Clifford Perlman, the visionary Miami lawyer who traded in a chain of successful steamed-in-beer hot dog restaurants for Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, has died. He was 90.
Perlman died Sunday at his Bel Air, California, home, his eldest daughter Robyn Perlman said. Clifford Perlman had suffered a stroke weeks earlier.
“He was very unconventional,” Robyn Perlman said of her dad, who lived part time in South Florida. “He had many firsts.”
Perlman and his brother Stuart, who died in 1988, were the founders of Lum’s, a franchise whose restaurants in the 1960s were the place to hang after South Florida high school football games. They also owned a chain of Eagle Army-Navy discount stores and Gold Seal Meats.
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They ultimately traded it all in for Caesars Palace, a premier gaming enterprise, and other gambling resorts in Lake Tahoe and Atlantic City. Lum’s Inc. bought Caesars in 1969 for $58 million. They created the first publicly held gaming company, and the financial structure for Las Vegas’ casino industry as it exists today — bringing established financial institutions into gaming for the first time.
“The entire Caesars family is deeply saddened by the loss of Cliff Perlman,” said Mark Frissora, president and chief executive officer of Caesars Entertainment. “Cliff was one of a kind. His force of personality and determination helped shape Caesars Palace and Las Vegas into the premier entertainment and luxury destination it is today. We are grateful for his pioneering spirit and recognize that Caesars wouldn’t be what it is today without Cliff.”
Perlman served as president and CEO of Caesars Palace from 1969 to 1982, and chairman of Caesars World, the parent company of Caesars Palace. The brothers became interested in Caesars Palace after meeting a broker for the Denny’s restaurant chain who was negotiating for Denny’s to purchase the then-3-year-old hotel. The deal would later fall through, and the Perlmans ended up buying the hotel, paying three times what it had cost to build.
Perlman, a U.S. Army veteran and graduate of the University of Miami Law School, brought some of the biggest names in tennis and boxing to Las Vegas through tournaments like the Alan King Tennis Classic, and his association with legendary fight promoter Don King. He also built the first moving sidewalk in Las Vegas — it went straight into the casino.
“Cliff was a visionary and an innovator,” said Gary Selesner, president of Caesars Palace. “He is responsible for many impressive and long-lasting contributions to the gaming and entertainment world.”
But before gaming and Vegas, there was fast-food and Miami. Born on March 30, 1926, in Philadelphia, Perlman was a young struggling lawyer in Miami Beach in 1955 when he and his brother bought a 16-seat diner on 41st Street in Miami Beach that specialized in hot dogs steamed in beer.
They would parlay their borrowed $6,000 investment into the 450-chain Lum’s fast-food franchise, which they took public in 1961.
“He had the first outdoor cafe on Lincoln Road and had to take the city to court,” Robyn said. “Where the Van Dyke Cafe is today, that was the Lum’s outdoor cafe.”
In 1971, two years after buying Caesars, the Perlmans sold Lum’s Inc. to Kentucky Fried Chicken Chairman John Y. Brown.
“He earned tons of money,” said former Miami Beach mayor and juvenile court administrative judge Seymour Gelber, 97. “But he had an urge to do something for his community.”
In 1979, Perlman came to see Gelber along with former Miami Beach Police Chief Rocky Pomerance, who was a mutual friend. Perlman wanted to know what kind of program he could create to help juvenile delinquents with five or more arrests turn their lives around. The CSP Juvenile Foundation, named after Perlman, lasted for nine years and served thousands of delinquent kids with intense tutoring and counseling. Perlman provided $5 million in financing during its first five years.
“He used to to fly down to Miami to come to our board meetings and grill the counselors,” Gelber said. “I was very impressed with him as a human being.”
In 1986, the program was selected by the Juvenile Court judges of Florida as the outstanding anti-delinquency program in the state. It was also recognized in the Governor’s Commission on the Liberty City Riots as the only agency to deal realistically with inner-city delinquents.
“He was a gambler,” Gelber said. “[But] he lived this thing like somebody who became religious. We were his religion. I always thought of him as a decent man.”
In 1982, Perlman quit Caesars World under pressure after from New Jersey after the state’s Casino Control Commission denied the brothers a permanent casino operating license because of alleged ties to unsavory characters. The commission asked Caesars World to sever ties with the Perlmans or sell its Caesars Boardwalk Regency casino in Atlantic City. The U.S. Supreme Court later upheld the ruling despite the Perlmans’ argument that they were the victims of “guilt by association with a vengeance.”
The brothers sold their interests in Caesars in 1982 for about $100 million. After Caesars, Perlman invested in several other projects including the luxury airline Regent Air.
Perlman is survived by wife Nancy Hutson; children Robyn, Billy, Jason, Clayton and Ivy; two grandsons; and sister Marilyn Tredwell. Service will be at 12:30 p.m. Monday at Riverside Gordon Memorial Chapel, 20955 Biscayne Blvd., Aventura. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Business & Leadership Institute for Early Learning, C/O Robyn Perlman, 1271 Hayes St., Hollywood, FL 33019.