running away to join the circus. Circus Circus was built in the shape of a tent, and trapeze artists performed overhead. A live pink elephant “flew” around the casino on a sort of overhead tram. Sarno himself would dress up as a ringmaster and walk through the casino.

None of it worked well enough to turn a profit. Mallin said in 1999 that the mistake was opening without hotel rooms to provide a captive audience. The theory was that the place would be interesting enough to draw visitors from other casinos. It did, but most came to gawk and not gamble.

“About that time there was a gasoline crunch, and you could shoot a cannon down the Strip and not hit anybody,” Mallin said. “We didn’t weather that. We lost $5 (million) or $6 million, so we leased it to Bill Bennett and Bill Pennington.”

Bennett had casino-hotel experience as an executive with Del Webb Corp., and Pennington was his partner in a slot machine business.

“They struggled the first year, then conditions turned around, and to tell the truth, they were probably better operators than we were,” Mallin said. “They exercised their option to buy after a few years, and Circus just went terrific.”

Vegas visionaries

Sarno was inducted into the Gaming Hall of Fame in 1989, and Mallin joined him 30 years later. In announcing Mallin’s induction, the American Gaming Association said the pair started “the trend of themed casinos in Las Vegas” and “introduced the concept of experiential casino properties” with Circus Circus.

Michael Green, an associate professor of history at UNLV, said he finds the timing of the pair’s induction fitting to their relationship: Sarno was the face of the operation, and Mallin was more of a behind-the-scenes guy.

“Very often, a visionary needs a detail person around,” said Green, who did not know Mallin personally. “(Caesars Palace and Circus Circus) appear to have been mostly Sarno’s vision, but I have the feeling, with all due respect to Sarno, that he couldn’t have done it without Mallin.”

Former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said he became good friends with the Mallins when he moved to town in 1964 with his wife, current Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who worked at Caesars Palace. He largely credits Mallin and Sarno with inspiring the architecture and design that make up the Strip today.

“Jay was a gourmand, and everything was loud, in a good way,” Oscar Goodman said Sunday. “And with Stan everything was quiet, in a good way, and they were just the perfect combination. I think they were very much responsible for Las Vegas being what it is today.”

The pair are also linked with Stan Mallin Drive and Jay Sarno Way, which run parallel to each other at Caesars Palace. Green said Mallin’s street is shorter that Sarno’s, another apparent allude to their relationship.

“Mallin said something like, ‘Yeah, my street is shorter. I didn’t need the attention,’” Green said, laughing. “And it was named long after Sarno was gone, it wasn’t as if Sarno was campaigning for a street, but I would have been surprised if Stan Mallin was campaigning for a street.”

Mallin born March 25, 1923, in Kansas City, Missouri. He and Sarno served in the Army in World War II in the South Pacific. They returned to finish college, then teamed up as tile contractors in booming Miami.

“If the season was good you got paid and if it wasn’t, you didn’t,” Mallin said in 1999.

In a 2014 oral history by UNLV Digital Collections, Mallin said the Strip “has changed a great deal” since he his heyday.

“It’s not as personalized as it used to be,” he said. “If you were a player in the hotels, they knew you. The food was very well done but inexpensive. Everything was catered to the gambling. It’s not that way anymore. The rates are high and the food is high. It’s more impersonal, I think.”

An avid golfer, Stan met Sandra while on the course. They were married for 39 years. They later founded the Sandra and Stanley Mallin Early Childhood Center at Temple Beth Sholom in 2000.

“He was just a gentleman. An unassuming, quiet man. One of the gaming pioneers,” Sandra Mallin said. “Lowkey, always low-key, but very generous.”

Goodman described his friend as one of the few truly decent, nice people he can think of, adding that he was always trying to help the Las Vegas community and found himself at the forefront of philanthropic efforts every chance he had.

“He wasn’t looking for the limelight, but I think if he had to say what his greatest contribution was too our community was, he made it a better place for all of us in which to live,” Goodman said. “If more people were like Stan Mallin, the world would be a better place.”

A funeral is set for 11 a.m. Tuesday at Temple Beth Sholom, 10700 Havenwood Lane.

Contact Alexis Ford at aford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0335. Follow @alexisdford on Twitter. Contact Jonah Dylan at jdylan@reviewjournal.com. Follow @TheJonahDylan on Twitter.

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