Sunday, April 26, 2015

Goodbye Riviera

I don't have a lot of great memories of the Riviera, or a lot of insight into how the iconic strip property evolved, and devolved, over the decades, but I do have a few memories of my time there.

My first trip to Vegas was in January 1997. I was on a charter package, and they were selling show tickets during the flight. My buddy and I bought two tickets to "Crazy Girls." It sounded like a lot of fun for a couple of 20-something guys. 

I don't remember much about the show all these years later, but I do remember that I wasn't blown away by the craziness, or the number of girls dancing up a storm. Was it topless? Hell if I remember. It was a small cast, that danced and did routines to music. It didn't leave me wanting to come back for more. 

Back in the days when there was pedestrian traffic at the north end of the strip, the Riviera had an area, almost separate from the casino if I recall correctly, for nickel slots and other low-rolling gamblers. It seemed to be a busy place, and it had a concession stand with cheap eats. I'm pretty sure the quality of the eats was in line with the price, but it seemed to be a good draw. I can't figure out why that wasn't worth maintaining during the Riv's declining years. 

When poker became all the rage about a decade ago there was a "poker room" in every casino. I played in a weekday morning tournament at the Riv several years ago. It drew but a few tables of players, at the most. I think it was 2007. It wasn't a bad draw for a weekday morning in January, all things considered. I didn't win any money. I might have foolishly folded a hand I should have called with. 

I stayed for two nights at the Riv about five years ago. I was planning a trip to Vegas and had two nights booked at Orleans. I wasn't sure where I was staying the rest of my trip. I ended up staying a third night at Orleans and then spending my final two nights at the Riv because I had learned of some online promotion offering two free nights, simply by signing up for them via the Riv's website. It was that simple. I booked those two nights about two weeks before my trip. That worked out nicely. 

My room wasn't bad, but it did show signs of its age. I don't remember what tower I was in, and I didn't ask for any special accommodations. Based upon that stay, I wasn't anxious to pay for a room at the Riv again any time soon, and I wasn't going to be comped a room by them, I was certain. I don't think I ended up gambling in their casino during my stay. 

I have visited the Riv a few times in recent years solely for the purpose of playing pinball. I loved having 24-hour access to pinball at the Riv, courtesy of the Pinball Hall of Fame. I didn't exploit that benefit enough, unfortunately. 

I ate a meal at the Riv's food court during a solo trip a few years ago. Damn depressing. Eating in a mostly empty food court is a depressing feeling. I wondered how any of those little restaurants made enough to pay the monthly bills. My theory was that their rent was free, as it was the only way the Riv could keep a food court open. 

Speaking of paying the rent, during that hotel stay about five years ago I walked around the back of the property and saw there were a few shops back there. A souvenir stand with sunscreen and other products you might need for an afternoon at the pool, that made sense. There was also a tattoo parlor, which claimed it is "world famous." Sure, they all are. 

Honestly, who seeks out a tattoo parlor in the back of the Riviera? How did they build enough of a business in such a lousy location to pay the rent? The economics of it made no sense to me.

A year or two ago I was in the Riv for an hour prior to heading home. It was a weekday afternoon, I think, but damn, the casino was quiet. There were but a few blackjack tables open, and they had $10 minimums. That seemed rather odd to me. 

The Riv has a lot of history, an old school vibe and once was an entertainment and vacation mecca. In recent years it became a cheap alternative for people who really wanted to stay on the strip or needed relatively easy access to the convention center. 

When word of its impending doom came earlier this year, it shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone who has been inside the joint in recent years. The writing was on the wall. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Other game shows in Vegas

When I wrote my previous column about the game show history of Las Vegas, I noted that there were probably a few things I wasn't aware of, or had forgotten.

A search of Vegas Chatter informed me of something I didn't know, "Cash Cab" taped episodes in Las Vegas several years ago.

A game show enthusiast noted that "Las Vegas Gambit" was taped in Vegas. Turns out it was at the Tropicana, the same casino where the current run of "Let's Make A Deal" got its start.

And the Wikipedia article for Gambit noted that a show called "Dealer's Choice" taped part of its two-year run in Vegas, too. Like LMAD, Dealer's Choice started at the Tropicana before moving to Hollywood.

That's it, I'm done reminiscing about game shows in Vegas. If you know of one I forgot, please share it in the comments!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Vegas game show history

There's a multi-state lottery game show that recently started airing, and it's taped in Vegas.

"Monopoly Millionaires' Club" is taped at the Rio, and it's basically several games of chance that offer big cash prizes if you beat the odds. Contestants are people in the audience who qualified for the show via their local state lottery. Details about it can be found at Wikipedia. For the moment, there's a second Wikipedia article about it.

The first episode is available on YouTube. (See below) I sampled about half of it before I started this column.

The show offers some big cash prizes, and the games in which they are awarded are loosely based upon the Monopoly board game. The big hook is a $1 million prize, presumably at the end of the show. I'll know more after I finish writing this blog.

The show would be boring to watch if not for the big cash prizes during each game. It ain't "Jeopardy!" There's no trivia or knowledge required to play the game. It's not "The Price is Right." You can't play along, trying to guess the price of a bag of rice. The fact people are gambling to win big cash prizes is the only reason the show is appealing. If the top prize were $10,000, people would line up to be a contestant, but few people would watch.

Big cash prizes are an easy way to draw viewers to an otherwise uninteresting game. (See also: "Deal or No Deal")

What bugs me about the show is that it, like most attempts at some form of a game show during the past 15 years, relies upon an actor/comedian to host it. In this case it is Billy Gardell, who is currently starring on the CBS show "Mike and Molly." Usually the chosen host is a known actor/comedian who doesn't have a hell of a lot going on. Drew Carey had hosted a forgettable high stakes game show for CBS prime time when he was tapped to replace Bob Barker. Bob Saget wasn't doing much when he was asked to host my favorite big money prime time game, "1 vs. 100." Howie Mandell wasn't doing a lot of talent show judging when he was handed "Deal or No Deal."

Gardell isn't bad, but as a game show aficianado, it still bugs me that he was tapped to host the show. Ironically the show uses Todd Newton, who does have a game show host resume –– albeit for second-tier game shows and live stage shows based upon TV game shows –– as its co-host. He does what appear to be pre-recorded bits with folks playing simple games for cash prizes, separate from the action at the Rio. I've never been a big fan of Newton, and his overly enthusiastic celebration of a $10,000 win actually makes me thankful that Gardell is the host of the main game.

So the Monopoly game show is now taping in Vegas. It's not the first. I'm not an expert on this topic, but I know of a few other instances where games shows made Vegas their home.

As noted previously, the current rendition of "Let's Make a Deal" began its run at Tropicana.

Now and again "Wheel of Fortune" will tape a couple of weeks from one of the casinos. The recent episodes I saw were taped at the Venetian.

"The Price is Right" doesn't take its show on the road like WOF, but for its 30th anniversary there was a special show taped at the Rio.

In the early 1990s, as daytime game shows were falling out of favor, Caesar's Palace was the setting for a short-lived NBC game show called "Caesar's Challenge."

I don't remember this, but the final season of the original run of "Hollywood Squares" was taped at the Riviera in the early 1980s. I read host Peter Marshall's autobiography and he wrote a bit about that year, including a story about how he had an incredible run of luck gambling in the casino one night (roulette, I think) and was mysteriously robbed of his winnings while asleep in his hotel room. I might have that story wrong, but that's what I recall. I enjoyed Marshall's book, I should read it again.

Without researching the subject, those are the game shows I'm aware of that have a tie to Las Vegas.

What did I miss?

Thursday, April 2, 2015

My price was wrong

I wish I could forego my knack for long-winded reminiscing as I revisit another chapter in Las Vegas game show history, but that's not possible.

For several years there was a "The Price is Right" stage show in Vegas. It was an afternoon show, and it was a bastardized version of the TV game show America loves.

As a lifelong game show fan, I attended several TPIR tapings in Hollywood. Six of them, to be exact, over three separate trips about 15 years ago, including one about two weeks after 9-11. So many people had canceled travel plans because of 9-11 that the usual flock of would-be contestants didn't show up for the taping. Oh, they filled the studio with an audience, but it wasn't quite the circus outside the studio that most people experience.

Six shows, and not one call to "come on down."

Several years ago the folks at Caesar's had a ticket deal where you could purchase a 48-hour pass – for about $115, tax included – for shows in the Caesar's empire. Well, any of the second-tier shows. If you wanted to go to one of their premium shows, you could buy a ticket at a discount.

I was on a solo trip to Vegas, so I bought the "all-stage pass," or whatever they called it, and used it to see six or seven afternoon, evening and late night shows.

You had exactly 48 hours to redeem your pass for tickets, and you had to show up at the box office prior to the show for a ticket. If it turned out the show was sold out (which wasn't an issue) you were out of luck. I used it to see several shows, including the Price is Right stage show.

I told myself I'd never pay to see the Price is Right fantasy camp when I've been to the real thing. But given I had bought the pass, and my afternoon show options were limited, I decided I might as well see the stage show. I timed it so that I bought my 48-hour pass shortly before the Wednesday afternoon show, then came back on Friday to cash in my pass for a ticket as early as I could do so at the box office for that day's show. That allowed me to see the 2:30 show both Wednesday and Friday afternoon, despite the fact that the pass hit the 48-hour expiration before the start of Friday's show. There was no Thursday show, otherwise I would have been there for it, too.

I had read enough reviews via Trip Advisor to know the secrets to this stage show. If you were lucky enough to play a game, you played for modest prizes, yet the games were trickier than on TV. A progressive game that has cash prizes ("It's in the Bag") is played for $16,000 on TV. I think the top prize during the stage show was $2,400, and it seemed to be ridiculously impossible to intelligently play the game until completion and pocket $2,400. You have the option to stop along the way, and I would have stopped at $300 had I been on stage to play the game, it was that difficult.

They chose everyone randomly to participate, and four people would be called to contestant's row to bid on a small prize and win the right to go up on stage. You didn't get to stay in contestant's row if you lost out, they pulled four new people each time.

The show was in Bally's big theater, big enough to seat hundreds of people. The theater was less than half full, however. I'd estimate it drew a crowd of about 250 per day.

On my first day I was the first person called, and I was able to take the coveted fourth spot in contestant's row. We were bidding on some speaker system, and even though I bid last and was trying to be strategic, I bid too high in bidding over one of my competitors. The prizes were mostly in the $200 range, and the others seemed to know this, as we weren't getting bids over $500. At this point I don't remember what game I would have played had I been on stage. Needless to say I was disappointed, but I wasn't having much luck at blackjack during that trip, so this was par for the course.

At the end of the day everybody had a chance to be randomly called up on stage for the showcase. Two people were called, but I wasn't one of them. The secret to the showcase was that they made it seem like it was expensive, but in reality it was between $14,000 and $15,000. Unlike the TV show, both contestants privately bid on the same showcase, which included a bunch of shares of a stock that sounded expensive, a Mexican vacation that sounded expensive and an economy car. You'd think the economy car would be worth at least $15,000, but it must have been the most stripped-down version of a compact car. The trip was probably far less fancy than it sounded (it was probably three nights, no frills) and the stock might have sounded impressive because it was a well known name, (Yahoo, I think,) but it clearly wasn't a blue chip.

If a winning bid came within $100 of the actual retail price without going over, the contestant won the showcase. If it was more than $100, I think they gave you the trip. If both overbid, nobody won. I knew you had to bid in the $14,000 range to win, and although I couldn't have been the only one who knew this, others in the audience were shocked when the host read the actual retail price, as were the contestants, at least on the first day, because both overbid by plenty.

I had read that people won the showcase occasionally, but if you didn't know the secret, it was just about guaranteed you would overbid.

The show is no longer in Vegas, but it tours regularly to casinos around the country. I went to it here in Minnesota a couple of years ago with my girlfriend and her sister and brother-in-law, as they wanted to go. I didn't want to, even though a ticket was just $15, but I went, as I didn't want to be a jerk. They changed the format of the showcase, as just one person played for it, and they played "10 Chances" in order to win the showcase prizes. And they've made sure it is even more unlikely a person will win the compact car they show off.

As for the hosts of the show, it is a revolving gig. In Vegas they'd change hosts every week or two. Sometimes it was Jerry Springer. Sometimes it was second-rate game show hosts of yesteryear that only hardcore game show fans know by name. In my case it was Bob Goen, known most for his years co-hosting "Entertainment Tonight." I was surprised he never mentioned he was the last host of the daytime version of "Wheel of Fortune." I bet most people don't remember that two people hosted the daytime show after Pat Sajak left NBC daytime for a crack at a late night talk show. Goen was one of them, but it was never mentioned that day. Very weird.

In case you didn't guess, I wasn't lucky enough to be called to "come on down" on Friday afternoon.

The game show gods just don't smile down upon me.