Question of the Day May 26, 2016
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Q:Vegas Strip Resort Attractions, Part IV: Remember the outdoor arena at Caesars Palace? How about the Grand Prix?
A:When it comes to offering diverse attractions, perhaps only the Stardust was in the same league as Caesars Palace, with its embracing of Space Age (and Polynesian) theming apparently not an impediment to offering an entertainment that lineup that included rodeos, auto racing, and a drive-in movie theater, in addition to more conventional (now, although still impressive at the time) hotel amenities, like the golf course and pool (see QoD 6/2/15).
In recent Questions of the Day, we've traced the history of Caesars Palace and its opulent Roman theme, from the costumed characters who greeted the first guests back in 1966, to the imported marble statues, to early gimmicks like Cleopatra's Barge, the Festival Fountain attraction, and a coffee shop named the Noshorium. Previous answers have looked in depth at major attractions, including the costly but short-lived Magical Empire, the Forum Shops, and the Omnimax theater, while glancing at some of those typical Vegas anomalies, like Caesars' addition in the 1980s of a dedicated Atari game room (also a pretty fleeting experiment).
Three QoDs in and counting, we figured we could conclude this massive Caesars retrospective today by shining a light on one major themed attraction that we haven't yet revisited. But then we received a query from a reader regarding this most iconic casino's history of hosting major sporting events, and we realized that was another missing piece to add to the puzzle, so today we focus on sports and we'll return to cover the final feature in due course.
When Jay Sarno debuted his imperial-Roman vision back in 1966, it was the realization of his belief that this was to be the "Home of Champions," where everyone was a "Caesar" in their own right, but also where the world's greatest athletes would do battle, complementing the draw of the celebrated entertainers who filled the Circus Maximus showroom.
While the first boxing event hosted by Caesars was an amateur card that pitched the USA against the USSR in October of 1969, it was when long-time owner and CEO Cliff Perlman witnessed the 1976 bout between George Foreman and Ron Lyle that he caught the boxing bug, even though far from taking place in a glamorous arena, that fight was held in what boxing writer Hugh McIlvanney described as "a long metal-and-asbestos shed" that also served as indoor tennis courts. (It's official name was Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion and via that link you can see a cool slideshow of Mohammad Ali training in the ring of the Pavilion for his historic 1980 fight against Larry Holmes, courtesy of Getty Images and The Ring magazine.
This barn-like structure, officially known as Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion survived (only just) until the notorious 1980 Muhammad Ali fight against Larry Holmes (Holmes made history when he defeated his former sparring partner in the 10th round by a TKO), when Perlman realized the old venue just wasn't up to the job in terms of capacity or ambiance (Ali still used the ring to train for that fight, however, as you can see from this slideshow). So, at the last minute and at the cost of almost $1 million, he had a temporary 24,000-seat outdoor arena constructed in the hotel parking lot.
From then through the next decade and a half, Caesars Palace was the host of many major fights, with each venue broken down right after the match (click to see an image of the arena as constructed for 1985's Hagler vs. Hearnes), to be reassembled again for the next one. "Outside, under the stars, big, big fights in a great era for boxing. That's what made it special, there was no other venue in the world like that," former Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Marc Ratner recalls, having witnessed every major fight ever held at Caesars Palace.
By the late '80s, however, the famous portable outdoor boxing arena, which didn't have a name and could, we understand, basically be disassembled with a wrench, was broken down once and for all in order to make way for Venus topless pool and garden area, while a new generation of arenas at MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay took on the job of hosting the big fights.
However, boxing was just one aspect of Caesars' ambitious and (in the main) prestigious history of hosting sporting events. This included laying out an ice rink over the parking lot during the summer of 1991 to host a pre-season NHL game between the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings, which was attended by more than 13,000 people. Previously, the parking lot had also been seconded to serve as the track for the Caesars Palace Grand Prix -- a Formula One World Championship car-racing event that was held at the Strip property in 1981 and '82. But drivers objected both to the desert heat and to the counter-clockwise configuration of this track, which asserted undue strain on their necks, apparently. After two seasons the experiment came to an end, due also to poor attendance figures. In 1993, Caesars also hosted what the promoters billed as the "World's Largest Toga Party," which remains to this day the only WrestleMania event in the history of the WWE to have a particular theme. WCW also held a series of events at the hotel in the mid '90s.
At some point in the not-too-distant future we will deliver the final chapter in the epic evolution of Caesars' attractions and entertainment offerings, so stay tuned!
Images appear courtesy of: UNLV Special Collections; The Ring Magazine; Las Vegas News Bureau
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