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Riviera was defined by its shows, stars — PHOTOS

If you can’t quickly sum up 60 years of entertainment at the Riviera, you can at least back up to see the larger pattern emerge.

From its birth until its death Monday — or whatever day you already chose to mark its slide into irrelevance — the Riviera was defined by its shows and its stars.

On Monday, the hotel closes at noon, just two weeks after its 60th birthday, to make room for part of a major expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority agreed in February to spend up to $191 million to buy the hotel and surrounding land.

Not that the entertainment was ever consistent. It’s even hard to define a range.

At the high end of the class scale: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Barbra Streisand, who first played Las Vegas as Liberace’s “extra added attraction” in 1963.

At the other end? Maybe porn star Jenna Jameson dancing for the Consumer Electronics Show crowd. Or the 14-foot alligator that met a horrifying end while escaping the hotel.

In between? Close to 500 entertainer names were compiled by the hotel’s staff to mark the Riviera’s 50th anniversary in 2005. Even the 10 forgettable years that followed included occasional bright spots, such as breakout performances by comedian Amy Schumer.

On that list you see everyone from “Wizard of Oz” scarecrow Ray Bolger (1959) to Luciano Pavarotti (1984). Some synonymous with Las Vegas, such as a motorcycle-revving Ann-Margret in ’67. “We had 12 motorcycles onstage, and we actually started them,” she recalled years later.

The fire marshall stepped in to object. “It was the first time anything like that had ever been done.”

Other names were anomalies: Orson Welles scratching his magic itch in 1956, or a 1962 production of “Bye, Bye, Birdie” with Dick Gautier reprising his Broadway role as Conrad.

Publicity surrounding the April 20, 1955 opening (“a new high in the Las Vegas sky”) was split between the numbers 9 and $50,000.

The first was the number of stories that now interrupted the horizon behind the Strip: “Building soars 9 stories” proclaimed a Review-Journal headline.

The second was the guarantee per week for debut headliner Liberace, said to be a new record for a Las Vegas performer.

“Mention of his 50 G’s per week salary brought laughs when he commented that he was the first Las Vegas performer to get that figure … and OPEN,” Review-Journal columnist Les Devor wrote of the opening night show.

Fast-forward to 1969. Nevada gaming officials approved Dean Martin for a 10 percent interest in the hotel, an $80,000 investment. The showroom was expanded by 300 seats to hold 1,000 people, and a restaurant was rechristened Dino’s Den, where the crooner’s face was blended into paintings by Renaissance masters.

Everyone had figured Martin would follow Frank Sinatra from the Sands to Caesars Palace, but Martin went his own way. “Records will show he draws better than Sinatra,” wrote the Review-Journal’s Don Digilio. Makes sense if you figure Martin was the prime-time NBC variety star of those years.

The 1960s and ’70s fade into the vagaries of Las Vegas legend. These were the years when the small city’s entertainment was branded collectively. While Caesars Palace had the biggest cachet, “The Riv was high on the totem pole,” says veteran impressionist Rich Little, who co-headlined or opened shows there for the likes of Anthony Newley and Petula Clark in the 1970s. “It was No. 2 or 3, without a doubt.”

In August 1978, Barry Manilow became the rare current pop star to play the same weekend as mainstays Tom Jones, Dionne Warwick and Bill Cosby. By then, however, Las Vegas was entering a period of stagnation and self-parody that would not end until The Mirage pointed the way to an extreme makeover.

THE CRAZY ‘80S

But in those punch-line years, the Riviera entered its last great era; one where the eccentricities of the city aligned perfectly with those of the hotel’s chairman, Israeli businessman Meshulam Riklis.

Riklis already was in the pop-culture eye for bankrolling the career of his much-younger wife, Pia Zadora, when he took the hotel out of bankruptcy in 1985 by personally guaranteeing its debts. (Three years earlier, the movie “Butterfly” and a Golden Globe for Zadora, widely viewed as bought and paid for by Riklis, fueled many a Johnny Carson monologue.)

“It was our home away from home as opposed to being in a hotel,” Zadora recalls today. “Because Rik owned it, when we were in town we would just kind of be there with him.” One suite was outfitted as an apartment, and “I taught the kids to walk in that hallway. That hallway was a special hallway.”

The Riv “always had an aura of … well, it had a lot of soul,” Zadora adds. “You could feel like, in the walls, you could almost feel the people that had performed there. It just felt like an old soul of a hotel, always.”

Even as Riklis coaxed Frank Sinatra into some late-career shows at the Riviera, he moved the hotel toward the middle market. He added a food court, where one booth grandly cordoned off with a velvet rope — in case the Riklis family ever had a fast-food jones — stood as a visual metaphor for the Riviera’s schizophrenic identity.

But above that food court? Three new show venues, housing “An Evening at La Cage,” the topless “Crazy Girls” and what would become a booming comedy club.

Add the hit revue “Splash!” in the main showroom, and the Riviera was more than ever about entertainment. At one point, “Just the shows alone brought in 5,000 people a night,” says Steve Schirripa, who oversaw the comedy room before getting famous in his own right by playing Bobby Bacala on “The Sopranos.”

The total number of shows on the Strip was still so low that Sammy Davis Jr., Liberace and Redd Foxx turned out for a new drag show, “An Evening at La Cage,” featuring a young host named Frank Marino in September of 1985.

The show would play three times a night, sometimes packing in 600 people per show. “It was $6.95 and you got a free prime rib dinner in the coffee shop. Nowadays the taxes and fees are more than $6.95, says Marino, who now co-produces and stars in “Divas Las Vegas” at The Linq.

“La Cage” ran for 23 years, until early 2009. “It was an amazing thing for me,” Marino says. “It was like a dream that I always thought I would have to wake up from, and it was something that just kept going.”

The drag show ran in tandem with the topless cabaret revue “Crazy Girls,” from the same producer, Norbert Aleman.

“Crazy Girls” had its last show at the Riviera on Friday night after 28 years, making it second to only “Jubilee” for the longest run in one showroom. Aleman said Friday night the topless revue is headed for Planet Hollywood, where it will open on May 13.

Nearby was the comedy club, originally a branch of Budd Friedman’s Improv chain.

Schirripa first hired on as a maitre ’d. “When I first walked into the room I was all by myself and there were stacks of chairs and they said, ‘Make a room,’ ” he recalls. “I had no idea about comedy.”

Business was slow at first but soon the club, like its roommate venues, was seating as many as 400 people for three shows a night. Headliners included rising stars such as Jeff Dunham, Ellen DeGeneres, Richard Belzer and Joe Rogan.

The summer of 1985 also brought the “aquacade” revue “Splash,” with thrills that weren’t diminished until “Siegfried & Roy at The Mirage” opened five years later.

“We were one of the ruling entertainment entities in Vegas,” producer Jeff Kutash says. “Everybody came to see that show. Liz Taylor. Michael Jackson. Don Johnson.”

Riklis took a chance on relatively inexperienced producers Kutash and Marty Romley. “I did a great presentation, fortunately, because I spent all my money on it,” Kutash recalls. “I built a model that could practically talk to you. I spent 25 grand just on the presentation.”

In the early days, “Splash” was marketed around its above-ground water tank with an 18-foot glass wall and revolving guest stars such as the Fifth Dimension. But it quickly evolved into the only Las Vegas show to be aware of the pop culture around it. Specifically, MTV video clips that showed street dancing.

Soon, “Splash” was also the only Las Vegas revue to sport motorized lighting and lasers. Kutash says then-Disney chief Michael Eisner sat and watched it with him, then threatened litigation if he didn’t drop a “Little Mermaid” sequence. Kutash offered a compromise: He would remove the scene in six months, after it had a chance to pay for itself.

Kutash lived up to his end of the deal. “About a month later, Disney opens up a ‘Little Mermaid’ water show in Orlando, knocking off all the stuff I did in ‘Splash.’ ” Fear not, Kutash would have his pop-culture knock-off revenge — if not on Disney, then with his own take on “Phantom of the Opera” or a super-hero cruising out in a lower-case batmobile when a certain movie was hot in 1989.

IF WALLS COULD TALK

If those old, soulful walls could talk before they are knocked down, the stories they could tell.

Rizzo’s 70th birthday was celebrated in 1987 in the hotel’s venerable Delmonico restaurant, so well known it inspired a suburban Chicago spin-off. Sinatra “walked in with a bottle,” Schirripa remembers. “He was wearing a Members Only jacket and I kid you not, it was black with red lettering and it said ‘Frank.’ Like nobody knew who he was.”

Schirripa became entertainment director for the whole operation in the 1990s. “We didn’t have the money of Caesars, so we had to be creative,” he said. Comedians such as Dennis Leary, Damon Wayans and Drew Carey were booked in the penthouse ballroom after they outgrew the comedy club. “The only thing I would ask is, ‘Just come back one more time. Give me a second shot.’ ”

Sometimes it took extra encouragement. One comedian — not one of the above but still familiar — balked. “Tell him I’ll get a hooker,” Schirripa told his agent. “Two minutes later, he’s in. We take a hooker out of petty cash at the cage.”

For Kutash, the craziest story was that of Tahar, the “Splash” specialty act built up with teaser ads who turned out to be an alligator wrestler.

The big reveal of the act was unintentionally comical. The 14-foot alligator had to be unceremoniously dumped out of its cage onto the stage. The poor thing seemed half-frozen as Tahar tried to pry its jaws open to feign the peril of putting his head in its mouth. Kutash says the creature actually was hypnotized.

Either way, someone left the gate open. “We built this cage with air conditioning and everything so the alligator could live out in the loading dock,” Kutash says. But it escaped and crossed Riviera Boulevard to the north of the hotel, 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 tire track, Kutash claims. “I buried it next to some mobster in the desert.”

Even if the elevators at the Riviera could talk …

Sinatra performed New Year’s shows at the Riv in 1990 and 1992. For one of them, he and Zadora first sang downstairs, then moved up to an invited-guests bash on the 24th floor of the Monaco Tower, the last of the Riviera’s piecemeal additions that spanned out like rings from a tree.

“We got stuck in the elevator,” Zadora says. “It was a mad rush, and everybody was going up in the elevator. Me in my Bob Mackie (gown), Jilly (Rizzo, Sinatra’s righthand man) and Frank in his perfect tux, Jilly started sweating and swearing: ‘What if we starve?’

“Frank’s looking at him like, ‘Jesus Christ, Jilly.’ We were there for like 30 seconds, and he was already talking cannibalism.”

Dean Martin, perhaps for good reason, always took the stairs. “He never went in an elevator,” Rich Little says. “Wherever he was staying, it had to be the first floor or a walk up to the second floor.” So the Riv created a second-floor suite that eventually was torn down for one of the mid-’70s tower additions.

Martin ended up joining a recurring pattern of entertainers whose Riviera memories ended by walking away.

Comedian Shecky Greene was one of the most popular draws for the Riviera, pulling down $10,000 per week and points in the hotel to ply his longform comedy in the Starlite Lounge. That was before Ed Torres moved over from the Fremont to run the hotel in 1968.

Greene hated Torres and told staffers to keep him out of the lounge while he was working. When management sent down a birthday cake as a peace offering one night, Greene smashed it into his own face.

Torres was the one who lured Martin over from the Sands. But the two eventually clashed when Torres wanted him to perform two shows a night. “He was going to walk out on them, but he still had a contract there,” Little recalls. “Eddie Torres got so mad at him that he took all his clothes out of the suite and threw them in the hall.

“Dean went up there, saw all his clothes in the hallway, picked up one jacket and walked out and went to the MGM Grand. … It didn’t seem to faze him.”

Little was one of those who returned to the Riviera recently for a farewell party hosted by magician Murray SawChuck. “I went downstairs and took pictures, because all this is going to be dust,” he says.

Zadora hopes to have one last breakfast there Monday. But, she says, “It was over at a certain point.” The Riviera is “like old Vegas. At a certain point (older properties) stop becoming the best that they can be and they grow out of style with the mainstream.”

Marino also “went to say my goodbyes. The valet knew me. It was very Norma Desmond going back to the movie set.”

Truth be told, “It was a very somber feeling,” he adds. “No matter what anybody said about that hotel, I love it.”

Read more from entertainment reporter Mike Weatherford at bestoflasvegas.com. Contact him at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com.

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