It’s a rude awakening when you’re 9 years old living in the cold Midwest and the probability of becoming close friends with Farrah Fawcett-Majors is nil.
Throw yourself into bad ’70s television long enough and it becomes part of you, an investment never returned, an unrequited love. Fantasy Island is just a set in Hollywood. The Love Boat never leaves shore. Charo might as well be living in another universe. Lunch sucks. Recess sucks. Everything sucks. And when you’re finally old enough to do something about it, like move West to find all those people, there’s that idea that too much time has passed and it was all fiction anyway.
But then fate lands you in Vegas, specifically the Riviera, where your first entrance reveals tiered chandeliers, excessive mirror-paneling and a carpet pattern that could only be the direct kin of ’70s television. This is the place. This is real. An actual physical and historic link to the A-listers and B-listers who guested on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Love Boat and even Match Game. Charo played here. Charo.
No matter what would happen during the ’90s and early 2000s, the Riviera, the Strip’s first high-rise, built in 1955 (its nine stories surpassing the usual two-story numbers), would manage to outlive the Dunes, the Stardust and the Landmark. Like an old museum with a bad curator, it retained some of its architectural elements and now-dated French charm as it was bought and sold, but with each owner cutting corners, cutting away clues to its historic glamour and cheese.
During the race to build the most outrageous, geographically themed resorts—New York, Egypt, Paris, Venice—there was still the Riviera, which actually took visitors to Las Vegas, circa the 20th century, with little convincing. It just was. The word “iconic” isn’t even necessary.
In spite of all attempts at renovation—especially the tacky food court sending a foul odor through the casino floor—there was always a flavor of the Riv’s heyday, hovering in the lighting fixtures and in the photographs of celebrities who’ve performed there over the decades. They hang in the hallway leading into the showroom where I’ve now seen Charo perform. Twice.
She’s in the collection of mostly black-and-white photos, along with Elvis and Liberace posing together in swapped jackets, Joan Rivers, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Orson Welles, Dean Martin, Liza Minnelli and Diana Ross. There were others: Bob Hope and Barbra Streisand, and there was Shecky Green’s famous run.
Now that the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has approved the $182 million purchase of the property and announced plans to demolish it, the fantasy that someone would come along and restore the casino enshrining Las Vegas’ history is over. There’s no room for historic preservation on the Strip, where spectacle trumps the cultural, even in a city so culturally significant, yet culturally derided. “Put it out of its misery,” some might say of the Riv, while simultaneously wishing they’d seen the Sands or the Dunes before they were gone.
In a tourism town designed to blow the minds of 40 million annual visitors with varying interests, backgrounds, income levels and tastes, there should be a little room for authentic swank with a ’70s color palette. After all, the whole point is to transport the visitor.
“I wish it was like it was, but it never will be,” says Neil Scartozzi, a barber who has been cutting hair in his Celebrity Club barber shop at the Riviera for 40 years. The Riviera was the place. The Tiffany of the Strip.