The implosion of the Riviera’s Monaco Tower
“Used to be I could get a free pack of Marlboros at the blackjack table when I was nineteen,” said a deep voice behind me, on the bus from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. “Now you can’t even get a hot dog.”
“You heading to town for the Riviera implosion tonight? Should be a good fireworks show, a good blast. Careful of that dust, though. Lot of asbestos. Yeah, they don’t give a shit in Vegas.”
The cab driver who took me from the bus station to the Strip said that she moved here from Oklahoma City twenty months earlier. She’d never seen an implosion, but one time she did watch some demolition work. “The Lady Luck. Or the Lucky Lady. Downtown. Sometimes when I pass a building here I can’t tell if they’re tearing it down or building it up.”
She dropped me off in front of a CVS at 2700 South Las Vegas Boulevard. Apparently the clerk there likes to hand out new identities, because she waved me off when I volunteered my license to buy a can of beer. “Oh, I already gave you a fake birthday,” she said. “July 7, 1988.” That made me four years younger. I’ll take it.
Numbers, numbers. Consider fourteen: The implosion of the Monaco Tower of the Rivera Hotel and Casino was scheduled to take place at two thirty on the morning of Tuesday, June 14, 2016. It would be the fourteenth hotel-casino implosion in Las Vegas’s history. So when I checked in to the Circus Circus (across the street from the Riviera) and the agent put me in a room on the fourteenth floor, I thought it really must mean something. “Fourteen, fourteen, fourteen,” I whispered to myself as I walked to the elevators.
Out the window of my room, the Trump International Hotel glared creamy gold in the early evening sun. I looked at my phone. “Weather Forecast Looking Perfect for Riviera Implosion Night,” the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.
For about a year now, crews have been gutting the Riviera to make way for the expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Tonight’s will be the first of two implosions. The second—which will bring down the Monte Carlo Tower—is scheduled for later in the summer, on an August date to be announced.
The Riviera opened in 1955. Dean Martin once held a 10 percent stake in the place. Liberace was its first resident performer. I spent a night in the hotel in April of last year, a few weeks before it closed for good. I guess I wanted to see a place die. I still do.
During my visit last week, I joined two guys who were standing in the parking lot of the twenty-four-hour Peppermill Restaurant & Fireside Lounge. It was about seven o’clock in the evening, and they were staring at the shell of the Riv’s Monaco Tower, which looked close, less than five hundred feet away.
“It was, like, the last hotel owned by the mob,” a young man in an Oahu T-shirt said to his long-haired, face-pierced friend. (“The Riviera was and always was the Chicago outfit’s crown jewel in the desert,” according to Geoff Schumacher, of the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement.)
“It’s not gonna ex-plode, it’s gonna im-plode, honey,” a mother said to her little boy, as they walked toward their car.
“How old is it, Daddy?” asked another kid.
“Ah, one of the oldest here. One of the oldest.”
The Review-Journal said the Peppermill would be a good spot to watch the implosion later that night, but even so I decided to check out other vantage points. Down Convention Center Drive, the Royal Resort appeared to be a serious contender. The short rectangular structure was loaded with balconies that faced the Monaco Tower. Seven hours ahead of the event, I saw a guy setting up his camera for the shot.
The Royal Resort is not a resort, but it was hot inside. “They’re gonna close down the street, it’s gonna be a little chaotic,” the front-desk agent told a sixtysomething couple during their check in. “But that’s part of the fun.”
A put-together drunkard rushed up to me in the lobby. “This is just a hotel, right? Just a hotel?” Before I could answer, he’d already spun around and gone out the door.
I headed outside, too, into the quiet dusk heat and the light gusting winds. I thought about how odd it was that the destruction of classic Las Vegas hotels had itself become a classic Las Vegas phenomenon. There’s a nostalgia attached to the buildings, and there’s a nostalgia attached to the destruction of the buildings. Everything is always new in Las Vegas, and at the same time everything is always old, so you get to feeling like a ghost.
Back inside the Circus Circus, I heard a lady tell her slot-machine neighbor that she got a note under her door saying that the hotel would be turning off the air-conditioning during the Riviera implosion. She said that it was a precaution against hazardous dust coming in through the vents.
I hadn’t gotten any note, and as soon as I heard about it I wanted a copy for myself. There was a long line at the front desk, so I went to the bell desk to inquire about the note there. The bell girl, however, didn’t know anything about the note or the hotel’s plans to turn off the air. She pointed me over to the hotel’s business-center representative. He told me that they didn’t plan to turn the air off. They were just going to make sure all the windows were tightly secured.
I told the business-center representative that I still wanted to see the note. He said to meet him at the front desk, where he flipped through an accordion folder before shaking his head. “Sorry, sir, I don’t have a copy of the note. But you can go over there to the house phones and call housekeeping to ask for one. Just dial zero.”
I picked up one of house phones attached to the wall near the bell desk and dialed zero. I listened to about ten rings and then I hung up. As I passed the bell desk, the bell girl asked me if I found anything out. I told her what the business-center representative told me. She looked relieved that the air would stay on.
Still, I wanted the note. I decided that I might have better luck with the phone in my room, so I rode up to the fourteenth floor and dialed zero from there. A lady picked up.
“Are you sure you didn’t miss it somewhere on the floor of your room, Mr. Baldwin?”
“Well, you should have received one at check-in.”
“I didn’t. Can someone please just slip one under my door?”
“All right, sir. I’ll have someone deliver one to you.”
When I hung up, I was suddenly overcome with fear. The room, muted and dim, yawned sadly. I got out of there.
It was getting to be time to ensconce myself at the Peppermill. I’d planned to get there a little after midnight. But first, some dinner. It was close to eleven, so I headed over to Stripburger for a meal.
I sat outside with a view of the Encore, whose black mirrored glass caused the lights of the Strip to drip and distort. I was getting concerned about the wind. It felt like it had really picked up and was gushing at a dangerous clip. If conditions stayed like this, the implosion would possibly have to be rescheduled. Maybe it would be cancelled. Maybe there wouldn’t be any implosion at all. Ever.
Then I noticed that the gusts were coming from a large metal fan. I was calm again.
The fellow next to me at the bar of the Peppermill’s bustling Fireside Lounge told me that he had come out from Santa Barbara to see the Riviera’s tower go down. He had seen another implosion—the Hacienda, on New Year’s Eve 1996, which took place at nine o’clock in the evening for the benefit of East Coast television viewers—and had always wanted to come back for another one. He’s forty-seven and between jobs and none of his other buddies could make it out. “I’ll send them the video and convince them to come out for the August implosion,” he said.
Time was funny in there. Two of the televisions were rebroadcasting game 5 of the NBA Finals (the Cavaliers had beaten the Warriors earlier that night; now we were watching them do it again), and one was playing music videos with the audio significantly out of sync from the image.
People were arguing about time, too. Some were still under the impression that the implosion would take place at two o’clock in the morning, as an announcement the previous week had it. Others maintained that the implosion was scheduled for two thirty, per the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority’s later revision.
“If I had to put odds on it, I’d guess they blow it up at 2:07,” the Santa Barbarian told me. I did the math in my head. Two times seven equals fourteen. There’s that number again. What does it mean? Anything? Nothing? Everything?
I met a man who had flown out from North Carolina that day, just hours after learning about the implosion. He was sucking down Budweisers and Marlboros. “A seven-hundred-dollar round trip, but I’ve got three free nights at the Golden Nugget. Wife’s afraid to fly. So yeah, why the hell not?”
A young soldier based in San Diego told me that he’d hiked twenty-four miles on an Indian reservation in Arizona that day and was totally exhausted. But he wouldn’t miss the implosion for anything.
In the men’s room someone yelled out, “Why the hell is it so crowded here on a Monday night?”
“They’re trying to bulldoze a casino or something next door,” said a voice in the stall.
By two o’clock the Peppermill lot was packed with people of all ages. Helicopters circled overhead. A man with a purple knapsack laughed and said to himself, “My OCD wouldn’t be so bad if everyone was perfect.”
The impatient chatter of the crowd increased. We were all staring at the Monaco Tower, waiting.
A series of little green laser lights flickered on the face of the building. Some kind of signal. Cheers and whistles erupted. Parents put children on their shoulders.
“Blow it up!”
At 2:31, most people were holding their phones up in the air to capture the event.
The fireworks began, splashes of purple and yellow and blue in the black sky.
“Burn it to the ground!”
The pyrotechnics turned thunderous.
Then, a thirty-second break. The crowd sighed and hooted.
The fireworks started streaming again, this time off the roof of the Monaco!
Now came some noises from the hollow of the structure: pop, crack, pop, crack. The building clicked, it wobbled and buckled—it shimmied like a terrified alcoholic—and then it went down.
The dust cloud froze and we all went silent. Then we cheered again. Police sirens blasted. We were a crowd of smiling maniacs, and then we turned and ran away.
We hurried up the Strip, away from the thick gray fog, into the mega drugstores.
The next morning, the demolition crews were back at it, chipping away and carrying on with the asbestos abatement of the Monte Carlo Tower.
The Monaco was a pile of rubble now. It was getting hosed down from various directions like a hot, dead elephant. A couple walked through the Peppermill lot with the day’s first cans of Bud Light, pointing, nodding.
A local news crew wandered the lot, too, seeking interviews. They stopped a man on his way into the restaurant.
“Sir, did you come out last night to watch the implosion?”
“Oh shoot, I missed it? I thought it was tonight.”
I never did receive that note under my door.
Joshua Baldwin is an editor and columnist at Eephus, the sports channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the author of The Wilshire Sun, a novella. His writing has also appeared in n+1, The Brooklyn Rail, Chicago Review, and Prelude. He lives in Los Angeles.