The Riviera Comedy Club died tonight* after fighting a lengthy battle with economics. The club is survived by hundreds of mourning comics: Some great, some hacks, some geniuses, some frauds, some journeymen and women, some who became successful, some who did not, some who went on to write TV and blockbuster films, and some who went on to write bad checks.
A few nights ago, many of us who worked “The Riv” got together in Vegas for a final send-off. It was an opportunity to pay respects and tell stories and an opportunity to get one last complimentary watered-down beverage, courtesy of The Riv. Closure.
They came from New York, Boston, Chicago and LA. Riv favorites all, including John Caponera, George Wallace, Ken Rogerson, Tony V, Kathleen Dunbar, Jimmie JJ Walker, Bob Zany, Paul Bond, and Carla Rea. (Photos via The Riveria’s Facebook) Dice dropped in and did 30. It was a three-and-a-half-hour show with a side order of reminiscing.
I first worked The Riv decades ago, as a young comic, with fellow Bostonian Lenny Clarke, who had recommended me to emcee the week with him. It was a big deal to me, working Vegas. I dressed in a suit every night, strutted up the stairs to the club past pictures of Don Rickles, and Steve Martin and Bob Newhart and other icons who performed at the Riviera Casino in its heyday.
It didn’t matter to me that The Riv’s heyday was long passed and now the comedy show at The Riv was literally the cheapest show ticket in town. I was working Vegas, man! My name was blasted in neon across the strip every six minutes. Right after “Prime Rib Dinner – $4.99” it said, for 10 glorious seconds: “Jimmy Dunn.”
On the third night of the week, I met the legendary Entertainment Director for the club, Steve Schirripa. He eventually gained a measure of fame as an actor, playing Tony’s brother-in-law on The Sopranos. But before he became an intimidating tough-guy on TV, he was an intimidating tough-guy who ran a casino club. I remember coming off the stage, after introducing Lenny, and being approached by Steve.
“Dunn, Steve Schirripa.”
“Oh, Hey, Mr. Schirripa, It’s a pleasure to meet you. Thank you so much for the opportunity to perform at your club…”
“I have a beautiful daughter. Would you like her to work at the titty bars?”
“Would you like my daughter to work at the titty bars?!”
“Then sell some F@#%ing T-shirts!”
And with that, he walked away, not to be seen again all week.
I worked at The Riv for over a decade, booking three or four weeks a year. I learned about casino comedy. I learned how to entertain tourists who recently took a financial drubbing downstairs. I learned to not gamble where you work. I learned to not lend money to comics you just met. I learned that there is no food worse than the food served in casino employee cafeterias. I learned about comps, high rollers, and juicing Maitre D’s. I learned how to time an emcee set to the second so as to optimize viewing time next door at Crazy Girls. As I met them, I learned as I met them, that they are indeed crazy.
And I learned how to sell T-shirts.
I met comics from all over the country at The Riv. L.A. comics with agents and managers and eight-and-a-half minutes of material. Road guys from Chicago with no representation and hours of gas.
I met Ray Garvey, a comic from NY who would eventually become the Entertainment Director at another casino gig, The Borgata in Atlantic City. Ray was a big, loud Yankees fan who loved to joust with me, a big, loud Red Sox fan. Ray was a proud Riv guy. I was too. We wore the embroidered visors that they give out to Bingo losers as badges.
One week at The Riv, I will remember for the rest of my life. I was working with my good
friend, Tony V, who got a call from a good friend of his, asking if he could come by the club that night and do a guest set. A few hours later, I was sitting in a dressing room with Robin Williams! He was scheduled to perform the following night for 10,000 fans at The MGM, but on that night, he decided to come hang out with us, and the 75 people at The Riv. When he took the stage, most of the folks thought he was an imposter, because when they came in The Riv, there was a fake Neil Diamond singing in the lounge downstairs. Robin convinced the crowd he was the real deal by saying, “Yeah, it’s F@#%ing me! Robin Williams!” They were still skeptical.
After the show we left with Robin and went to The MGM where we ate, drank and gambled all night. He was incredibly generous, and incredibly funny. The next few nights, when we got off stage at The Riv, Robin sent a car for us and we spent the most amazing week laughing with Robin Williams.
I met another movie star at The Riv one night after checking the guest list for my Dad’s reservation. Right under “Bomber Dunn +1” the list read “Ron Jeremy +3”. When we met after the show, (while I was selling T-shirts), my Dad was not familiar with The Hedgehog’s body of work but was impressed with the bodies of his company, three scantily-clad co-workers. Vegas.
As every casino in Vegas does, The Riv eventually fell on hard times. It was no longer the run-down-but-still-pretty-cool casino from all those movies (Oceans Eleven, Casino, 3000 Miles to Graceland, Showgirls, The Hangover). It was just another run-down casino.
I’m told they plan to implode The Riv in a few months. It’s been sold to the Convention Center. Before that day, nostalgia buffs will strip the place. I’d like the mic from the club,
or the neon stage sign, but I’m sure those have been claimed by the faithful employees who have been at The Riv forever. So, I’ll just hold on to the memories of my nights at one of the original Vegas casinos.
Stand-up comedian Jimmy Dunn played “Sean McCarthy” in The McCarthys on CBS, which aired its first season this year. Dunn also has written a book about performing comedy on cruise ships, “Boat Hack.”
*”tonight” refers to the send-off show on Monday, April 20. The Riviera Comedy Club’s schedule officially ends May 3.