The Riviera Hotel and Casino Closes: Las Vegas 60 Years On

The Zola System on the Road

 The Riviera (Casino and Hotel) closed its doors after 60 years on the Las Vegas Strip on Monday May 4, 2015 at high noon.  The closing of ‘the Riv’ leaves the Flamingo and the Tropicana as the last casinos standing with a link to the Bugsy Siegel, fedora, men with no neck, gamble in cash past. It’s closing takes a bit of my childhood as well.

Any Zola family vacation to visit the relatives in Phoenix and California, at least twice a year, included a trip to Vegas. The Old Man wanted to gamble – mostly Craps and Baccarat but some Poker and Blackjack – and so off to Vegas we went. From 1969 (the year I was born) until 1986 I was in Vegas twice a year every year whether I wanted to be or not. I remember being left with ‘bonded’ babysitters while the parentals went out to a show (most were Italian grandmother types who told my Mother my two younger brothers and I were too skinny. She had to feed us more, much more.), being left to my own devices at the Circus Circus and being treated like the heir apparent at Caesar’s Palace, the Aladdin, the Frontier and the Riviera with great frequency.

Downtown, Fremont Street, North Las Vegas etc. didn’t matter to my Old Man. That district was the home to sawdust joints for bad gamblers, losers, faded pimps, burned out hookers, cheats, wanna-be Cowboys and people from Utah – the unwashed masses about to be sent to Detroit, not because they were from there but because they’d been bad. The Old Man took us to the ‘old’ Vegas – the Strip. The Las Vegas of the mob, Frank Cullotta,  Lefty Rosenthal -just post Rat Pack. Aside from the unfortunate 1970’s fashions, glamour was the aspiration and customer service was king.

Whatever you want to say about the Mob they knew how to treat their guests. They knew the regulars, the degenerates, the tourists and the whales. When a guy came into town and blew all his available cash in two days he was sent back to the wife and kids. He was told to come back next month when he had more money. Back then the Mob run town didn’t take all your money, send you into bankruptcy and never see you again. That’s what shortsighted corporations with stockholders do. No, the Powers That Be knew when they had a sucker and they bled him dry thus making more money over the course of years then over a coke fueled weekend.

There was no reason to hurry. Las Vegas is a mirage set up to separate its guests from their money – LEGALLY. The odds on games of chance are never in the players favor, well maybe the Pass line in Craps but that’s about it. Just in case you figure that out all the booze is free so you get loose with the betting and then bam, you’re down a $2,000 and how is the rent going to get paid? And if you don’t want to gamble, there are shows, restaurants all kids of entertainment for all members of the family. Why do you think the babysitters were bonded? So the parents could go out and drop $500 on Sammy, Frank and Dean and know their kids were safe. How did you know the kids were safe? Because the babysitters were bonded by the Powers That Be. Hell, they were probably their mothers, wives and grandmothers for all anybody knew.

There was an intimacy on the Las Vegas Strip that even the degenerate losers craved that was lost in the late 1980’s early 1990’s. Robert De Niro’s final monologue in the 1995 film Casino puts it succinctly:

“…the big corporations took it all over. Today it looks like Disneyland. And while the kids play cardboard pirates, Mommy and Daddy drop the house payments and Junior’s college money on the poker slots. In the old days, dealers knew your name, what you drank, what you played. Today, it’s like checkin’ into an airport. And if you order room service, you’re lucky if you get it by Thursday…”

When I moved to New York in 1987, I lost track of this Las Vegas. Atlantic City was closer and going to the ‘east coast Vegas’ was like stepping into a Tom Waits wet dream of a Mob movie. Its faded glamour was enticing but it wasn’t the Vegas I knew as a kid. Besides, if I wanted a poker game, I knew 10 afterhours joints in Kips Bay. Coney Island had a Boardwalk and was only 45 minutes away by train. Who needed an hour and a half ride through the wilds of South Jersey?

It’s only when I came out West in 2009/2010 that I realized I could once again set foot in Las Vegas. I had seen the pictures, the commercials, the movies and read the source material so the ‘new’ Las Vegas wasn’t a shock. It was, however, depressing – just like New York is now to those of us aging bohemians. New York only caters to the very rich. It’s artist’s enclaves and ethnic ghettos are long gone. Las Vegas no longer caters to dreams of glamour but to those seeking trailer chic among the pyramids.

Last year I stayed at the Riviera out of nostalgia for those family holidays of the 70’s and 80’s. The first thing that struck me was how the north end of the Strip had deteriorated. This used to be the exciting, glamorous, the see and be seen end of Las Vegas Blvd. Now it was a run down section of town where the occasional tweaker walked past in overalls.

Predictably, my reservation was lost. They had lost every reservation for those five folks ahead of me so why should I be any different? Fortunately a young man by the name of Caesar sorted things out and offered a reduced rate if I chose a smoking room. Why not, I thought. Maybe if the room stunk enough of cigar smoke I could pretend the whole Zola clan had stayed there in 1978. I got a room on the 23rd Floor that stunk of cigarette smoke and over looked a recently drained pool. The Riv was old, tired, desperately trying to compete with younger, larger casinos and resorts. Aside from various pictures and plaques, the only nod to the past I could find the window next the elevator on the 23rd floor. It still had a hand lock and crank so I tried to see if the window would open. Lo and behold the glass pane pushed out and the desert wind hit me right in the face. A Darwinian out offered to the unluckiest of those guests or to Nicholas Cage, whomever came first.

Shortly after I got back to LA, I heard the Riviera was going to close. I intended to make it back for one more night, for the Old Man’s sake but ended up staying mid Strip at the Linq. On my second day in town I passed three guys I mistook as homeless beating each other with empty 2 liter Soda bottles outside the formal entrance of the Flamingo as passers by and several security guards watched. Later on I found out they were frat boys on a bender who hadn’t shaved or bathed in several days. They walked into the Flamingo casino and caused a ruckus and were asked to leave. They fell out of the joint and started their self-flagellation right there on the boulevard with no consequences from either the authorities or private security. Par for the course in the modern American play ground.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by such weirdness on the streets of Las Vegas. It’s gone from Sinatra style class to a Hooter’s hotel in blink of the eye. I know my Old Man and his love of the Baccarat room would be mortified. So would Bugsy Siegel. Although I’m sure he would have used that open window at the 23rd Floor of the smoking tower of the Riviera to demonstrate to those three frat boys that a life with no consequences is an inconsequential life. Or he’d send them to Detroit.

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