The Fort Lee Historical Society opens our new exhibit at the Fort Lee Museum (1588 Palisade Avenue) this Saturday, September 14th. The exhibit will run through February 2nd, 2014 and is titled “A Night at Fort Lee’s Riviera Nightclub.” This famed nightclub atop the Palisades operated from 1931 to 1936 at the old Villa Richard Restaurant on the Palisades in the Coytesville section of Fort Lee until a fire destroyed the building on Thanksgiving night, 1936. Club owner Ben Marden had a modern art deco new Riviera Nightclub built atop Fort Lee’s Palisades just north of the George Washington Bridge and it was opened in May of 1937 and operated until January 1, 1954. This new club could seat one thousand diners in the main room and had floor to ceiling windows that retracted to allow for the cool breezes off the Hudson River to refresh diners. The ceiling retracted for dancing under the stars and the stage revolved to smoothly transition from one band or act to another. There was a classic art deco bar and upstairs in the Marine Room there was high stakes gambling for a select clientele in plush surroundings. The rug that was in the Marine Room has images of the Riviera and the George Washington Bridge on it and was purchased by the Fort Lee Historical Society at an estate sale several years ago – it will be on display in this exhibit. Ben Marden successfully operated the nightclub through the start of World War II and then closed it for the duration of the war. In 1946 former dancer and entertainer Bill Miller purchased the nightclub and operated it as Bill Miller’s Riviera until he was forced to close it on January 1, 1954 due to the construction of the nearby Palisade Interstate Parkway.
Scores of the brightest stars in American entertainment graced the stages of the Riviera. The roster includes Bing Crosby & Bob Hope, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, Bud Abbott & Lou Costello, Pearl Bailey, Tony Bennett, Tony Martin, Joey Bishop, Zero Mostel, Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor, Jackie Gleason, Martha Raye and the list goes on and on. Among the archival photos on display in this museum exhibit is one donated to us by the late legendary house barber of Bill Miller’s Riviera, Rocky Vitetta. The photo is of Rocky and several other workers at the Riviera sitting at a with Sammy Davis Jr. This picture is worth a thousand words as they say due to the back story provided to us by both Rocky and the late Lou Gallo who was a head waiter at Bill Miller’s Riviera. Sammy at that time was performing with his uncle and dad in a group called the Will Mastin Trio which dated back to the 1920s. Thought the group was popular at the Riviera they never received top billing status or top pay. Word got out to the Riviera staff that Ed Sullivan was coming to the Riviera to scout the trio for a possible slot on his hit CBS Sunday night variety show. This is when the love of Sammy kicked in and the entire staff of the Riviera, from waiters to showgirls, from barber to valets all decided to fill the outskirts of the dining room during Sullivan’s visit. What happened next is a litle known piece of entertainment history but as they say that night a star was born. As Ed Sullivan was seated at a ringside table, the Will Mastin trio was introduced and from that point on through the conclusion of the performance the Riviera staff hooted and hollered, whistled and cheered like no audience before or since. The result, Sullivan booked the trio for his show and the next time the Will Mastin Trio performed at the Riviera they were top billed and received top pay and soon thereafter Sammy would become a solo act and rise to even greater acclaim. All of this grew out of the fact that Sammy treated the staff at the Riviera like friends and they loved him for it and showed their love the night Sullivan came to the Riviera.
This leads us to not the birth of a career at the Riviera but the comeback of a career of a local boy made good, that boy being Francis Albert Sinatra from nearby Hoboken. Sinatra first made it big post Hoboken Four when Big Band leader Harry James heard him on a live broadcast from The Rustic Cabin Nightclub in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey in June of 1939. James quickly drove over the George Washington Bridge and headed north to sign Sinatra to his band. Six month later Sinatra signed on with the biggest of the Big Bands, Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra. Harry James ripped up the two year contract he had with Sinatra and told Frank to make sure Dorsey paid him more – Sinatra never forgot Harry’s kindness.
Following success with Dorsey, Sinatra attempted to get out of a very restrictive contract with Dorsey and eventually became a solo. A movie contract with MGM followed and chart topping hits as well. Sinatra was riding high through the fabulous forties. Then he hit rock bottom. He lost his marriage as well as his soon to be followed by the loss of his contract with MGM. But Sinatra fought back and by 1953 he met great success with his role in the film “From Here to Eternity” which garnered him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. That film opened in New York on August 5th. What followed was magical – Sinatra came to Bill Miller’s Riviera Nightclub here in Fort Lee for a two week engagement from September 1-15, 1953, sixty years ago this month. Opening night saw one thousand celebrities fill the dining room to witness Sinatra’s comeback and they were not disappointed. The Variety review of this September 1953 engagement reads:
By actual count, the swooner crooned 20 ballads and each pyramided to a boffola. In every respect: Sinatra was great, making a great comeback. He proved
that he has long since proved himself not flash in the box office; achieved a sonalog stature in repose, poise and personal performance that comes to few singers;
reincarnated the straight romantic singing style which, somehow, has left us, the just crooned at 'em: no gags or ad-libs, and gave new magic to the Hollywood hypo. As in the rarified celluloid days in picture still can do the trick.
Sinatra’s career began along the Hudson River in Hoboken. He was discovered at the Rustic Cabin in Englewood Cliffs, so it is quite appropriate in this sense that he made the greatest comeback in show business history during his September 1953 engagement at Bill Miller’s Riviera in Fort Lee. Everything that is Sinatra is connected to the communities along the Hudson River here in New Jersey.
So swing by the Fort Lee Museum exhibit “A Night at Fort Lee’s Riviera Nightclub” and don’t miss our special events at the museum and other venues leading up to our Fort Lee Historical Society Fundraiser on New Year’s Eve – A 60th Anniversary New Year’s Eve at the Riviera which celebrates the last night the Riviera was open, New Year’s Eve 1953. Our party is being held on December 31st from 8 PM to
12 :30 AM in the second floor party room of In Napoli Restaurant at 116 Main Street in Fort Lee, a few short blocks from the site of the original Riviera. Visit www.thefortleehistoricalsociety.org for ticket information or call us at (201) 592-3580.