The historic Riviera Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas was the brainchild of Detroit gangland figures William (Lefty Clark) Bischoff and Sam (Sammy Purple) Cohen, whose collective efforts got the groundbreaking gaming palace off the ground, but weren’t listed on the ownership papers as it became a staple of gambling, socializing and entertainment on the Strip in Vegas’ Golden Era of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. By the time the “Riv” was in full Rat Pack swing, the Chicago mafia had assumed control of its affairs. The Detroit mob went on to maintain silent ownership in the Frontier and the Aladdin.

Earlier this month, the Riviera, the first multi-story hotel and casino on the Strip and one of the last with deep mob roots, was demolished. It shuttered last year after six decades of operation. Rat-Packer Dean Martin was the Riv’s resident headliner between 1969-1972.

Lefty Clark was a Michigan gambling boss long linked to the Motor City’s Italian mafia, specifically the Peter (Horseface Pete) Licavoli crew. “Sammy Purple” Cohen was a key lieutenant in the infamous Purple Gang, Detroit’s murderous all-Jewish mob during Prohibition (hence his nickname), who had relocated to Miami. The pair knew each other from their days bootlegging on the Great Lakes in the 1920s. The Purple Gang and the Italian mob were allies.

Clark purchased the property, got the financing and acquired a gaming license in 1952 for what was originally slated to be called the Casa Blanca Hotel & Casino. Because he filed for licensing under William Bischoff, not Lefty Clark, Las Vegas Gaming Board officials weren’t initially aware of Clark’s criminal past. Upon the board learning that Bischoff and Clark were the same person, he was forced out of ownership interest in the project.

Lefty Clark

Lefty Clark

Enter Sammy Purple, one of Clark’s initial backers forced into the driver’s seat for the project after Clark got ousted. Cohen had moved to Florida following Prohibition, oversaw a sizeable bookmaking ring (some 200 bookies under his banner actually incorporated with the state as the “S&G Syndicate”) and like a lot of ex-Purple Gangers, was buddies with Meyer Lansky, America’s most powerful Jewish crime lord. He had a background in the hotel and casino business too, having owned the Casino Nacional in Havana, Cuba and a number of hotels in the Miami area.

Licensed in 1953, Cohen spearheaded the Vegas casino project, newly-christened the Riviera, for the next two and a half years, shepherding it right up through the weeks preceding its opening on April 20, 1955. Comedian Harpo Marx was a part of the investment group behind Cohen.

The Riviera, featuring a young Liberace as its inaugural resident headlining act, went bankrupt after three months. Cohen was out.

Enter Tony (The Big Tuna) Accardo, the esteemed don of the Chicago mafia, who placed his own “team” of casino experts at the helm, led by gambling ace and fix-it man Gus Greenbaum, and cut Cohen and Clark in for a silent piece of the profits, per FBI files on mob infiltration in the Vegas gaming industry from the 1970s. Cohen, the one-time head of the Purple Gang’s entire catalogue of speakeasies, after-hours joints and blind pigs, ran the hotel at the Riviera in the Accardo regime before becoming president of the Flamingo Hotel and Casino further down the Strip.

The alcoholic, drug-addled Greenbaum was murdered with his wife as they slept in their Phoenix, Arizona home in 1958, allegedly on orders by Accardo in Chicago for Greenbaum’s sticky fingers. With Greenbaum gone, Accardo had notorious mob front man and attorney Sidney Korshak step in and look after Windy City mob interests at the Riviera, per FBI records.

Cohen got stung by the Feds in 1973, nailed for skimming almost five million bucks from the Flamingo – he did four months in prison, the only time behind bars he ever served. Back in Florida, Cohen had gained majority stock ownership in Miami National Bank. Both Cohen and Accardo died of natural causes in 1992.

"Sammy Purple" Cohen (right) with his Prohibition Era Purple Gang partner-in-crime "Sammy K" Kert. Cohen and Kert were known around Detroit as "The Two Sammys."

“Sammy Purple” Cohen (left) with his Prohibition Era Purple Gang partner-in-crime “Sammy K” Kert. Cohen and Kert were known around Detroit as “The Two Sammys.”

Lefty Clark passed away in 1974. His FBI file shows he was a valuable commodity to Detroit’s Zerilli-Tocco crime family in the early-to-mid 20th Century. After making a name for himself in Prohibition as a popular speakeasy owner and backdoor casino operator, Clark was sent by his caporegime, “Horseface Pete” Licavoli, to out-of-state locales like Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia and Kentucky, to setup Detroit mob-financed gambling parlors. One FBI document recounts an effort by Clark, Cohen and some additional Purples in 1943 to shake down World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Joe Louis and his manager, Detroit numbers chief Johnny Roxborough.

Clark’s name surfaced in a homicide investigation in the 1930s. On October 4, 1934, Detroit wiseguy Jimmy Hayes showed up missing on his way to a Clark-owned gambling den in Ohio while in the presence of Licavoli gunmen Joseph (Joe Scarface) Bommarito and Joseph (Beach Bum Joe) Massei.

The Chicago mafia surrendered its ownership of the Riviera in 1968, selling the hotel and casino to a group of investors led by bankers Parry Thomas and Jerome Mack. Accardo and Co. turned their attentions to the Stardust (torn down in 2007), which became the Outfit’s new flagship in the desert. The Riviera was sold again in 1973 to a Boston-based travel company (AITS, Inc.) and filed bankruptcy for a second time in 1983 and then a third in 2010.

More Hollywood movies shot scenes in the Riviera than any other Las Vegas casino. Films to shoot inside the Riviera went on to include, Oceans 11 (original), Casino, Showgirls, Go, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Vegas Vacation, 3000 Miles to Graceland, 21 and The Hangover, among others.

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