Casino Industry Pioneer Clifford Perlman Dies at 90


The first generation of gaming industry pioneers built a platform on which today’s leaders have been able to erect the magnificent palaces of entertainment that line the Las Vegas Strip.  That first generation brought gambling out of the backrooms of its shady past and into the neon lights of the famous Strip. But sadly, most of those pioneers have gone; the latest to leave was Clifford Perlman of Caesars Palace fame.

Clifford Perlman and his brother created a restaurant empire, Lums.  With money from the chain of restaurants, the Perlman brothers bought Caesars for $60 million in 1969.  At the time, Caesars had 550 rooms and generated $5.8 million a year.  When Perlman left the company in 1982, Caesars Palace had 1750 rooms and generated $82 million a year in revenue.  In his mind that growth came from a willingness to take risk.  He believed in gambling on his ideas just like the high-rolling gamblers on the turn of a card.  He also believed in creative marketing, big name fights, Formula One Racing, world class tennis and Frank Sinatra crooning in the showroom and gambling with the “best of them” on the casino floor.

In the early 1980’s, I was lucky enough to hear Perlman speak at a Laventhol & Horwath Annual Gaming Conference. The conference was a great place to see, hear and learn from industry leaders.  For me in the beginning of my career, it was a very important opportunity to learn my trade.  At the time, Perlman was president and CEO of Caesars. In his speech, he related the innovations to the Las Vegas Strip initiated by Caesars and he took pride in his role in making Caesars a world renowned brand.  Perlman told the story of his famous moving sidewalk that moved people from the busiest corner in Las Vegas into Caesars, but did not give them a return trip.  According to Perlman the moving sidewalk cost a million dollars and caused his board of directors no end of anxiety; that is until they saw the returns on the investment.  Perlman was famous for bringing top ranked boxing to the Strip, his high-end shops and star-studded entertainment; Frank Sinatra performed at Caesars for ten years.

Perlman was proud of all of that, but he was proudest of his high-roller program.  “Imagine walking into Caesars on New Year’s Eve,” he said.  “Every slot machine and table game is occupied, the average bet higher than any other casino on the Strip. Chips are stacked to the ceiling.  But all of those players and their wagers are insignificant in the grand scheme.  In a secluded baccarat room, one player is risking more on each hand than those multitudes on the casino floor.  If he wins, Caesars is a loser for the day and maybe for the month. If he loses Caesars will have its best day ever.”

According to Perlman, that high roller was no accidental visitor.  He was the result of a carefully constructed network of offices around the world charged with bringing the richest gamblers in the world to Caesars.  Perlman described one of his greatest coups, Mohamed Ali.  Representing Caesars, Ali toured Africa hosting parties in each country for the most important and wealthiest citizens.  Ali personally invited them to meet him at Caesars.  Caesars was not the only casino that catered to international high-rollers, but its presence in the major capitals of the world was far more advanced than any of its competitors.

Perlman was forced out of Caesars by the state of New Jersey.  The New Jersey gaming regulators said the Perlman brothers had associated with organized crime figures and therefore were unfit for a casino license.  The brothers sold their stock and left the company.  Perlman moved to MGM for a time.  Strangely, Nevada never saw the problems that ended Perlman’s career in Atlantic City and subsequently Las Vegas.  Nevada was lucky on that score; the casino industry in Las Vegas would not be the same today without his vision and willingness to take a chance on new ideas.  One might even wonder what Atlantic City would be like today if Clifford Perlman had been allowed to work his magic on the Boardwalk as he had on the Strip.

 

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