November 08, 2019

Getting Ahead of Vanishing Vegas at Circus Circus, Sold Again Upon Its 51st Year

Circus Circus in Vegas always seemed like a joke to me. But I really only started becoming aware of Vegas in the 1990s, when more "luxurious" resorts like the Bellagio and Mandalay Bay were rising up from the depths of the southern end of the Strip.

And maybe Circus Circus Hotel and Casino is a joke. But if so, it's in on the joke—because, you know, clowns.

I'd passed by the resort and the adjacent freestanding slots casino (opened 1971) many times in my many trips to Vegas—but I'd never gone inside.

And then it occurred to me that there's no way Circus Circus can last much longer, the way that Vegas has been going.

So I'd better go and document it now, while I can—if only for its spectacular neon sign.

In a city that's far more saturated by the aerial circus of Cirque du Soleil—in Vegas since 1998—it's actually a novelty to see an actual circus.

Lucky the Clown (not to be confused with Topsy the Clown in Reno) greets guests and visitors to what's billed as "the largest permanent big top in the world." But he, of course, isn't the only clown at Circus Circus.

in 1967, Circus Circus founder—the late Jay Sarno, also of Caesar's Palace fame—commissioned artist and circus performer Montyne to sculpt five statues for display on Las Vegas Boulevard. Only one remains, known simply as "the clown," the rest (including a giant gorilla) having succumbed to the landfill in 2006.

I guess you could blame Circus Circus for the influx of "family-friendly" entertainment in the 1990s—why every casino from New York, New York to the Stratosphere and even the Sahara eventually needed to have at least one rollercoaster, if not a full-fledged theme park. (Some blame The Mirage and Steve Wynn, but that's a story for a whole 'nother blog post.)

When Circus Circus first opened in 1968—as the world’s largest combined casino and amusement center—it was merely as a circus tent, designed by Rissman and Rissman Associates (and featuring those characteristic "Sarno Blocks").

There were no hotel towers. Those were added later—and in stages, from 1972 to 1996.

Inside the big top, you could find bawdy shows and showgirls, scantily clad cocktail waitresses, and "sleazy" games.

And yet Sarno also actively courted families—including low rollers who'd gamble a little or even pay an admission charge just to take in the spectacle (which, on opening day, included skydivers and a wedding ceremony whose bride and groom dangled from a hovering helicopter).

It wasn't until 1993 that Circus Circus opened the first theme park in Vegas, the Adventuredome.

Before that, the Carnival Midway was enough to keep gamblers and their underage offspring engaged...

...and even within earshot in the football field-sized casino.

But in many ways, the family amusements kept up appearances for the mob ties that occurred behind the scenes at Circus Circus (including a huge loan from the Teamsters that funded its construction) and the shysters running the midway games.

Over the last 50 years, the casino has been threatened with closure by the authorities and has changed hands several times.

It's kind of amazing that there are still world-class circus acts performing under the big top. And that's kind of the best part.

Turns out my instincts may have been right—because Circus Circus just sold to its new ringmaster, developer (and Trump supporter and associate) Phil Ruffin.

Originally built at a cost of $15 million, it most recently went for $825 million.

Ruffin says he's got big plans for it.

What that means remains to be seen.

Related Posts:
Farewell, Circus Drive-In
Photo Essay: Clown Motel, Gateway to the Haunted Miners' Cemetery
Photo Essay: The (Temporary) View from Above Vegas
The Sahara Returns to the Vegas Strip

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