Location: North Strip
2901 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
What’s There Now: Future Convention Facilities
Groundbreaking on May 24, 1954
Riviera opens on April 20, 1955
Hotel declares bankruptcy in July
Co-owner Gus Greenbaum is murdered in what is believed to be a mob hit
Money woes bring a cash infusion from alleged mob figures like Moe Dalitz
More floors added to hotel tower and lobby is redesigned
Dean Martin becomes 10% owner in the hotel and resident headliner
Riviera is bought by American International Travel Services of Boston for $56 million
17-story Monte Carlo tower is opened
200 room San Remo tower is added
24-story Monaco tower opens
Colorful glass facade is added
Frank Sinatra’s last headlining engagement in Vegas happens at the Riviera
Hotel is sold to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority
Hotel closes May 4, 2015
First of two implosions on June 14 brings down the Monaco Tower
Like many Las Vegas hotels, the original concept for what would become The Riviera was for a much different thing. Originally the idea, first floated in 1952, was for a $3.5 million, 250 room property called Hotel Casa Blanca. It was going to have a South Beach Miami theme and be patterned after that city’s high-end Fontainebleau hotel.
The idea was floated by various “businessmen” including William “Lefty Clark” Bischoff, a reputed associate of notorious (alleged) mobster Meyer Lanksy. As the proposal went through the licensing and approval process, state gaming regulators became concerned about Bischoff’s acquaintances and he was forced out of the project – at least officially. His name and several others were replaced on the paperwork with a set of Miami businessmen who were widely considered to be front people for what was still a mob endeavor.
This went on for the better part of a year as different people signed on and dropped out of the management, ownership, and financial backing of the hotel, all done to try to assuage the gaming commission that the mob was not involved (even though it was).
Then in mid-1953 they finally found the right name to include on the application, The Marx Brothers. Gummo and Harpo were among the investors in the property along with a group of Hollywood types, which gave the project enough caché to finally free it from the regulatory clutches.
Groundbreaking occurred May 24, 1954 and by then the project had been renamed The Riviera. It would be the first high-rise on The Strip, with a nine-story room tower. The cost ballooned up to $10 million.
The spring of 1955 was a busy time for Las Vegas as four major hotels opened within a month of each other. The Royal Nevada debuted on April 19, the Riviera one day later on April 20, and the Dunes and Moulin Rouge both coming online in May.
Liberace provided the entertainment for the opening and beyond for which he got an insane-for-the-times $50,000 a week, making him the highest paid entertainer in the world. Joan Crawford was the official greeter and was paid $10,000 for four days work saying hello to people. Keep in mind that in 1955 the average salary in the US was about $5,000, and that was for an entire year!
The hotel had 291 rooms and a Miami South Beach feeling that was much more subtle than originally intended. The small casino, which only had a handful of tables and about 100 slot machines, was done in a what we now call mid-century modern. There was also a 700-seat showroom and dinner theater called The Clover Room, several restaurants, an Olympic sized swimming pool, and more.
Most of the hotels of the era were relatively casual spaces, often with western themes and marketed to a wide swath of people. The Riviera on the other hand was conceived of and run as a place for high rollers, going after a high-end luxury crowd that apparently had other places to go. The property didn’t attract the kind of everyday crowd that was needed to sustain business. That and the high likelihood that the mob was siphoning money out of the operation, put the Riviera into bankruptcy in July 1955, only three months after it opened. Unfortunately for The Riv, it wouldn’t be the last time the hotel went bankrupt.
A reorganization with new backers kept the doors open and the hotel afloat. One of them was Gus Greenbaum, the man who took over the Flamingo after Bugsy Siegel met his unfortunate end in 1947. Greenbaum was named manager and the hotel worked on reestablishing itself although it was still positioned as a luxury resort for many years to come.
By 1958 Greenbaum was becoming notorious for his onsite gambling, drinking, drugs (he was reputed to be addicted to heroin), and womanizing. According to legend, he stole money from the casino to support his various vices and in December of 1958 he and his wife were found with their throats slashed in their Arizona vacation home. Despite the fact that pretty much everyone believed it to be a mob hit, officials declared that it wasn’t and the murderer(s) were never found.
In 1960 the hotel ran into money troubles again. Although it didn’t officially declare bankruptcy, it required a massive infusion of cash from new investors to keep it afloat . Among them was another alleged mob figure Moe Dalitz.
Between 1962 and 1963 a $3.5 million project added rooms, bringing the total to 415, and renovated the existing ones. Some of the luxury accoutrements were toned down to try to broaden the hotel’s appeal.
During this period, the hotel became a haven for entertainers. Elvis, The Rat Pack, and Barbra Streisand (who made her Vegas debut here as an opening act for Liberace) took the stage and brought in huge crowds.
More rooms were added in 1967 along with a new lobby and other amenities. By then the property had 770 rooms total and the main tower had increased up to 12 stories high.
In 1969 Dean Martin became a 10% owner of the hotel and a resident entertainer, doing several runs of shows periodically. That lasted until 1972 when a contract dispute about how many performances the singer would do each week led to him exiting the property both physically and financially.
The property was bought by American International Travel Services of Boston for $56 million in 1973 and those new owners added the $20 million, 17-story Monte Carlo room tower. The total inventory was up to 1,000.
The 200 room San Remo tower was added in 1977.
In 1984 the hotel sank into bankruptcy #2. The hotel remained open throughout the reorganization and a new set of owners and managers came in.
It took them a few years to get things back to something resembling “on track” but by 1988 they invested $28 million to add the Monaco Tower, a 24 story addition that brought the resort up to over 2,100 rooms total.
They also went to work on renovating the front of the property. In 1990 the casino was expanded to more than 100,000 square-feet and the neon and glass facade was added.
A year later, in 1991, came bankruptcy #3. Riviera Holdings Inc. was formed out of that to manage the hotel.
Frank Sinatra’s last headlining engagement in Vegas was at the Riviera in 1992 and there’s a room that was designed to his specifications. You can still stay there – room 2902 in the Monte Carlo tower – but be warned: it is supposedly haunted. It was even featured on an episode of “Ghost Adventures” on the Travel Channel.
The Vegas boom of the 1990s that brought new, modern resorts like The Mirage, MGM Grand, and Luxor to The Strip relegated The Riviera to second (or even third) tier status. With all of the attention focused on the South and Center Strip areas, the North Strip languished and foot traffic slowed to a crawl. A lack of investment caused the once grand Riviera to become a dated shadow of its former self.
In 2010 the hotel saw Bankruptcy #4. Starwood Capital Group, a private investment firm, rode in to rescue the property and take over the management. They threw some money into it, redoing some of the rooms, putting in a new sports book and bingo hall, and updating some of the casino and other public areas, but the bulk of the Riviera is pretty much the same as it has been for the better part of the last 30 years. It is now considered to be a bargain hotel with room rates as low as $25 during the week.
In February 2015 the hotel was sold to the Las Vegas Convention and Authority who will replace it with new convention facilities. The hotel closed on May 4, 2015 and demolition started in 2016 with the first of two implosions taking place on June 14, 2016.