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Kimberly De La Cruz

Long-time employees recall Riviera's golden days

4 May 2015

Seven days a week, two to three times a day, Charles “Chuck” DiLaura played his upright bass behind some of the biggest music acts of the mid-to-late 1960s in the lounge of the Riviera Hotel and Casino.

“The lounges were packed. You could say ‘sold out,’  ” he said, remembering the casino, in all its glory.

Those glory days are past, and any days at all will soon end at the Riviera. The hotel-casino, bought earlier this year by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, is set to close at noon Monday. The property will be razed to make space for an expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Back in the day, for about $300 a week, DiLaura, now 82, and his thumping bass accompanied such as acts Shecky Greene, Ann-Margret, Ray Anthony and His Bookends, The Marty Heim Trio and Frances Faye — just to name a few — to crowds of about 150 people in the smoky, overflowing room.

“It wasn’t much,” he said of the pay.

At that time, only Louis Prima and the Mary Kaye Trio were making big money. DiLaura says they were the first on the Strip to command “that kind of money”: $10,000.

To make a modest living, DiLaura says, he worked nonstop.

“Man, he never sleeps, he’s all over,” his friends, who called him “the Snake,” would say.

He’d keep his “good” bass at the Riviera, and a second one at the Thunderbird, so he could play as many shows as time would allow.

In the dressing room behind the lounge stage at the Riv, the bassist said Greene, who would “wig out” once in a while, kicked the bridge of his instrument. A $35,000 instrument to be exact.

“You busted my old lady,” he told the comedian during a later encounter.

DiLaura didn’t get so much as an apology from Greene, he said. He paid for the $500 repair on his own, but the memory, albeit not a good one, remains embedded in his mind.

“They’re all great,” DiLaura said of his thoughts from that time. “The atmosphere — there’s no comparison.”

He declined to share photographs of those memories with the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“That’s my personal stuff,” he said.


His first time in Las Vegas was in 1957, when he had a gig playing with Freddie Bell and the Bell Boys at the Desert Spa, which once was just down the street from the Riviera. With the same group, DiLaura says he went on to play “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

After a while, it was normal for DiLaura to gather with the stars. He says Liberace, a Riviera magnate, would hang out in the lounge with him and the members of Freddie Bell’s band.

“Vegas was very unique at that time,” DiLaura said, comparing it to classic mob movies such as “The Godfather.”

“All the stories you hear are true about how they used to run the joint,” he said. Once the corporations came in, “everything changed.”

He’s not the only Riviera employee to feel that way.

Gregory, who asked that his last name not be used, told the Review-Journal that he has tended bar at the casino, right in front of the lounge, for three years.

Old Las Vegas, as he called it, was a place where customer service was the lifeline of every casino. Now, he says, competition is slim, and getting the celebrity treatment is a thing of the past.

“They (casino owners) know if you leave, you’re gonna walk to another one of their properties down the street.” Either way, they’re going to get your money, he said.

Traditional Vegas customer service remains at the Riviera, Gregory said. Longtime employees, such as Emilio, who has worked in the casino for 27 years, are responsible for upholding the standards.

Emilio, who also asked that his last name not be used, is a bar porter, delivering supplies and stocking the bars. He says he worked his way up from running food in banquets.

“The place was so busy,” he said of his first year at the Riv, while standing over a bar lined with mostly empty stools.

A man from Fort Wayne, Ind., who identified himself only as “Jim,” sits in front of Emilio and says he’s been coming to the bar since 1976.

“I hate to see it torn down,” he said, a ring of cigarette smoke rising from his lips.

Jim says he’s come to Las Vegas on business and stayed at the Riviera about 10 times.

“I always had fun,” he said. “Everybody is friendly.”

When asked to recall a favorite time in the casino, he promptly responded, “the lounge shows have been great.”

Over the Riviera’s 60 years of entertaining, many entertainers have stood on the casino’s stages since Liberace’s opening performance in 1955.

George Bugatti closed the curtains one last time the night of April 25 as the final performer.

“You are going to be the last voice in this place,” Bugatti says he was told when he got the offer.


Since 1984, the casino’s most familiar show, “Crazy Girls,” has attracted showgoers as the Strip’s second-longest running in one venue, producer Norbert Aleman said, — right behind “Jubilee!” at Bally’s.

Emilio mentioned a statue of the showgirls out front and prompted tourists to go take a photo of it.

The work of art, Aleman says, “is going with me at the next location.” That location is still being decided.

It will be one of the few things preserved of the first high-rise on the Strip after it is imploded. No implosion details have yet been revealed.

“With no shortage of sadness,” the casino announced Monday’s closure in mid-March, following its sale to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which agreed in February to spend up to $191 million on the Riviera, $182.5 million for the 23-story hotel and its surrounding amenities and $8.5 million to cover related acquisition costs.

As the Strip’s evolution continues, the Riviera will have its page in the history books, in Nevada and around the world.

Portions of the 1960 version of “Ocean’s 11,” “Casino,” “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery,” and “Showgirls,” were filmed at the landmark.

The movies, glitz and entertainers made the Riviera famous, but aren’t the property’s only memory makers.

“We want to acknowledge and applaud our associates who have worked to create enduring memories for all of our guests. This is what will be remembered long after the walls have come down,” the company said in a statement.


Gregory and Emilio are just two of the 1,000 full- and part-time employees who will lose their jobs to the sale.

“I’m going to miss the people,” Emilio said of his friends and co-workers.

He said he’ll apply for a job at another casino and likely have to start at the bottom again. But that wasn’t souring his last few days at the Riviera.

“Enjoy!” a customer told him.

“Oh, yeah. Until the last minute!” he responded.

A female bartender whispered to Gregory that employees were not allowed to speak with the media because it would put them at risk for losing their severance packages.

Casino representatives would not comment on the claim, but did say that employees were in agreement to not speak with reporters.