The Casino That Inspired Scorsese’s ‘Casino’ Gets Whacked
Built by mobsters, The Riviera was as defining of ’50s and ’60s Las Vegas as it was dangerous to run.
On June 14 the first of two scheduled implosions will make way for the $1.4 billion expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Although it didn’t always turn a profit during its height, and these days may be best known as the setting for The Tangiers gambling joint depicted in Martin Scorsese’s Vegas mobster epic Casino, the Riviera was always entertaining.
In its heyday, the Riv made plenty of noise. Liberace opened the place on April 20, 1955 with actress Joan Crawford playing the role of hostess. With a nine-story hotel tower, it defined the early Strip skyline. Built with big investments from the Chicago Outfit boss Tony Accardo and Meyer Lansky’s allies, it was mobbed-up from foundation to penthouse.
Managing the joint came with certain risks. Gus Greenbaum had been considered reliable enough to take over the Flamingo after the 1947 murder of Ben Siegel, but drug addiction and the pressures of having murderers for bosses took their toll. Accardo’s men retired Greenbaum and wife Bess in 1958 in Phoenix by cutting their throats with a butcher knife.
Future managers were more careful.
One of the most efficient was Chicago transplant and former illegal bookmaker and nightclub operator Ross Miller. Although Miller ruled with an iron fist and was known for enforcing his own brand of justice on casino cheats, the Riv was competitive and developed a reputation for its all-star entertainment: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Barbra Streisand, and many more.
“It was one of the more profitable places at the time it was operated by that gang headed by Ross Miller,” Riviera operator Jeffrey Silver recalled in a recent interview. “They had that star policy. I think it was one of the darlings of the Strip. It was very, very profitable.”
In the surreal world of Las Vegas, Miller would be best remembered as the stone-faced father of future Nevada Gov. Bob Miller. In his entertaining memoir “Son of a Gambling Man,” the state’s former chief executive would recall that by the mid-1960s, his father’s years of “being his own bouncer were past, but the intimidation that undoubtedly helped control unduly rowdy customers in Chicago remained. He has a stern, no-nonsense look on his face most of the time. I would see it when he was unhappy with me. A look was enough to scare a son or a wayward employee or a customer.”
Not that most visitors were privy to such intrigue. To a generation of Las Vegas tourists, the Riviera represented the best accommodations the Strip had to offer and a stellar showroom policy. With its Miami Beach architectural stylings, it exuded class by Vegas standards.
When vintage showgirls Ruthie Gillis and Claire Fitzpatrick took one last stroll through the casino prior to its 2015 closure, they were filled with nostalgia. They had worn feathers and sequins and little else during an early floorshow before Ruth became a singer and Claire a featured dancer on Broadway.
“The Riviera was beautiful back then,” Ruthie recalled. “Shecky Greene was in the lounge.”
The glow of neon lighting her memory, Claire added, “It was packed every night. It was very magical back then, very exciting. People always dressed. A woman would come backstage and sell us sequined gowns.”
“There weren’t people running around in jeans pushing baby carriages,” Ruthie said. “It was a different atmosphere. It’s too corporate now.”
It’s a common refrain heard often when longtime Las Vegans get together: The town was better back when the boys were in charge. What the nostalgia fails to remember is that Las Vegas was also tiny, heavily segregated, and considered to be an outlaw society in much of America.
Las Vegas made a painful transition to a corporate business model as the hotel-casinos became enormous with the passage of time. Like so many of the Strip’s hot young babes, the Riviera didn’t age particularly well.
A succession of operators and owners, most notably Israeli businessman and junk bond pioneer Meshulam Riklis, tried everything to keep pace with development on the south end of the Strip. His biggest challenge was keeping up with the competition while simultaneously promoting the singing career of his wife, Pia Zadora. The place went in and out of bankruptcy reorganization three times.
An attorney-CPA and former member of the Gaming Control Board, Silver brought fiscal sobriety and the last hint of real competitiveness to the Riviera during an 18-month period in the early 1980s. Silver called in a favor and had two friends from the FBI, Charlie Parsons and John Bailey, stroll with him through the casino and point out the obvious holdovers from the more notorious era.
“We kind of cleaned up the place and started having meetings, which they’d never had,” he said.
As the action on the Strip moved south, toward Caesars Palace and the future star of the generation, Steve Wynn’s Mirage, Riviera became known for its leggy “Crazy Girls” review and campy drag shows. The days of Sinatra headlining and Dean Martin owning a piece of the joint were long gone.
But Steve Schirripa, who eventually gained fame in The Sopranos as Bobby Bacala, helped the Riv keep its sense of humor. The former maitre d’ told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, about patching together what would become the popular Riviera Comedy Club:
“When I first walked into the room I was all by myself and there were stacks of chairs and they said, ‘Make a room.’ I had no idea about comedy.”
For a time, it kept the customers smiling, but the Riv eventually became dated.
“You just couldn’t pay headliners enough to be in a room for two shows a night,” Silver said. “So we started looking at bringing in a variety show.”
Riklis invested much-needed cash to improve the careworn property, but his plans were scattered and produced what Silver calls an architectural hodgepodge that made customers feel more confused than accommodated. The casino’s Burger King franchise was the busiest in the nation, but it was no match for the fountains of Caesars and the island paradise of the Mirage.
Like an old showgirl, the Riviera had lost a step or two but worked what it had left. Room and casino expansions and the addition of aa convention facility helped keep its doors open. And the unveiling in 1997 of a lifecast bronze of the derrieres of those “Crazy Girls” dancers managed to raise eyebrows even on the jaded Strip.
In the coffee shop of the once-ritzy joint just prior to its closing, former dancer Gillis turned to her girlfriend and said, “Nothing lasts forever, but I remember when this was the place to be.”