Before Las Vegas had names like Wynn, Trump, Paris, or New York it was the Dunes, Sands, and Stardust that drew gamblers to this desert city of 60,000. Many of the early names have been eaten up by the Mega resorts that took over the region as corporations realized they could make as much money as some of the gangsters that were supposedly running the casinos in the early years of its growth.
With the building of the Hoover Dam the new mega properties had plenty of power to draw from and so other smaller properties started to lose clientele.
One that did survive the corporate onslaught, until recently, was the Riviera Hotel. When it opened in 1955 it was billed as the first high rise at nine stories with a then significant 300 rooms. Today’s casino hotels are regularly opening with 3000 rooms or more.
To attract new clients the Riviera Hotel in the last few years before it became a footnote of history like the others, it displayed its own history to visitors, and even used it as a marketing tool.
Flamboyant pianist entertainer Liberace was the feature act for the grand opening, with crooners Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra as headliners along the way, enhancing the image of the property as the new place to stay. Liberace was so popular that the Riviera Pool was designed like a grand piano to honor him.
Not far from the Riviera is the Golden Steer restaurant. It was a part of history which linked the Riviera and the great entertainers of a bygone era.
The Golden Steer was opened in 1958 during a time of segregation and racism. Entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr., loved by audiences for their talent but not their color, were not allowed to stay in the properties in which they played to top billing.
So the place many of them chose to stay was the Moulin Rouge Motel, a few kilometers away, but situated so the newly opened steak house could easily be seen as they traveled to work.
Owned in part by heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, who acted as host for the property after it acquired a casino license, the Moulin Rouge became the Las Vegas home to famous black celebrities of the day like Dinah Washington, Harry Belafonte, and the Platters, plus future celebrities like Tom Bradley, who would later become mayor of Las Angeles from 1973 to 1993.
Staff at the Golden Steer relate the story how Sammy, curious about the new restaurant, pokes his head in to take a look on his way to a song and dance gig. He suggests a dinner there to his Rat Pack friends, Sinatra, Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop.
Even though Davis Jr. was only allowed to dine there because he was a celebrity, it would become a frequent hang out for the Pack, as well as hangers on and star seekers.
The tables of the Rat Pack have been preserved and their places marked. Visitors will call weeks in advance to book the Martin or the Sinatra table, and will forgo the visit to the restaurant if their table of choice has already been reserved.
Most of the great entertainers that headlined at the Riviera frequented the Golden Steer. John Garber, who started as a bell boy at the Riviera in 1970 met many of the performers who stayed and played there. “Virtually all the famous entertainers of the day from Sinatra to D.L. Hughley have played the Versailles Room.”
Hotel staff are fond of explaining how the Riviera swimming pool, still the original, was designed in the shape of a grand piano in honor of its opening and frequent act, Liberace.
But time, and shifts in consumer demand, waits for no one. Places like the Riviera and the Golden Steer needed to re-invent themselves to survive and not go into the pit of history like many of the popular names of the day.
No one should by-pass Las Vegas without seeing the modern marvels created by the Wynn’s and the Trumps of today, but it is also worthy to think back to the places that created the foundation for what would become the gaming capital of the world, and become one of the fastest growing cities in America.
Two of the most impressive were to be found in the Riviera, now gone and soon to be demolished, and the Golden Steer Steakhouse, which still serves the same food it did decades ago and hope to live a long life serving a clientele who may never have heard of the greats of the past.