Up on the roof of the Riviera Hotel, the sun beats down on gray concrete and a small putting green. A few chairs are huddled as if seeking shelter in one another’s shadows. The swimming pool is empty, its tiles cracked, its plaster marked with a jaunty “R.”
The mind searches for words and finds instead only a feeling: This is beyond dated, beyond derelict; it’s depressing. But look out beyond the rooftop, and you see something even worse—not a has-been, but a never-was: the unfinished, probably unfinishable, hulk of the Fontainebleau. With the Harmon coming down and Echelon on its way to becoming Resorts World, the Fontainebleau is the last major monument to the Great Recession in Las Vegas. The Riviera—which closed May 4—had a lot of things going against it over the past decade; it was an older property in a city that doesn’t exactly cherish older properties. And for the past seven years, it was haunted by its uncompleted neighbor, an inescapable reminder that sometimes even the house doesn’t win.
But the Riviera, unlike the Fontainebleau, won’t go down in Las Vegas history as a failure. It was, after all, a Strip hotel that kept its doors open for 60 years. And in Las Vegas, that’s about as unlikely a winning streak as you’ll ever see.
Liberace looks remarkably demure: He wears a white tux and tails (no sequins in sight), his black grand piano graced with a modest five-branched candelabra. Earlier in the day, he’d cut the ribbon and officially opened the Strip’s newest resort. The Clover Room, the new casino’s showroom, is filled to capacity. Liberace’s piano theatrics—accompanied by an orchestra conducted by his violinist brother George—bring down the house. And yet he still takes the time to thank and kiss his mother, dutifully sitting in the front row.
The April 20, 1955, opening of the Riviera—though it came a mere day after the opening of the Royal Nevada during a two-month stretch that saw five new resorts debut—was hailed as a giant step forward for Las Vegas. Sam Cohen and his group of Miami investors—along with, if you believed the whispers, the Chicago Outfit—had bet big on the new hotel. At nine stories, the 221-room Riviera was the city’s first high-rise; it gave some local kids their first chance to ride an elevator. It heralded a building boom that would redefine the city. Already, Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun wrote, the new hotel had made a “drab little motel” of the Desert Inn, then the Strip’s reigning hot spot. The transformation might take a decade or two, but this was the
start of something new for Las Vegas.
Still, beneath the adulation was a hint of the storm to come, warning signs that the future the Riviera delivered might not be the one expected. The hotel’s construction cost had ballooned from $7.5 million to $8.5 million before opening, and its operating costs were higher than projected: Back in December 1954, a financial report prepared for general manager Marshall Wright penciled in a $25,000-per-week maximum budget for headliners. Liberace, though, was fetching $50,000 a week, a portent of the “headliner war” that would break out that summer, pushing some of the city’s newest casinos to the brink.
A few weeks before the scheduled closing, the Riviera is packed. The American Poolplayers Association meeting in the hotel’s convention center is letting out for the day. Billiards enthusiasts are slowly spilling out of the meeting rooms, chatting and laughing, drawing out their time together. Families are lugging their bags through the rear lobby; groups are forming and splitting. People are happy.
You can see why they’d be having fun: “THE PARTY STARTS NOW” a display declares; mixed drinks are $2, beer is $3. If you’ve forgotten your sunglasses or want a liter of water (for just $1), the ABC store is there for you. Plenty of entertainment: Crazy Girls, almost 30 years on, still has no ifs, ands, or … and if you feel the hankering for something with a little more testosterone, Men: The Experience is running two nights a week.
Business in the casino is brisk. The place is smaller than it used to be, with a few former slot sections behind construction walls, and there are fewer tables. But each of the open tables is packed. Still, there are some signs that all is not well: A notice advises that the weekly slot tournament has been canceled, and, a little off the casino floor, nobody’s playing the two dozen pinball machines that represent a nice selection of arcade history.
And, if you’re aware of what’s happening, there are other portents of the end. The employees seem to be laughing a little too hard, smiling a little too broadly; are they worried about where they’ll be next month? It’s a little difficult to make eye contact, knowing that you’re talking to hard-working Las Vegans who, through no fault of their own, are losing their jobs.
Over the years, the Riviera had been through bankruptcy after bankruptcy, costs had been cut, but the employees never really worried; after all, someone else was sure to come along. And, for six decades, they did.
Then, because of bigger economic and behavioral shifts that nobody who makes the beds or grills the steaks can do anything about, it’s over. Rumors turn into fears turn into a tersely worded memo and less-than-assuring words from management.
It’s a terrible to thing to see a thousand of our neighbors lose their jobs. But the worse thing might be that no one can imagine how it could’ve been avoided, and no one, outside of those who are losing their livelihoods and the most devout Vegas nostalgia buffs, would go out of their way to keep the Riviera open. The same logic that built the Riviera is tearing it down; for six decades, it had the potential to make money as a casino-hotel. Now, as the city grows, the property’s top bidder—the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority—thinks its best use is as an expansion of the city’s convention base. If the LVCVA’s grand plans reach fruition, it is very difficult to argue that, 10 years from now, Las Vegas won’t be better off. So there is sadness and regret, but the prevailing emotion is one of nostalgia for what we’re leaving behind.
In Las Vegas terms, the Riviera wasn’t taken before its time; it finally gave up the ghost to old age.
The Riviera, Royal Nevada, Moulin Rouge, Dunes and New Frontier were bringing the future; opening within weeks of each other, they would lift Las Vegas to new heights. At least that’s what everyone said in April 1955, and there were more than a few takers. But still, there were doubts. When Las Vegas finally made the cover of Life magazine on June 20, 1955, with a picture of two Moulin Rouge showgirls in mid-twirl, the headline wasn’t the one anyone here wanted:
“LAS VEGAS—IS BOOM OVEREXTENDED?”
By the following month, the Moulin Rouge—the first racially integrated hotel-casino in post-war Las Vegas—had slumped into reorganization. It would soon close, ending an optimistic chapter of the city’s history.
Meanwhile, the Riviera was reportedly being shopped for a mere million dollars, about the cost of its dining facilities alone. The hotel was running as if all was normal, with Harry Belafonte now performing nightly in the Clover Room, but insiders knew it was doomed.
“The situation is urgent,” part-owner Harry Silbert explained to the Clark County Commission in late July. “We have very, very bad management.”
But, as always in Las Vegas, there was someone willing to fade the Riviera’s losing bet. Gus Greenbaum, who had just sold his interest in the Flamingo to the Parvin-Dohrmann Company, led a group of investors who were willing to take on the struggling hotel. Greenbaum lent the current owners a half-million dollars, and by the end of July he received permission to take over management of the Riviera, pending its ultimate sale.
Of course, it might have been that the real owners—guys in Chicago whose names didn’t appear on licenses or in the papers—never really changed. Whatever the real story, Greenbaum was successful in reviving the casino’s fortunes, at least until he and his wife were brutally murdered in their Phoenix home three years later, allegedly because of Greenbaum’s habit of skimming from the skim. The case was never solved.
The Greenbaum murder wasn’t as big a news story in Las Vegas as you’d think it would be. The Riviera continued with another boss, just like every Las Vegas casino keeps on moving after a regime change. The doors never closed, and it’s doubtful that the dice stopped rolling for even a second. That daily rhythm—check guests out, check guests in, take a name off the marquee, announce the new headliner on the marquee, shuffle the cards, drop cash in the boxes—had taken on, it seemed, a life of its own.
The high Riviera rooftop, meanwhile, became the premier spot for watching atomic blasts at the Nevada Test Site. That particular party ended on Halloween 1958, when President Dwight Eisenhower declared a moratorium on testing. (More limited aboveground tests would resume from 1961-63 before the Limited Test Ban Treaty stopped them for good.) Along the way, the Riviera survived and soldiered on. The 1960s even ended with a bit of swagger: Dean Martin had become a licensed owner, as well as a featured performer. What better Vegas royalty to tell the world that the Riviera was here to stay?
Forty-one million people came to Las Vegas in 2014, and this year’s numbers are looking even better. Casinos on the Strip are making more money than they ever have, so visitors are clearly finding plenty of things to do that they don’t mind paying for. Nevertheless, Web denizens posting on Las Vegas-oriented message boards and comment sections tend to speak (at least when they aren’t raging about politics) with one voice: Casinos, they declare, need to charge less and respect their history more.
Maybe. But the numbers tell a different story. At the end, the Riviera had bargain-priced rooms, $4 Crown Royal double shots and even $1 blackjack; it’s tough to get cheaper than that. Sure, you can find a less expensive burger off the Strip, but for Las Vegas Boulevard, the Riv’s prices were more than competitive. Besides, you don’t come to Las Vegas to scrounge for deals.
Appreciation of history? Search for another casino wall in Las Vegas—or anywhere, for that matter—with pictures of Milton Berle, Liza Minnelli and Jack Benny. You won’t find one. That means something. A few years ago, you couldn’t drive past McCarran without seeing billboards for Deadmau5 and LMFAO. They made a lot of money for the casinos they performed in, but is there any record that they were ever here? If they had played the Riviera, there would have been: They would have gone on the wall with Patience and Prudence, Gabe Kaplan and Pavarotti.
And yet it’s the Riviera that’s going out of business, while the $850 bottles of Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque Brut are still popping at Light.
People say they want “classic Vegas” and value pricing, but judging by the Trip Advisor reviews, most of them don’t really want the balancing side of that equation: older, more cramped rooms and fewer amenities. Saving a few bucks and enjoying the charms of yesteryear sounds great from a distance, but the actual reality of faded bedding, tiny showers and cross-your-fingers elevators isn’t so appealing.
The past few weeks, though, saw a turn. When the Riviera was a going concern and its managers were trying their best to fill rooms, the online reviewers were merciless, picking apart every structural flaw and customer-service lapse. Once the closing was announced, though, another story emerged:
“It is a real shame that a hotel with great history has to close.”
“Saying goodbye to an old friend.”
“I am sad to see it go.”
We can’t have it both ways. Old casinos get demolished because they don’t make as much money as new ones (or new convention centers). If people really did want classic Vegas, it wouldn’t be classic; it would just be Las Vegas. The culprit in the Riviera closure isn’t the old management or the new buyers, but the very American, very Vegas cult of the New. We spend on what’s shiny. Sentiment rarely pays the bills.
One reviewer offered what should be the hotel’s epitaph: “Your comfortable rooms will be missed. Sure, you were getting a bit tired, but your location and rates served the budget traveler well. Goodbye.”
Now it’s 1984, and the mob ties are long gone. So are Dean Martin and most of the high-rollers who had stuck with the Riviera. The year before, the casino slid into bankruptcy, with chairman Meshulam Riklis putting $1 million of his own money into the operation to keep it open.
This time, it won’t be goodfella know-how that turns the place around, nor will opening the checkbook for Liberace and Harry Belafonte do the trick. Instead, Riklis hires casino turnaround specialist Jeff Silver, who, seeing the runaway success at cross-Strip neighbor Circus Circus, decides to bet on quarter-slot players with a taste for fast food. He also notices that a McDonald’s adjacent to the Circus is doing, as he puts it, “a land office business.”
So Silver, over the objections of several board members and county commissioners, brings Burger King to the house that Liberace opened. It’s the first fast-food restaurant to open in a casino, and it’s soon the most profitable franchise in Burger King’s stable. As always, the Riviera goes on, adjusting with the times. With fewer high-rollers, Middle America will be the Strip’s salvation.
By February 1985, the Riviera is out of bankruptcy and, bolstered by its new player base, looking up. Four months later, Don King stages a spectacle that celebrates the 41st anniversary of D-Day, gets his Michael Spinks/Jim MacDonald light-heavyweight championship bout some column inches and shows off the new mass appeal of the Riviera. He donates 2,000 tickets to Marines stationed in California at Twentynine Palms, El Toro and Camp Pendleton.
As only he can, King describes the 43-vehicle convoy as “an invasion of Las Vegas.” True to the Riviera’s new style, this incursion will be catered by Burger King, with 4,000 Whoppers and plenty of Pepsi waiting for the hungry Marines. The undefeated Spinks retains his crown, and it looks like the Riviera will, too.
Like the Riviera’s latter-years expansions, the Culinary Union Hall annex wasn’t built with luxury in mind. Still, the pictures of demonstrations and picket lines going back to the 1980s give a sense of the pride that members feel in working together. In the main building, bar backs and housekeepers come and go through the warren of hallways. It’s a little quieter here, removed from the action, a good place to reflect.
Susana Loli, start date April 23, 1996, was having trouble finding a job in Las Vegas after moving from New Jersey. She accompanied a friend to an appointment at the hiring hall and decided to submit an application. That day, she got three job offers. She chose a position at the Riviera as a guest-room attendant, and has no regrets.
“It was one of the best hotels in the city,” she says. “We were a family; we had a lot of fun together and liked our jobs.” Once there, she decided she preferred being a house-person runner, bringing blankets, pillows and other necessities to the guest rooms, and she easily made the switch.
That was a time in Las Vegas when construction crews were working overtime and there were, it seemed, more jobs than applicants.
Three years later, when Ruby Lee Taylor started at the Riviera, the future seemed just as bright. For Taylor, a casino porter, it wasn’t just a place to punch the clock and count the hours. “We had so much fun just coming in and enjoying ourselves,” she says. “You’d wake up and want to go to work.”
Talking with the two women, both of whom became union-shop stewards, you get the sense of the Riviera not as a place where people gamble and spend the night, but as an extended family, an improbable village in the middle of the Strip.
“We were all family people,” Taylor says. “We’d have conversations about the job, what we’d do after work. So we’d socialize on our days off. Lots of times,” she adds, laughing, “we’d come right back to the Riviera.” With workers that much in love with the place, it’s no surprise the Riviera had its best year ever in 2007. Then came some rough times, but nothing the casino couldn’t handle. Or so they thought.
In fact, the Riviera made it through the Great Recession, only to fall victim to the rebound. With the possibility of more business coming to town, a teardown and rebuild into something else penciled out again. When we look back at the Riviera in a few years, it will be obvious that the hotel was living on borrowed time. But for Riviera employees, who had been through bankruptcies before, the sudden end came as a shock.
Taylor was sleeping at home when a co-worker shared a rumor she’d picked up online. At first she wasn’t worried. “There were lots of rumors that day, but we’d been hearing rumors for years.”
After a few more days of rumors and silence from management, Loli came to work to find a WARN notice posted on the bulletin board.
“Then the company had a meeting with us,” she says, “and said now everything is through, and we have to be prepared.”
Even though, to the last, workers put on a brave face, it wasn’t easy.
“I’ve watched some of the cocktail servers just break down and cry,” Taylor says. “When we first heard, we all just hugged and shared numbers so we can stay in touch.
“You come to work, you think that in a few weeks you won’t have a job anymore, it’s a horrible feeling. It leaves an empty hole in your stomach.”
Both Taylor and Loli are facing, after nearly two decades at the Riviera, the prospect of looking for a job in a Las Vegas where applicants are lucky to get one offer, let alone three. Taylor’s planning to go back to school so that she can go into nursing or counseling, helping others just as she’s done as a shop steward with her Riviera family for years. Loli is considering learning to be a baker’s assistant at the Culinary Training Academy.
The future is uncertain, and not in a good way.
“It’s scary,” Loli says, no longer smiling and reminiscing about the good years, but thinking of what lies ahead for her and her Riviera family. “We’re not young like before. We have to start from zero again. If I’m lucky, I can get something. Who knows?”
Meshulam Riklis has a vision: a naked woman swimming in an oversize Champagne glass. And Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning choreographer Jeff Kutash is inspired. Kutash spends $20,000 of his own money on a presentation to the Riviera board. They agree to stage the show, even though there isn’t a Champagne glass in sight.
Instead, Kutash serves up a dance spectacle for the rock era, with choreography that owes more to MTV than French burlesque. He’s able to take that uniquely Vegas institution (the showgirl), swap sequins for street and score a hit. It’s not just the 19,000-gallon water tank or the lasers that make Splash so different; it’s the breakdancing, the energy.
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That’s in line with what Kutash thinks Vegas is for, with room for inspiration. “People come to Vegas to go crazy, get drunk and see a naked woman,” he tells the Los Angeles Times the year after Splash makes its debut in 1985. “I try to give them a little bit of Vegas and a little bit of individuality in the dancing.”
Splash will help the Riviera maintain an identity in the post-headliner, post-high-roller era—so much so that within a few years the casino will remake its Strip frontage with a neon tribute to the show, whose streetwise spunk has proven that a Vegas spectacular doesn’t need sequins and feathers to succeed.
Kutash knows that people don’t come to the first generation of Parisian-inspired revues—which are in their fourth decade and showing it by this time—for their specific style or design sense; it’s the underlying idea that attracts them. Las Vegas, he understands, can survive and grow by throwing everything out and building again from the kernel of that idea: People visit Las Vegas to have fun and do and see things they can’t at home.
But Splash’s energy doesn’t translate to the rest of the property so easily. A late-1980s plan to expand to 4,000 rooms falls through, leaving it with about 2,000, and, by the time Splash ends its run in 2006, the casino has been through yet another bankruptcy and is on its way to its final reorganization. In the end, it can’t compete with the newer buildings and newer energy that are sweeping the Strip—a transformation that it helped start 20 years earlier.
The bartenders at the Riviera have poured their last drink. The last couple has been joined in holy matrimony in the wedding chapel. The last blackjack’s been paid, the last losing chips swept from the felt, the last guest room turned over.
Soon they’ll start tearing down the Riviera. The towers will probably be imploded, maybe with fanfare, maybe not; other parts of that cobbled-together, ungainly masterpiece will be ripped to pieces and smashed into rubble. In a few months, perhaps, there will be a hole in Las Vegas where the Riviera used to be. In a few years, there will be new, functional, vibrant buildings there, and in a decade, we might not be able to imagine Las Vegas without them—just like the Bellagio, Venetian, Mandalay Bay or even that parking lot across the street from the Convention Center that was once the Landmark.
But does that mean the Riviera is gone?
Because the Riviera was never really the food court or the comedy club or the San Remo tower. It wasn’t the pool and it wasn’t the Versailles Room and it wasn’t the Royale Pavilion. It wasn’t even the casino, built layer upon layer over the decades.
Oh, those were parts of a place called the Riviera, and that place is no more. After 60 years, though, the Riviera wasn’t just a building; in fact, once the novelty of nine stories wore off, the building was the most unremarkable thing about the place. Long before the closure was announced, the Riviera had evolved into something more significant than an address: It was a web of memories and experiences and relationships. It was a family.
That family spent the last six decades together, one shift at a time. It had its own inside jokes, its own urban legends (Frank Sinatra’s ghost in suite 901), its own traditions. It had quiet years and years when it broadened our sense of what Las Vegas could mean. While we were rubbing the Crazy Girls statue for luck and laughing at the comedy club, that family celebrated and grieved and coped together through birthdays, weddings, funerals, divorces. It lost members and gained new ones. It made history.
Contrary to what you’ve been told, you can’t implode history. Buildings fall every day. History endures as long as we remember.
And just because those buildings we called the Rivera won’t be there, and 2901 Las Vegas Boulevard South is going to mean someplace else—well, that doesn’t destroy the history, that won’t destroy the memories, and it certainly can’t destroy the family.
David G. Schwartz talks “The Last Days of the Riviera” on 97.1 the Point. Listen to the broadcast below.