Nov 24, 2011

And...News as it Happened

Recent blog posts have recounted events of minor disasters in and about my Hudson Terrace apartment building (see the transformer explosion and the noxious fume invasion). These festive themes, today's holiday, and my inexplicable fascination with Fort Lee in general and my neighborhood in particular, have inspired this entry about Saturday's 75th anniversary of the fire that destroyed the building which housed the original Riviera nightclub. A building, of course, formerly located within yards of my apartment.

The Hudson Terrace property was originally a restaurant/nightspot called the Villa Richard. It was opened in 1909 by a chef named Jean Richard, previously of NYC's famed Delmonico's. It enjoyed a lively three-decade run, including a raid in 1929 for suspicion of being a bordello, before Richard leased it to Ben Marden.

Marden would renovate the property and operate it as the Riviera from 1931 until its destruction five years later on a cold Thanksgiving night.

The following is an account of the fire as reported in the Hudson Valley’s Kingston Daily Freeman newspaper on November 27, 1936.

Fort Lee, N. J., Nov. 27. (AP) -- Smoldering ruins was about all that remained today of BEN MARDEN'S Riviera night club atop the Palisades overlooking New York City. 
Fire Chief FRANK SCHMIDT sought the cause of a fire which broke out last night in the 35-year-old wooden structure and spread so quickly that Fort Lee's four fire companies, reinforced by two from Englewood Cliffs, could do little. 
MARDEN valued the building and contents at $250,000, and Chief SCHMIDT said the loss would approximate $200,000. Only 10 per cent of the damage was covered by insurance, MARDEN said.
The building, which had been closed for the winter two weeks ago, was open yesterday for MARDEN'S annual distribution of 500 Thanksgiving baskets to poor families.
JOHN TIERNEY, a Fort Lee volunteer fireman, was overcome by ammonia fumes when the resort's refrigerating plant exploded. He was revived by fellow firemen. 
The Riviera, near the end of George Washington Bridge, was built about 35 years ago and was operated for 30 years as the Villa Richard.
# # #

While the fire put an end to the first chapter of the Riviera, it would also ensure the rest of the story would attain legendary status. The tragedy, whose flames and smoke could be seen from both sides of the Hudson River, literally set the stage for the establishment of the new Riviera and a totally new era of nightclub entertainment.

The new Riviera was built a smidgen south of the original spot, closer to the George Washington Bridge. And this time it would be an Art Deco masterpiece complete with a retractable roof, revolving dance floor and bandstand, and plenty of room for illegal gambling.

History states it was a worthy rival to all the NYC hot spots of the day: drawing top talent, attracting notable and notorious patrons, and pioneering a new style of lavish performance (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, elaborate chorus numbers, etc.) that would later become the cornerstone of "golden age" Las Vegas entertainment.

It would operate until 1953 (with a several-year break due to rationing during WWII) when it was demolished to make room for the construction of the Palisades Interstate Parkway. And though the closing of the new Riviera may not have been due to a blaze, the club certainly went out with a bang. The last show—on October 4th, 1953— featured Eddie Fisher and Henny Youngman.

Just another example of really cool stuff that got its start in Fort Lee.

Here is pre-Riviera photo of the Villa Richard, © PIP-NJ Archives:

And a post-Villa Richard, post-Riviera, present day photo of the remnants (Hudson Terrace @ Myrtle Ave), © me:


  1. Honestly - did the Riviera really need to be torn down? Did the Palisades Parkway really cut through that location? The Riviera was so cutting edge (with its retractable roof for starlight dancing among other things like the view) not to mention a pretty hot spot. I wish classic places like The 500 Club, The Riviera and Toots Shor's were still around - The Flamingo too! They're historic in their own way too. Thanks for posting.