She came to life in 1955 as the first high-rise hotel/casino on the Las Vegas Strip. Prior to the Riviera’s debut, Strip hotels were low-rise, garden style accommodations usually centered around the pool or the convenience of driving up and parking near your room.
The Riv was different. Rising nine floors up from the casino, nay-sayers predicted that the hotel would flop because people would never want to stay that high up above the casino. They were quickly proven wrong. Entertainment director Maxine Lewis lured up and coming entertainer Liberace away from the Frontier with the promise of a bonanza of a paycheck, $50,000 a week for a two week stint. Naysayers again predicted financial ruin for the new hotel but again the Riv proved them wrong. Liberace wowed audiences and packed the showroom nightly during his debut at the Riv and in consequent returns. Headliners up and down the Strip reaped the rewards as they all saw an increase in what hotels were willing to pay.
In addition to Liberace, she played home to Dean Martin (remember Dino’s Den and that wonderful neon sign) when he finally bid the Sands and the Rat Pack days behind, Debbie Reynolds and a host of entertainers during that classic era when Las Vegas was known as the Entertainment Capital of the World.
Her original mid-century modern bones tried to age as gracefully as they could. When she debuted, she was a mid-century modern dream come to life. With a price tag of $10 million, the hotel would have 291 rooms.
A block with banks of horizontal strip windows marked the center of the tower. Wrap-around windows delineating the corners were added. The contrasting elevator tower, with decorative gold buttons, definitely conjured up images of South Beach instead of the Southwest. The various floors were named after French resort cities such as Cannes, Monaco and Nice. The 9th floor was penthouse suites and housed a health club.
The pylon sign (designed by Betty Willis) "skewered the thin porte-cochere like a toothpick through a cheese canapé" according to Alan Hess. There was a second V-shaped marquee sign at the roadside entrance.
But from the beginning, the Riv had money problems that it never seemed to be able to outrun completely. The original Miami owners had little experience in running a casino. They quickly hired Gus Greenbaum, Ben Goffstein, Harry S. Goldman, Ross Miller (father of future governor, Bob Miller), Davey Berman, Jess Goldman, Charles Harrison and Frank, Fred and Elias Atol to take over the sinking resort and and fix the problems. Greenbaum and Berman had been associated with the fabulous Flamingo and had been part of the group that took control of that hotel in the wake of Bugsy Siegel's murder in Beverly Hills.
The new operators began to right the listing ship that had been the Riviera. They cleaned house, stopped the pilfering and soon the hotel was making a profit.
Liberace was still the top headliner. Other top acts that played the Riv in the 1950s, Orson Welles and his magic act (When questioned by local columnist, Forrest Duke, if his act was a secret, Welles replied in his rich baritone "It isn't a secret but it's a mystery to me.") , Ken Murray's Blackouts with Marie Wilson, Dinah Shore andGeorge White's Scandals. Elvis Presley, performing at the New Frontier, caught Liberace's act one evening. Liberace invited Elvis on stage and the two traded places, Liberace on guitar and Elvis at Lee's grand piano.
As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, the Riv was lucky enough to sign a powerhouse lounge comedian that many consider the reason why the Riv did so well for most of the 1960s. "Shecky Greene was almost single-handedly responsible for keeping the hotel in business." recalled Riviera publicist Tony Zoppi. "He consistently brought the high rollers to his show and to the hotel." Greene had been playing Las Vegas since the 1950s. In fact, he was part of the billing, when a young Elvis Presley played the Hotel Last Frontier. Like Liberace, he had bolted from the Frontier when the Riviera offered more money.
In 1968, in yet another round of new ownership, Ed Torres was named president of the resort.
Over the years, the Riv managed to outrun the money problems that continued to plague the hotel. There were room additions and new signage (including a new entrance sign designed by neon designer Marge Williams) but the Riv never seemed to able to recapture her previous glory days.
Shecky Greene and Ed Torres did not get along. The animosity between the two was so intense that Greene told staffers to keep Torres out of the lounge when he was on stage. Greene got the news just before he went onstage that they were relocating the lounge and turning the current lounge into a Keno Parlor. Greene took the stage with a pick-axe in hand and spent his show chopping the stage into souvenirs and passing them out to the audience. The next day Ed Torres, unaware of what Greene had done the night before, called to say that they were putting the construction plans on hold. Greene's exploits at the hotel are legendary. He was fired numerous times but the Riviera could not afford for him to stay fired as he was one of their biggest draws. As often as they would fire him, they would hire him back.
Greene was one of the biggest draws in town. His unpredictability, his stream of consciousness kept the audience on their toes. They never knew what mood he would be in or what routines he would have in his act or, as was often the case, his improvisational style had many thinking he just made up as he went along. The Riv was paying him $20,000 a week with a 26 week guarantee. He was the late-night anchor in the lounge and it was usually Standing Room Only every night. One night, Greene came out in a bathrobe, laid down on the floor of the stage and did his show from there. Buddy Hackett, amazed at what he was seeing, stripped down to his boxers and joined him.
But Greene was also a heavy drinker and a heavy gambler. The hotel had cut off his credit in an effort to help stem his gambling losses. One night after his act, he was headed to the Hacienda (the only place on the Strip that would still extend him credit). He was doing speeding down Las Vegas Blvd South when he lost control of the Cadillac, struck a pole in front of Caesars, flipped the car twice, hit the low pony wall and landed in the fountain. By the time the police got there, he was said to have quipped "no spray wax" before they handcuffed him and hauled him off to jail. Sonny King made his bail. In reality, what he said was "I guess I'm arrested.". Once he was free on bail, he and Buddy Hackett came up with the "No Spray Wax" line and both would tell the tale using that line.
As new owners kept coming on the scene, each promised to have the perfect solution to what ailed the hotel and promised to fix it. In reality few of the fixes were ever seen through in their entirety and the perfect solutions were often nickel and dimed off the drawing boards.
As new hotels debuted up and down the Strip, the Riv refused to go quietly into history. She became the beloved home to those who traveled to Vegas on a budget and as the era of the megaresort dawned on the southern end of the Strip, budget accommodations became harder and harder to find.
The Riv embraced her niche and despite a revolving array of entertainment, the hotel was lucky enough to have Frank Marino anchoring the showroom with his An Evening at La Cage and all its descendants which helped keep the place going.
When Martin Sheen was starring on television in The West Wing he often took the cast to the Riviera at the end of each season for a celebration.
Unfortunately, as the room and sign additions made the Riv’s once elegant façade more and more unrecognizable, the hotel seemed to be on her last legs. To its credit, those mid-century modern bones aged gracefully and you could chart the history of the hotel as you walked around the hotel both inside and out.
As the age of the megaresort continued to gather steam the reasons people come to Las Vegas began to change. It is more about the shopping, the fine dining and less about the gaming. The renaissance that was supposed to breath new life into the northern part of the Strip never seems to have advanced much beyond the Wynn and Encore. Where the Stardust once stood is still a work in progress, the same goes for where the Frontier once stood and the once mighty Sahara has been completely reborn as the SLS.
Time finally ran out for the Riviera. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitor’s Authority, faced with the dilemma of how to renovate the aging Convention Center without shutting it down and having to cancel conventions, saw the Riv and her property as a way to expand and update the Convention Center without causing major headaches and becoming a financial drain.
Once those wheels were set in motion, it was only a matter of time. Yesterday, just barely a month from her 60th anniversary, the Riviera closed for good. A large crowd turned out to say a fond good-bye to the once graceful and trendsetting hotel. Demolition will likely be quick as the LVCVA is moving forward and not in a mood to look back.
But those who knew her and loved her, we will remember her fondly.
RIP, Riviera Hotel and thanks for the memories.