On the Strip

[Vegas On My Mind]

Underappreciated and emotionally resonant, the Riviera will die the way it lived

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An exterior view of the Riviera on Wednesday, April 22, 2015. The casino, which opened April 20, 1955, closes May 4. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority purchased the property to make way for an expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Photo: Steve Marcus

Every time I’ve covered the closing of a casino older than my wisdom teeth, I’ve privately been baffled by the heartbroken nostalgics lamenting the soon-to-be-lost history, the disrespect for bygone days, how great it all used to be. The drill is always the same, whether it was the Frontier, the Stardust, the Desert Inn, the Sahara, the Showboat, even the Boardwalk; some would reminisce about where they hit that life-changing royal flush, where they got married, where they picked up the greatest hooker ever.

Perhaps I’ve finally got enough years of Vegas in my blood, but I felt something akin to sadness at the news that the Riviera would close May 4 and be replaced by a new expo hall for the Las Vegas Convention Center. Not enough, mind you, to sing dirges and rue the unstoppable march of progress, but enough to at least empathize, for the first time, with all those stuck-in-the-past folks I once viewed as pathetic.

Last week, I checked in to the Riv to try to pinpoint what about the place held emotional resonance for me. I found myself feeling defensive when friends would make faces and express a peculiar awe when I told them of this plan. “What was that like?” a publicist at one of the top luxury casinos asked in a gossipy voice.

I’d love to provide some horror story, but the truth is, it was fine. Yeah, my $29 room (plus $20 in taxes!) was simple and worn, having been neglected to the point that the wallpaper had tears and the sheets, which didn’t exactly fit the bed, were somewhat threadbare. And yeah, my friend Amy and I had to eat at the bar at the Wicked Vicky Tavern, because it would be 20 minutes for a table on an empty Thursday evening, because, the host told us, “we only have two servers.” Was that because the end was nigh? “I wish,” he said.

But what the Riv offered was a certain flavor of classic Vegas. The gambling was cheap—$25 was the highest minimum in the “high-limit” slot area—and both the dealers and patrons were exceptionally friendly. It was the kind of place where I didn’t feel embarrassed to have a Texan stranger in for a gold-prospecting convention repeatedly explain the rules of craps. Unlike on most excursions to a sports-book counter, I wasn’t nervous, and the clerk wasn’t impatient or rude as he deciphered my bet. (The Mets, to win the pennant, fwiw.)

The things that used to be maddening about a place like the Riv suddenly felt oddly charming. A casino with baffling signage designed to get you lost? Yup. A room so Spartan that you barely even want to sleep in it? Yup. A theme—ostensibly, duh, the French Riviera—manifested by the names of its hotel towers and nothing else? Yup. Cheap, unhealthy food, an aura of sleaze thanks to a girlie show, sexually active patrons that even with my diminished hearing ability I detected at 3 a.m. through the ceiling? Yup, yup, yup.

What really struck me, though, is how underappreciated the Riv has been in all of my 20 years around Vegas. Many of the coolest, off-beat conventions I ever wrote about happened there. The casino chip collectors made it their home for ages. So did a celebrity impersonator confab where one time I met a fake Liza Minnelli and took him to a free 1 a.m. show by the real Liza Minnelli. And there was a scientific meeting of “hair restoration surgeons” where the big news was that doctors were perfecting the full-scalp transplant using the scalps of cadavers. Stuff like that.

My father, who stayed at the Riv a lot when attending the Consumer Electronics Show in the early 1980s, reminded me that’s where the first version of the porn industry convention was held. Who else in the early ’80s—or even the late ’90s—would have been first to tell the porno folks, sure, you’re welcome to come here?

There was something perfect about the fact that my window faced the failed Fontainebleau and its behemoth parking garage, monuments to failure that continue to mock the city’s apex of hubris. The Fontainebleau and the Riv are, interestingly, of similar shapes and exterior glass-sheathed design. Except that the Riviera opened. It had a 60-year run. Sinatra and Berle played here. And it closed not because it couldn’t be saved but because the region’s economic progress demanded it. The Fontainebleau and other north-Strip projects were supposed to breathe new life into the Riv by providing the foot traffic of younger, hipper, wealthier travelers. Instead, all that ambition faltered, and now it’s closing time.

But there’s something honorable and honest about how the Riv lived and will die. It won’t be replaced by something “better” or more spectacular. Of its iconic Vegas ilk, it joins only the Landmark, which is a parking lot on Paradise Road now, in becoming something less impressive. It gets to go out as the only—and hence, the best—version of itself on that patch of earth. Well played, Riv.

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