Saturday 24 February 2018

Created in the desert, sands of time run out for the Riv

Dean Martin sang at the Riviera in the late 1960s
Dean Martin sang at the Riviera in the late 1960s

Tommy Conlon

Classy town, Vegas. Ever hear the one about the alligator that went into showbusiness?

Anyway, one of Sin City's original high-rise hotel-casinos was the Riviera, opened in 1955. Last Monday 'the Riv' closed its doors for good. Soon it will be demolished and a convention centre built in its place.

So the local newspapers were in nostalgic mode last week. The Riv was one of the last connections to the city's fabled Rat Pack era. Its first headline act was Liberace, who was contracted for a then record $50,000 a week.

In the late 1960s came Dean Martin. Everyone thought Martin would follow his old mucker Frank Sinatra from the Sands hotel to Caesars Palace but instead he hung his hat at the Riv. He took a ten per cent share in the hotel, they re-christened one of its restaurants as 'Dino's Den', and Dino played to 1,000 punters a night.

In the '70s everyone from Barry Manilow to Tom Jones, Dionne Warwick and Bill Cosby did stints at the Riviera.

In the 1980s it went downhill until it was rescued by an Israeli businessman who added three new venues to the complex. A new drag show called An Evening at La Cage went on to run for 23 years. A topless show called Crazy Girls ran for the last 28 years and is now transferring to Planet Hollywood.

A third long-running show, an "aquacade revue" called Splash! was launched in 1985. Which is where the alligator comes in. The story was recounted in last Sunday's Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The Splash! specialty act was an alligator wrestler named Tahar. They'd built a special cage to house the 14-foot reptile. But someone left the gate open. "The alligator escaped," writes reporter Mike Weatherford, "and crossed Riviera Boulevard where it got run over by a car. But that didn't kill it. No, the alligator died when Tahar spray-painted it green in an attempt to cover up the tyre track."

The man who recounted this yarn was an entertainment producer called Jeff Kutash. What happened the beast then? "I buried it," replied Kutash, "next to some mobster in the desert."

Like we say, classy joint, Vegas.

It was still only a town of some 35,000 people when the Riviera opened. It was still not much more than a desert when the Flamingo, its first luxury hotel-casino, was opened in 1946, courtesy of a major cash injection from the mobster Bugsy Siegel.

The first major fight hosted by Vegas was a non-title contest in 1955 between world light heavyweight champion Archie Moore and a Cuban named Nino Valdes. It was orchestrated by Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun, who declared it to be "the greatest event for the town since the Government started using the area for atom bomb tests."

Moore - "the old mongoose" - beat Valdes and fought Rocky Marciano for the world heavyweight title later that year. Marciano retired in '56 with his famous 49-0 record intact.

The Las Vegas Sun is now owned and edited by Hank's son, Brian Greenspun. Last Sunday he reprinted his father's column on the opening of the Riviera in '55.

"First there was only desert," wrote Hank. "In quick succession, there was steel, masonry, plumbing, plastering, painting and landscaping, and there stood a completed hotel. They have designed the pattern," he added prophetically, "for the future of Las Vegas."

And in 1985 the Riviera itself hosted a world heavyweight title fight between Larry Holmes and the challenger Michael Spinks. Holmes was the hot favourite. His record was 48-0; victory would have brought him level with Marciano. But Spinks, against all expectation, won a unanimous decision after 15 rounds. Holmes went on an infamous rant in his post-fight press conference that went out live on American TV.

Peter Marciano had expressed the wish pre-fight that Spinks would win, and his late brother's record remain untouched. Peter was in the crowd when Holmes called him out from the podium. "If I hurt your feelings back there, Peter, so fucking what. You are freeloading off your brother . . . go back to Boston and shove Boston up your ass." And having paid due tribute to Rocky's greatness, Larry then famously added that "Rocky couldn't carry my jock strap."

Like we say, Vegas brings out the best in people.

The city long ago became the capital of big-time prizefighting. The boundaries between boxing and showbusiness have blurred here like no place else. And some of the biggest names in music and cinema fetched up in their blacked-out vehicles for last weekend's mega-event between Mayweather and Pacquiao at the MGM Grand. Mayweather is now 48 and 0. He is expected to draw level with Marciano after his next fight in Vegas, currently mooted for September.

In the early 1990s Sinatra was persuaded, on one of his many comebacks, to perform a few shows at the Riviera. By then, Dean Martin had long departed the Riv. He'd clashed with the head manager, Ed Torres, who wanted him to perform two shows a night. Martin flat-out refused.

"Eddie Torres got so mad at him," recalled comedian Rich Little in the Review-Journal, "that he took all his clothes out of (Martin's) suite and threw them in the hall. Dino went up there, saw all his clothes in the hallway, picked up one jacket and walked out and went to the MGM Grand."

Now there, at last, was a touch of class.

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