Along the bejeweled gambling strip, casinos have always been a model’s runway of sorts, each newcomer sleeker and more glamorous than the last.
But pity those growing old in this place with a neurosis for reinvention. Start showing your age – a sag here or there, a few crow’s feet around the eyes – and in comes the wrecking ball, the dynamite and the inevitable implosion.
So it will be for one of the oldest dames of the bunch, the Riviera, which just turned 60. This once-top-strutting casino opened on April 20, 1955, with Joan Crawford as master of ceremonies and Liberace making an unthinkable $50,000 a week.
FOR THE RECORD
April 28, 6 p.m.: An earlier version of this post said the 60-year-old Riviera was about to turn 60.
For decades, it hosted the Rat Pack and a signature line of stellar entertainers that included Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Woody Allen, Jonathan Winters, Orson Wells, Barbra Streisand and the Smothers Brothers.
The Riviera will close May 4, its demise another nail in the coffin of old Vegas. The casino will be imploded to make way for a Convention and Visitors Authority complex.
But Saturday night, a group of entertainers threw the old girl, and themselves, one last bash. Singer George Bugatti led an ensemble that reprised the music that will soon fall silent here. If you blinked, you’d be back in the day when Herb Alpert and Diana Ross worked the microphone.
FOR THE RECORD
April 28, 4:05 p.m.: An earlier version of this post misspelled singer George Bugatti’s last name as Buggati.
Bugatti, who has been likened to a cross between Sinatra and Harry Connick Jr., worked his way through several Sinatra covers, stopping to tell the tale of a song – when it was played here, the back story to the music.
The band moved through numbers by Burt Bacharach, Engelbert Humperdinck, Tony Bennett. Barry Manilow. Judy Garland. The Righteous Brothers. More Sinatra.
People of a certain age made up the audience. Some of them looked old enough to have attended the Riviera’s first show.
Even the bar prices were old school. The tab for two bottles of beer and a Crown Royal whiskey was eight bucks -- the price of a Coke at the newer, trendier places.
A few luminaries returned to say goodbye. There was comedian Marty Allen, now 93, who once played here as part of the comedy duo of Allen and Rossi. From his front-row seat, Allen contributed a few jokes, including one that alluded to the new Las Vegas and the May 2 mega-fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao.
“My driver made a mistake,” Allen said. “He took me to the wrong hotel. I’m supposed to be at the MGM taking pictures with Floyd Mayweather.”
Singer Nelson Sardelli was there.
So was tenor saxophonist Sam Arlen, whose father, Harold, wrote the classic song “Over the Rainbow.”
Arlen told the story of how the makers of “The Wizard of Oz” wanted to take the song out of the movie because it slowed down the action.
Late in the evening, singer Denise Rose took the stage. Elegant and petite, she belted out a few Garland standards as Arlen played saxophone backup – including the song his father wrote and loved.
Rose took her bows to a rousing ovation, and for a moment it felt like the Riviera of old.
Outside the cabaret now called Le Bistro Lounge, however, the Riviera looked seedy, its decor suggesting that Jimmy Carter was still in the White House: pinball machines, worn carpet, old men in wheelchairs and oxygen masks joylessly playing the slot machines.
“It’s tough to see this place go,” drummer Gary Olds said during a break. “There’s no longer any place on the Strip for this kind of music. We’re losing our collective memory.”
Olds, who is in his 50s, lamented that 11 Vegas hotels where he has played have been imploded. The Riviera will be the latest, he said, but not the last.
Actor Adrian Zmed sang the blues about the Riviera’s downfall. He told the crowd he recently used the hotel to shoot several episodes of a TV pilot about four gamblers who live in a suite at the Riviera.
“I guess I’m going to have to find a new casino,” he said.
One audience member suggested taking the long view. “This town just keeps reinventing itself,” he said over a martini. “It’s funny to think that one day we’ll be having the last night at the Bellagio. That night will come.”