Now the Riviera is history.
The last two pieces of the storied Las Vegas Strip resort came down in middle-of-the-night darkness on August 16. With that controlled demolition, the Riviera, which closed May 4, 2015, officially came to an end.
There were no fireworks and little fanfare. Former guests had found new places to stay, former employees moved on to the next thing (or not). With the leveling of the Strip-front casino building and the 17-story Monte Carlo tower, it was final. Sixty years of good times and bad times transformed into a nearly blank canvas.
What will appear on that canvas? After hosting outdoor exhibits for the ConExpo-Con/Agg trade show in March, there aren’t many certainties. Note some irony there: A working hotel-casino was demolished to host a construction exhibition.
It’s a Vegas tradition, this sacrificing the past for a prospective future. Las Vegas is about today, not taxidermy. Even if the Riviera were still open today, it would be almost unrecognizable from the nine-story high-rise (the first in the state!) that Liberace opened back in 1955. Most of the Riviera’s physical plant dated from the 1970s or later. The iconic “No Ifs, Ands, or …” Crazy Girls sculpture dates from 1995.
In its last years, the Riviera wasn’t so much a piece of physical history as a place where the collective memories of employees and guests combined. It was the people, not the buildings, that linked it to the past. The Riviera that guest-starred in Ocean’s Eleven was gone, long before the explosive charges detonated. Even when it doesn’t implode it, Las Vegas is not good at maintaining its history—at least not in the tourist corridor.
Would that it were not so. Imagine if there was money to be made in keeping one of the older joints—maybe someplace small, Downtown, and rolling it back to some bygone day we want to preserve, just as it was. Colonial Williamsburg, but with craps.
How to present an authentic Las Vegas casino, circa 1955? Start by scrapping not just any online- reservation system, but anything having to do with computers. Flat screens? No way. Try 11-inch black and whites. Games offered: craps, blackjack and roulette, with a smattering of mechanical slot machines that accept and pay coins, maximum jackpots of $200. In quarters.
Instead of watching historic reenactors working as blacksmiths making weapons or coopers bending staves and building barrels, you could relish the arts and crafts of our own forefathers: see the impress team remove coins from the slot machines and take them to hard count; watch the wily pit boss and hard-headed security deputies teach some a too-clumsy crossroader a lesson. Way better than watching some guy in period dress make a pair of shoes by hand, right?
Since our look back at the good old days is historically accurate, many current visitors to (and residents of) Las Vegas will be summarily denied admission based on the color of their skin. Dealers will get to keep their own tokes, but won’t have recourse to FMLA protections. Not that dealers or executives will have much need for maternity leave: women will only be working as waitresses, keno runners and housekeepers.
We’ve got a nostalgia for a postcard past, not reality. Everyone looks happy in the smiling, posed photographs at the pool and roulette table. But for every happy winner there were many unhappy losers. Sure, the bosses looked out for you before the suits ruined everything; but what if you didn’t have the juice to get in the door in the first place, or you just happened to be the “wrong” color or gender?
That’s not to say there’s nothing to celebrate in the past of Las Vegas; there is. But it is important to remember that history, like Las Vegas itself, isn’t always built on winners.
So the final, subdued end of the Riviera is much more fitting, much more respectful, than the fireworks and festivities of the earlier Monaco tower implosion. The absence of celebration provides room to reflect, to consider ourselves, history and Las Vegas, in all of their frustrating, beautiful complexity.
If you know how to look at it, a rubble-strewn lot might tell you more about Las Vegas than any historical reenactment.
David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.