Jay Sarno: San Diego Theater’s Mr. Fixitby Pat Launer January 29, 2018
The local prince of theater grew up in Caesars Palace.
Jay Sarno spent some of his formative years in the massive, ornate Las Vegas hotel, which was owned by his father.
His experiences there gave him a leg up in the world of entertainment and electronics. That was the foundation that helped create the Angel of local theater he is today (in theater parlance, an Angel is an investor/ supporter, and Jay is much, much more than that).
He spent the first seven years of his life in suburban Atlanta, where his father, a hotel developer, owned a hotel (plus properties in Dallas and Palo Alto).
The planning for the Palace began in 1962, and the Sarno family moved to Vegas three years later. During their first weeks, the Sarnos lived at The Dunes Hotel, since their house wasn’t ready. “From there,” Jay recalls, “I could watch Caesars being built.
“My father thought big,” Jay continues. “He was fascinated by the decadent, indulgent images of ancient Rome in the movies. He wanted an immersive experience. He’s considered the father of the modern theme casino, which is to say, the public perception of Las Vegas.
“Before him, hotels might have had a loose theme, but Caesars had everything custom-made to reinforce his idea, including every object: matches, stationery, uniforms. Nothing about the place was ‘catalog.’ That was the leap Caesars made. He used marble, gold interior accents, statuary. He didn’t believe in marketing studies; he just did what he wanted to do.”
He designed the hotel so that, in order to take advantage of any of its amenities, a visitor had to pass through the casino first. This made the hotel so profitable that three years
after it opened, Sarno and his business partners sold it for $60 million dollars (which was a heap of money in 1969).
Then, Sarno also opened Circus Circus, one of Las Vegas’ first family-oriented venues; amid the circus acts, he would enter, dressed as a ringmaster, and attend to children personally. He designed the place so that kids could spend money having fun at the circus, while their parents were spending in the casino. Jay recalls riding Tanya, the elephant, around the circus area.
“My father kept getting in trouble with the gaming and licensing folks. He wound up leasing it out, and then sold it in 1983. He died 11 months later, at age 63. He was a compulsive and destructive gambler. He probably earned $60-80 million dollars – but he died broke.”
By the time Jay was 16, his parents were divorced. In his late years, his father turned to teaching would-be hotel owners how to manage the business. Jay would go on to building and teaching in his own way. But he was never interested in gambling (“I spent too much time on the inside”).
Laying the Groundwork
Jay’s paternal grandparents were Polish. His grandfather was afraid he would get conscripted into the Czar’s army, so he fled in 1911. He got a job as a carpenter in Missouri. Jay only met his grandfather once (“he died when I was 10”). He never met his paternal grandmother, who died not long after he was born. But he sees his family ethic as emblematic of Jewish immigrants: “take care of each other and work hard. They were interested in committing their kids to cultural adaptation and thriving.”
Growing up, his family was “vaguely non-religious, but very culturally Jewish in our social group and style.”
He attended Hebrew school for two years, at Temple Beth Sholom, the first Jewish congregation in southern Nevada, and the only Temple in Vegas at the time. He didn’t stay on for his bar mitzvah: “Hebrew school didn’t teach science and math, so I never saw it as something that would help me get into college.”
Jay and his three siblings were primarily raised by his mother, a socialite who “would be on the cover of a magazine, all dressed up, organizing charity balls. When she was younger, she ran a charm school. But at home, we didn’t have full-time help; we kids had to do chores, even paint our own rooms. I checked the oil on her Rolls Royce – which she, amazingly, lent me to take to high school! She was fun; she would dress in a chauffeur’s uniform to pick people up at the airport.”
Family houseguests or friends included Jimmy Hoffa and Ed Sullivan (‘Uncle Jim’ and ‘Uncle Ed’ to Jay). He considered Frank Sinatra to be “a singer who works for my dad.” Big Borscht Belt “A-list acts,” like Rodney Dangerfield, Alan King and Milton Berle, played Caesars.
“A kid could grow up very seduced by that life,” Jay admits, “and very non-functional. In our family, we had the full range of outcomes.”
Jay, clearly, had one of the positive outcomes.
“I, like my mom, was very grounded,” he says. “I wanted to take things apart and put them back together. I still do. At the hotel, I learned all about lighting and sound, wires, mics, gels, dimmers. I learned how to run the pool pump and fix the equipment. When I was 10, I was repairing the inflatable pool rafts.”
In high school, he was technical director for the theater program. At the same time, he was doing electrical design for an audio-visual company. Then he went to work for a gaming company that was creating gambling machinery. When the first electronic ‘21’ game was being developed, Jay designed some of the electronic parts.
“They put five machines I’d built into The Dunes Hotel,” he recalls. “But I couldn’t go look at them; I wasn’t old enough to get into the casino. You had to be 21 to gamble, but not 21 to invent the machines.”
Jay spent one year at the University of Southern California, before he went to work in Las Vegas. Later, he put in a year at Harvey Mudd College, the science, math and engineering campus of the Claremont Colleges.
“But by then,” he says, “I was so used to working, I couldn’t fit myself back into academia.”
He came to San Diego to work as an engineer, designing marine navigation equipment. Then he got a contract to design video poker boards. He was the chief engineer; then he and the boss went into the business.
In addition to designing, making and fixing things, Jay always had two other loves: trains (he loves to see them and ride them) and theater.
“We went to the theater as kids,” he says of his childhood. “At Caesars, or at the Union Plaza Hotel, where the set designer was Marty Burnett.”
Ironically, years later, they would both find themselves at North Coast Repertory Theatre, where Marty has been the resident scenic designer for decades.
Shortly after North Coast Rep was founded, in 1982, Jay started volunteering for the theater. He was hired to make the electrical work code-legal. Soon after, he joined the board. Julie, his wife of 29 years, became a board member several years later.
When they got married, it was on the stage of North Coast Rep.
A Couple of Theater-Lovers
Both continued active involvement with the theater company. Jay was president of the board for a while, but took time off to raise his family (their son Ray, now 27, and Julie’s son Charles, now 37), and to start a business.
Jay designed and built most of the technical aspects of the theater, including the lighting and sound systems and electrical equipment. He came back on the board about 16 years ago, and became “a sort of perpetual vice president.”
Julie had worked at the Thoroughbred Club of the Del Mar Racetrack. She started as society publicist, then department head. She’s known for creating the Hat Contest, which is now a signature Opening Day event at the track. She ran the contest for years, and remains a judge.
Four years ago, she signed on for a full-time job at North Coast Rep, as Director of Development.
“Once we were married,” says Jay, “theater became an obsession for both of us.”
They are currently subscribers and/or donors to a dozen local theaters. Jay has provided technical support for Moxie Theatre and New Village Arts, and has designed special projects for Cygnet Theatre, including a train that went across the stage, and a flying saucer that soared above it.
Over the years, he began to consider another side of the theater equation: boards of directors: “I realized that new board members had no experience with non-profit organizations.”
So, he developed a new member orientation project at North Coast, and it became what he calls “Board 101.” He has presented his program to six other local theaters, and has been asked to run several board retreats. Overall, he estimates that he spends 10-15 hours a week working for local theaters. It’s a labor of love.
“I don’t charge for any of it,” he says. “Theaters are what you give money to, not take money from. I’m trying to support the arts.”
He still makes time to run his business (with a partner): Crescent Design, which builds specialized testing equipment for medical devices.
Julie helps many small theaters, and she works with, and chairs events for, at least a dozen charities, as well as raising funds for 10 museums in Balboa Park, as a board member of Patrons of the Prado.
What is it about theater that attracts and compels them?
“It’s my favorite kind of storytelling,” says Jay. “And I love the people. They’re generally bright, socially conscious, highly committed to justice, with their eyes open to the world. They’re hard workers, and they know they’ll be judged by the quality of the work. I like hanging out with them and being part of their world.”
Several times a year, Julie and Jay house actors who are brought in to perform at North Coast Rep. They make parties for the cast, crew and designers before every opening.
Their giving is funneled through a donor-advised fund at the Jewish Community Foundation.
“We’re nowhere near some others in terms of money given,” Jay says. “But we’re sufficiently generous to be regularly audited by the IRS.”
They are certainly the go-to couple for many aspects of the arts. You could call them Mr. and Mrs. Theater San Diego.