Whatever happens in Vegas gets blown to bits in Vegas?

Editor’s Note: Mike Downey is a former Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune columnist and a frequent contributor to CNN. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Story highlights

A historic hotel is closing, taking with it a piece of Las Vegas' colorful past.

Mike Downey: Crowds coming for the big prizefight get one last chance to play the Riviera casino

CNN  — 

Vegas, baby. The early years. The neon newness of it all. What must it have been like? A gumshoe with a gat, tailing a dame in a fox stole? A gambler overtipping a cigarette girl a fin for a pack of Lucky Strikes, coaxing her to blow on his dice? A gangster in an iridescent suit, sipping a Cutty Sark, sitting front row at the midnight show, getting a gander of Liberace in a white tux?

I can merely generalize or romanticize about the Las Vegas, Nevada of, let us say, April 20, 1955, which is the date that the Riviera casino and resort opened for business – tallest skyscraper on The Strip, nine stories high.

Mike Downey

I do know for a fact, though, rest assured, that those ritzy, glitzy days of yore are going, going, gone, and with them the Riviera itself, which is scheduled to close for business permanently on May 4 at high noon, 60 years old and out of time, out of luck, out of date.

It so happens that boxing is bringing tourists galore to Las Vegas this very week, in town for Saturday night’s highly anticipated bout between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao that once again makes the ZIP code 89109 where the action is.

It likely is not a coincidence that the Riviera’s closure date has been set for two days after this highly publicized fight, giving thousands of big spenders one final opportunity to drop by the Riv’s pits and slots and leave a stack of cash behind.

Which vestiges of old Vegas will this leave us? Not a whole lot.

The Sands was imploded and the Venetian stands on that land now. The Dunes was imploded and the Bellagio is there now. The Hacienda was imploded and the Mandalay Bay is there now. The Desert Inn is now the Wynn, and the Stardust, poof, up in smoke. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. What happens in Vegas gets blown to bits in Vegas.

Chances are, even if you have never stayed or played at the Riviera in person, you have seen some scene of it. Martin Scorsese shot his movie “Casino” in the Riv’s casino, not in some pretend one. In the original ”Ocean’s 11” of 1960, the Riviera was one of the five hotels that the Rat Pack and their pals robbed. The luridly ludicrous “Showgirls” filmed its showgirls at the Riv, and at the end of “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” when the titular four try a foursome, the Riv is where they try it.

I feel compelled to interrupt this flashback now for a personal disclosure, regarding the Riviera’s relative impact on my own life. I use the word “relative” purposefully, inasmuch as my wife, Gail Martin, once sang at the Riviera, and her brother Dean Paul Martin got married to the actress Olivia Hussey at the Riviera, and their dad Dean Martin not only headlined at the Riviera, for a while he owned a piece of it. Ain’t that a kick in the head?

Sure do hate to see the old hotel die.

“CSI” can do the autopsy on it. Face it, it’s an altogether different Las Vegas now, a little more wholesome, a little less wicked, considerably less sexist and racist, not quite smoke-free but getting there, not quite crime-free but getting there.

It feels family friendlier today than the ’50s and ‘60s clearly were – come on, let’s go see the blue-faced dudes or the funny ventriloquist, stay for the buffet. Maybe even stay forever, shop for a home right there in town. The census of 2010 reported the Las Vegas population to be 584,378. The 1950 population of Las Vegas was 24,624.

Bugsy Siegel got the roulette ball rolling with his mob-bankrolled legal-gambling Flamingo of the ’40s. After that, ambitious rivals and high rollers came to the desert in droves. A few went bust. Quite a few got busted. Wheels of fortune were whirled and one-armed bandits got their cranks yanked. Air conditioning and attractive cocktail waitresses kept the suckers at the tables. No phones were to be found, except for one in a booth that required nickels or dimes. No clocks, except for a Timex on some tourist’s wrist. Plymouths and Packards pulled up to the front door. Men flipped 50-cent coins for tips. Women wore false eyelashes and long gloves. No casino guest would be caught dead in jeans; jeans in the ‘50s were for farmers. Going into a showroom in denim just wasn’t done.

Oh, those shows.

After the hotel made its original splash, splurging on $50,000-a-week for Liberace when very, very few Vegas headliners made half that, the Riviera became famed for offering entertainment of all kinds. You could catch a rising star in the Starlight Lounge, an up-and-coming comic, a sultry chanteuse, or proceed directly to the main event, inside the 10,000-square-foot Clover Room (later renamed the Versailles).

There you could see anybody from that era who was anybody: Satchmo, Sammy, Shecky, take your pick. Immortals or acts of a particular moment in time. Perhaps spend a lovely evening being entertained by a Kitty Kallen or a Carla Alberghetti or The DeCastro Sisters, singing their hearts out.

Barbra Streisand opened for Liberace there in 1963. That’s how big he was. (“Extra Added Attraction,” a marquee billed her.) Betty Grable came out of retirement to do a nightly production of “Hello, Dolly” there. Marlene Dietrich strutted onto the stage singing “C’est Si Bon” there. If you weren’t watching Mitzi Gaynor quick-change into a glamorous new costume in under 60 seconds, in years to come you might go see Joey Heatherton gyrating all over the joint, or Olivia Newton-John warbling sweetly.

The operatic soprano Jean Fenn sang there in the ’50s, and in case that seemed a mirage, by 1984, the very un-Vegas-like voice and presence of Luciano Pavarotti visited the Riviera, and I don’t mean the Italian Riviera. A tenor in Nevada was generally more likely to be Vic Damone or Jerry Vale.

Alas, the olden, golden days are gone, as are the old prime-time stars – well, most of them, anyway. I remember going to see Bob Hope and George Burns at the Riviera one night, doing 30 minutes each for a boxing benefit, when they already were a combined 180 years old. Both were in top form that night.

The standup comic giants of my youth have been vanishing before my very eyes exactly as the mighty Vegas hotels of yesteryear have been doing. If only I could rub a lamp, produce a genie and make Don Rickles and Bob Newhart 50 years younger again, I surely would. Buddy Hackett, come back. I do appreciate there being a popular Vegas entertainer named Frank Marino now who impersonates Joan Rivers in his act, but I’d much rather have the actual Joan still with us.

Millions will never know what a gigantic star Shecky Greene was in that town. His shows at the Riviera were frequently SRO. He was highly paid and wildly unpredictable. One night, having heard the Riviera was planning to turn its lounge into a Keno parlor, a disheveled Shecky came out in a bathrobe, wielding a pickaxe, and proceeded to chop up the stage. He handed planks of it to his audience. Let it be duly noted that shortly thereafter, Mr. Greene was informed that he had been misinformed. The hotel had no plan to change the lounge. He turned 89 this month … happy birthday, Sheck, wherever and however you may be.

The gentleman running the Riviera during that particular period of its existence was Ed Torres, a fellow who had a hands-on presence at many a Vegas hotel in his day. (His daughter, Dara Torres, would become a tremendous Olympic swimmer.) It was Torres who reportedly gave Dean Martin a 10% interest in the Riviera to accept a yearly singing engagement there in 1969, although three years later, Martin moved on to a different hotel’s showroom and sold his share back.

That’s how things were done in those days; is that how a Celine Dion gets a Vegas gig nowadays? I doubt it, but could be.

As the city evolved and flourished, Las Vegas would become known for its boxing as much as for its show biz. Not many of the major championship fights came the Riviera’s way, but a dandy did occur there on September 21, 1985, when the previously invincible Larry Holmes, a good 20 pounds heavier than Michael Spinks, was beaten by him in a heavyweight fight. I enjoyed that outcome very much, Holmes having possessed all of the arrogance of Muhammad Ali but none of the charm.

Everybody paying last respects to the Riviera this weekend can take a last look around, sense the presence of the ghosts of casinos past.

Of the ’50s and ‘60s visitors and generations that followed. Of sharpies and rubes, of turtlenecks and Nehru jackets, of miniskirts and go-go boots, of cigarette cases and Zippo lighters, of slot-machine lemons and cherries and the banging, clanging silver dollars that spat into a metal tray, rather than a paper receipt as would pop forth today. I haven’t the vaguest idea where that Vegas has gone.

When it was built, the $10 million Riviera came equipped with nine floors and 250 rooms in a town where two-story hotels were considered deluxe and elevators were rarely needed or even seen. Back then, it came across as ostentatious, almost too much; now it just seems quaint in a city of 60-story hotels.

The die has been cast. It closes come Monday, and it probably won’t be long thereafter that the Riviera rests in pieces, just like the rest, blown to kingdom come. Craps, we lose.

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