I-Team: Casino legend recalls Riviera’s early days

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When the Riviera hotel opened in April 1955, it represented a glamorous new era for the Las Vegas Strip. The $8.5 million resort was elegant by the standards of that time and was the first high-rise on Las Vegas Boulevard.

When you hear long-time locals speak wistfully about the good old days, the opening of the Riviera is one of those times. The Strip was undergoing explosive growth, with hotels sprouting from the desert like sagebrush.

Morrie Jaeger became a legendary casino manager at several iconic resorts in town, but in 1955, he was a wide-eyed blackjack dealer who arrived just before the Riviera opened its doors.

A photo, taken 61 years ago, shows a young Jaeger in pajamas, dealing cards to fellow Riviera employees posing as gamblers.

“This picture here was taken at the Riviera hotel. That’s me as the dealer right there. We wore pajamas,” he said.

Promotional stunts like these were used to create interest in the fledgling Strip. Jaeger says the jammies were inspired by a Broadway play being staged at the Riviera.

“They paid us, I believe it was one hundred bucks a night, to wear these pajamas as dealers,” he said.

The play didn’t last, but Jaeger’s Las Vegas career did. He learned to deal at illegal, but wide open, gambling joints in Newport, Kentucky and was invited by casino bosses to move to the Nevada desert to work at a soon-to-open resort that took his breath away.

“I think I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” he said when recalling the first time he saw the Riviera. “It was the most gorgeous building I ever saw and was in the desert.”

On the day he arrived in Las Vegas, the carpets were being installed in what would become the 9th hotel on the blossoming Las Vegas Boulevard. Unlike other ranch-style resorts in the desert, the Riviera was a high rise, nine stories, which was a big deal.

“It was the only hotel in this town where you didn’t have to go outside to get to your room. (It) had about 148 to 150 rooms there. That’s all they had,” Jaeger said. “The only high-rise, inside, take the elevator go to your room. Didn’t have to get out in the wind and sand. When the wind blows around here in them days, it was nothing to stop it. The sand would take the paint off your car.”

The investors in the Riviera included guys named Lefty, Mootsie and Ice Pick Willie. They spared no expense, paying an astounding $50,000 per week for their first entertainer: Liberace.

Jaeger remembers opening night and the weight of the gratuities that jammed his pockets.

“First night, a pocket in my shirt with the silver dollars; it was tearing my pocket off. Making 80 to 100 dollars a night in tips, plus a salary, and they fed you, free everything. They even gave you a dollar to give the waiter for a tip,” he said. “It was heaven.”

Jaeger says casino workers, and everyone else, could eat for free at places like the El Rancho, which opened its buffet to anyone who was hungry.

The downside back then was a lack of housing to accommodate the town’s explosive growth. Jaeger shared an apartment with eight guys working different shifts.

Within weeks after it opened, the Riviera closed because of a dispute between its hidden owners. Jaeger quickly landed a job at another hotel that was just opening: The Dunes.

National media wondered if Las Vegas was overbuilt, an unfounded fear that would be repeated many times in the decades that followed.

Jaeger later returned to the Riviera, then rose through the ranks of other new properties. He won’t shed a tear when his first Las Vegas home is gone, but is amazed the time went by so fast.

“I can’t believe it’s 60-years-old, and it’s ready to be blown down. It was a nice building,” he said.

Morrie Jaeger might be the only person in Las Vegas history to open five resorts: The Riviera, The Dunes, The Stardust, Caesars Palace, and the original MGM Grand.

Every one of the hotels of that era had hidden owners: mobsters or illegal gamblers who flocked to the one place where casinos were legal.

Monday on 8 News NOW, the I-Team will tell the story of the Riviera’s original owners, including some names that never appeared on the books, but who called the shots, literally and figuratively.

The Riviera is scheduled for implosion Tuesday, June 14 at 2 a.m. 8 News NOW will cover the implosion live on television and on LasVegasNOW.com. Coverage begins at 1:35 a.m.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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