Las Vegas History: Remembering Little Caesar’s
Remembering Little Caesar’s and other smaller casinos in Las Vegas which for many years were the only places that legally took sports bets.
Super Bowl week is a good time to remember and reminisce.
Long before “Little Caesar’s” become synonymous with a national pizza chain, it was one of a handful of stand-alone race and sportsbooks in Las Vegas. Churchill Downs, Leroy’s, and others were the only places where sports wagers were accepted.
Though I visited only once, in 1986, I remember Little Caesar’s well. It was wedged in the middle of a run-down shopping center on the Las Vegas Strip just south of Bally’s (which was the MGM many years earlier). To describe Little Caesar’s as “a dive” would be giving it far too much credit.
The history of sportsbooks in Las Vegas is interesting, and little known. Although gambling was legalized in Nevada nearly two decades earlier, wagering on horse racing and sporting events wasn’t allowed until 1949. Reflecting an uneasy truce of heavy-handed forces, race and sportsbook owners agreed to take action in stand-alone betting parlors, called “turf clubs.” In return for being left alone, they agreed to not offer casino games, or hotel stays. Casinos didn’t view race and sports as lucrative ventures at the time. Besides, they took up lots of space and brought in a demographic that wasn’t appealing to casinos at the time (lowlifes, degenerates). So, the truce held for a quarter-century.
In the mid-’70s, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal was among the first to lobby for changes. He wanted sports gambling at the Stardust, not so much for the huge revenues it brought in, but rather because he did a popular local television show in the casino showroom that often discussed sports gambling. Why promote something, and let Little Caesar’s and other turf clubs rake in all the profits? And so, the Stardust Race and Sportsbook was born, which instantly became the epicenter of (legal) sports gambling in America. The “Stardust line” became “the line.”
Other casinos followed the Stardust lead and opened their race and sportsbook. The Las Vegas Hilton (Superbook) eventually eclipsed the Stardust in size and betting handle. But the Stardust remained the hangout for sharps and wiseguys.
Other Las Vegas casinos carved out their niches in horseracing and sports betting. The three most notable were the Imperial Palace, Barbary Coast, and Caesars Palace. Each sportsbook had its own clientele and atmosphere.
By the time I visited Little Caesar’s it was approaching its final days. The carpets hadn’t been cleaned in years. The stank of cigarette smoke hung in the air constantly, making the front door a de facto entrance into a coal mine. Tellers wrote odds with felt tip markers on a white tote board. Daily Racing Forms and parlay cards littered the floor like confetti. Trash cans were overflowing. Ashtrays were everywhere, but no one seemed to use them. Waitresses hustling for quarter tips served Old Milwaukee on draft in 24-oz plastic cups. My god, it was awful. My god, it was fabulous. It was LAS VEGAS.
Little Caesars took a $1 million bet on a Super Bowl in the late ’80s which was nothing more than a PR stunt by casino ringmaster Bob Stupak (who I drank with many times in his final years). Stupak bet $1 million on the Bengals (I think it was) and cashed when they covered the spread. But Stupak got millions in free publicity in sports media all over the country for his tasteless monstrosity known as “Vegas World.”
Little Caesar’s was the watering hole for $5 bettors. Long before the Strip became unnavigable, tourists could walk in straight from the Strip and locals could drive up and park 10 feet from the front door. You could leave the motor running, run inside and bet a game in 2 minutes and not even shut off the car engine. It was also safe, despite the seedy atmosphere. Wiseguys carried around thousands in cash and always made it to their cars. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY got robbed.
But time took its toll and Las Vegas changed. Corporations, you know. Little Caesar’s eventually closed, the mall was bulldozed, and the Paris and Planet Hollywood was built on its dust. I guess that’s “progress.”
Years later, after I moved to Las Vegas, I worked at Binion’s Horseshoe in Las Vegas. Sometime around 2002, I recall exploring the ring of pawnshops and liquor stores ringing the dilapidated downtown area. I saw a storefront similar to Little Caesar’s, which was Leroy’s across the street from the Golden Nugget flanked by an alley and a garbage dumpster. I went inside.
The place was empty. A few bored-looking tellers stared at TV screens watching a ball game. No one came in to place bets. Then, months later, I walked past on another day at the spot where Leroy’s once was, and it was vacant. A “For Lease” sign was posted in the front window. The last “turf club” was gone.
Today, within walking distance of the final stand-alone race and sportsbook which was shuttered, the Circa opened. It now bills itself as a sports-themed casino. I suppose gigantic television screens, $500 minimums to get a good seat, and $9 beers are what qualifies as a “sportsbook” today.
Gee, I miss Little Caesar’s.