Op-Ed: Destructive art: What is built in Vegas blows up in Vegas


The Riviera Hotel & Casino on its last day of operation on May 3 in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority purchased the 60-year-old property and plans to demolish it. 

(Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

Dada artist Marcel Duchamp put a urinal on a gallery wall and it was art. In a piece he called “L.H.O.O.Q.,” a French pun on the phrase “She has a hot behind,” Duchamp drew a mustache and goatee on a picture postcard version of the Mona Lisa — and dadadadadada. But Duchamp can’t touch Vegas art. Casino mogul Steve Wynn put his elbow through a real Picasso. Duchamp did Dada. Vegas is Dada.

Here in Vegas we build beautiful buildings, fill them with history, and then we blow them to kingdom come. Right now we’re fixing to blow up the historic Riviera hotel. I’m guessing we’ll do it right, as we did others. We’ll film the implosion from every angle, build another hotel on that same spot and then put up a big screen showing a video loop of the Riv being blown up. That’s how Vegas deals with history. Draw a mustache on that and call it art, piker!

The Riv is as old as I am. It was a carpet joint, way classy. My hero and friend, Liberace, opened the joint when I was 5 weeks old. Other heroes/friends, George Carlin, Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Steve Martin, Florence Henderson, David Brenner and Don Rickles all played there. Frank, Dino, Sammy and Elvis did too. It’s been featured in the original “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Casino” and “The Hangover.”

In San Francisco they call the Condor, Carol Doda’s topless club, a historic landmark. You wanna talk topless? The “Crazy Girls Revue” ran at the Riv forever and featured someone else I knew, Jahna Steele. She may have been the first transgender showgirl, but probably not. Out in front of the Riv there was a bronze statue of the Crazy Girls, their rears rubbed shiny by fans. That is one of the few things they’re not blowing up. That’ll move to another casino. We have some respect.


We’re blowing up the Riv and we’re thrilled about it. I played the Riv a few times. Penn & Teller once signed up to do a benefit show there. But Teller had already rented a vacation place in Italy for that month. (Teller’s the classy one. Teller is the Siegfried, I’m the Roy). So Teller lent his suit to the brilliant magician Mac King. King kept his mouth shut and we went on as “Penn & Teller.” Close enough for charity work.

The best band in Vegas is the Lon Bronson All Stars, and they used to play after hours at the Riv. Everyone sat in with them. Really good musicians and also people such as Drew Carey and me. Drew played trumpet, I played bass, and we both sang a bit. I’ve played with Lon Bronson a lot.

One night I sang a song with Lon that I wrote called “Clothes of the Dead.” It’s about wearing clothes from thrift stores. It’s about dead people, and somehow I offended a table of drunks. They found me as I was walking out, grabbed me and tried to punch me in the face. I’ve never hit anyone in anger in my life, but with my personality, I’ve gotten hit a few times, so I know to duck. They were drunk and slow enough that cowardly ducking worked.

They complained to security about me, and because I’m a big guy who looks violent, security cuffed me and put me in a holding cell while I begged them to check their “eye in the sky” to see who hit whom. My friend Steve Schirripa — yeah, from “The Sopranos” — was entertainment director there at the time and he made it all OK with everyone, including me. But, yeah, I was detained at the Riv.


I was detained at that joint, so I don’t care how historic it is — blow the sucker up — for art!

Penn Jillette is the louder, taller half of the magic/comedy team of Penn & Teller.

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