Tuesday, April 19, 2005 | 8:08 a.m.
The venerable Riviera, a relatively modest hotel-casino by Las Vegas' new standards, celebrates its 50th birthday Wednesday.
It has survived organized crime, bankruptcies and an onslaught of megaresorts to maintain a foothold on the Strip for half a century.
The celebration will include a ribbon-cutting ceremony at noon and a concert by David Jonathan Lomascola, the winner of a Liberace scholarship.
Special fireworks performances will highlight Wednesday and Friday nights.
Michael Bolton will give anniversary concerts at 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
"Every hotel has to pick its spot, ask itself, 'Where can I compete? How do I change with the the changing market?' "Riviera President Bob Vannucci said. "We've been able to adapt and change with the market instead of working against it. Knowing our customers, not being something we're not."
The Riviera compares favorably with its peers.
"We are very structured. We know our customers and how to attract them," Vannucci said.
The Riviera's market is middle-America.
"That's our target," Vannucci said. "And we attract second-tier conventions, as well as a lot of union, government and social groups. We have survived very well." It has survived by not making dramatic changes.
"Our biggest asset is our tenure," Vannucci said. "Our employees have been with us a long time -- the maids, the busboys and the bellmen know you. You're not just a number here. Everybody knows you. There is a very comfortable atmosphere."
Besides knowing who their customers are, the management knows who the customers are not.
"The people who come to Vegas and want to stay at a high-end resort, they are not my customers," Vannucci said. "My customers are the ones who want to be treated right, to be part of a big family and want to feel comfortable."
The philosophy has served the Riviera well.
It continues to survive while megaresorts are springing up all around it, casting long shadows over the venue that, when it was opened by mob-connected investors in 1955, boasted being the first high-rise resort, with nine stories comprising the casino, shops and 300 deluxe rooms.
A short distance to the south is Wynn Las Vegas, a $2.5 billion resort scheduled to open April 28.
Donald Trump is about to break ground on his 65-story hotel and apartment tower behind the New Frontier, which is expected to be torn down in the near future to make way for another resort.
The Riviera was the dream of a group of Miami investors headed by Sam Cohen.
It had 18 table games and 116 slot machines and was considered the place for high-rollers.
But within three months of its opening it went bankrupt.
Gensbro Hotel Co., the Riviera's landlord, assumed control and arranged for the Flamingo's Gus Greenbaum to manage the property.
In 1958, Greenbaum and his wife were murdered in Phoenix, where they had a second home.
In 1959 the Riviera was sold to a group headed by Ed Levinson of the Fremont Hotel and Carl Cohen and Jack Entratter of the Sands.
In 1965, Hotel Riviera, Inc. bought out the interest of Gensbro Hotel Co., becoming sole owner of the hotel and its property, and in 1967 a number of Riviera executives were indicted for skimming from the casino.
In 1973, Meshulam Riklis of American International Travel Services of Boston bought the Riviera for $56 million.
In 1984, Riviera filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Arthur Waltzman was named president in July in an effort to get the Riviera back on its feet. Waltzman helped the Riviera out of Chapter 11 in 1985.
Vannucci has been with the Riviera for 12 years, beginning in 1993 as a marketing coordinator and working his way up to the president's office.
Since beginning his Las Vegas career in 1965 at the Dunes (where he spent 15 years), Vannucci has had a wide range of experience.
In 1980 he left the Dunes and, with Wayne Newton, opened the Aladdin. Then he worked at the Sands a few years before going briefly to Reno.
Back in Vegas, Vannucci took over the old Sundance, which is now Fitzgeralds.
"I've been in operations, hotel and gaming, marketing," Vannucci said. "I have kind of worked all over the place -- I have been very fortunate. I was the first management trainee at the Dunes and I got to work in all of the departments."
While the Riviera has not gone through many dramatic changes during its 50-year history, the same is not true for Las Vegas.
"The secret to Las Vegas' success is change -- this city has to continually re-invent and market itself and draw more and more people," Vannucci said. "It used to be a destination for the jet set -- in the evening men wore dinner jackets and the ladies wore gowns.
"The casinos actually kept the temperatures a little cooler so the women could wear their furs."
Eventually Vegas hit a ceiling for that market and had to make some changes to continue to survive.
"The convention center was built and that brought more and more visitors," Vannucci said. "That became the basis for the growth here."
Visitors would come for a convention, experience Vegas and then return to vacation.
Tour operators began bringing in tourists by the busload from middle America.
"That worked for a while but then we had to find more customers so we turned to international markets -- Japan, Korea, China, all of Asia," he said. "Before that we focused on Mexico."
To meet the demands, the airport was expanded.
"We learned that what made this town appealing was growth and new attractions," Vannucci said. "In the '80s, with Steve Wynn developing the first megaresorts, the hotels became totally unique, must-see hotels.
"There were a lot of naysayers who thought the megaresorts were never going to make it."
But Wynn's ideas started adding another page to the Vegas story.
"Tourists came just to see the new hotels," Vannucci said. "Every time a new hotel is built, our tourism number grows and it doesn't go away. All of these new openings and attractions makes business here that much better."
There have been discussions about rebuilding.
"Obviously, as the value of the Strip changes, appreciates, we have to ask, 'How do you maximize?' " Vannucci said. "We're looking at all the operations, but we will not do anything to affect our base customer -- the middle Americans.
"But it's never been a real consideration," Vannucci said. "We may take a building down here or there, but we won't take the entire Riviera down to raw land -- we will never be a Bellagio."
The base customer is always uppermost in the Riviera's thoughts, especially when it comes to entertainment.
"We are very careful with our entertainment," Vannucci said. "All of the shows here are successful, long-running productions. We freshen them up from time to time so they are a little bit different, but we don't make dramatic changes."
"An Evening at La Cage," "Splash" and "Crazy Girls" have been at the Riviera for almost 20 years. "They do very well for us," Vannucci said. "We're thinking about bringing in another show, a mini-revue, but we are very careful so they fit our customer base -- we wouldn't want to bring in 'Blue Man Group.'
"But 'Mamma Mia!' probably would fit."
While there is change all around, Vannucci says the Riviera is "staying the course."
"Our goal is, we have been here 50 years, we want to be here another 50 years. We are still an original -- we the final survivor. We plan to be the last one on the island."