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Vegas’ mob attraction
Museum looks at gangsters who made city
Question of the Day
LAS VEGAS — In one room, a ghastly photo wall of bloody, uncensored images showcases the mob’s greatest hits.
In another, visitors are taught to load a revolver. And for when a gun just won’t do, an oddball collection of household items - a shovel, a hammer, a baseball bat and an ice pick - show the creative side of some of America’s most notorious killers.
On the 83rd anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Sin City is honoring one of its earliest relationships with the grand opening of a museum dedicated to the mobsters who made this desert town. There are Tommy guns, money stacks and a bullet-riddled brick wall from the 1929 massacre, which saw Al Capone seize control of the Chicago mob.
Las Vegas long has been enamored with its gangster roots. Its longtime former mayor played himself in the mob flick “Casino,” and hotels here often promote their nefarious origins. But the publicly funded, $42 million Mob Museum represents a new height in Sin City’s devotion to lawlessness. Even the local FBI agents are in on it.
“We wanted to make sure the truth came out,” said Ellen Knowlton, a former special agent in Las Vegas brought on to legitimize the downtown attraction.
It’s the second mob-themed attraction to open in Las Vegas in the past year. The Mob Experience at the Tropicana casino on the Las Vegas Strip shut down quickly because of slow ticket sales and other problems. It’s slated to reopen later this year under the name Mob Attraction Las Vegas.
City officials said their version will perform better because it’s an authentic examination of the decisions and circumstances that made Las Vegas an international symbol of debauchery and excess. The museum is housed in a former Depression-era federal courthouse where the seventh of 14 U.S. Senate hearings on organized crime was held in the early 1950s. The proceedings, watched by 30 million people, introduced the mob to most Americans.
But critics argue the government-backed attraction is a waste of tax dollars at a time when Nevada tops the nation in foreclosures and unemployment.
“It’s a risky bet,” said Andy Matthews, president of the conservative Nevada Policy Research Institute, which protested the museum during its grand-opening ceremony Tuesday.
Nevadans and mobsters have a long, storied history.
Casino workers and longtime visitors alike are known to wax nostalgic about the days when mob bosses kept drink prices low and streets violence-free. Their casinos became celebrity playgrounds and architectural icons. The Stardust, El Cortez, Tropicana, Dunes Hotel, Desert Inn, Flamingo and Fremont were all backed by the mob at one point. Elvis and Priscilla Presley tied the knot at the mob-controlled Aladdin resort, and Wayne Newton later purchased it.
More recently, Las Vegans thrice made former mob attorney Oscar Goodman their mayor. When he was prevented from running again last year by term limits, they gave the job to his wife.
The mob, the story goes, helped build out the remote highway that eventually would become the Las Vegas Strip. Gangsters took over resorts built by frontmen, skimmed the profits and built nightclubs, country clubs, housing tracts and shopping centers.
Increased law enforcement scrutiny and competition from business titans including Howard Hughes saw Las Vegas turn corporate in the late 1960s. Then the celebrity chefs and Cirque du Soleil dancers moved in. These days, Las Vegas feels more like a raunchy version of Disney World than a mob hangout.
“We felt nostalgic the moment the old days ended,” said Michael Green, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas, working with the museum. “To Americans, Las Vegas will always have that image, and they don’t come here for Mickey Mouse.”
Museum officials deny they are sensationalizing the mob experience to sell tickets, which cost up to $18 each. One exhibit shows the modern reach of organized crime through the drug cartels of Mexico, money-laundering schemes in the Bahamas, counterfeit rings in China and human trafficking in Brazil.
The museum also attempts to show the personal motivations behind the mug shots. There are pictures of a baby-faced Anthony Spilotro marking his First Communion, Frank Costello relaxing in a hammock at home and gambling titan Meyer Lansky with his daughter at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, his arm tenderly hooked around her waist. All three were among the mob’s most powerful men.
But the museum’s extensive photography collection depicting cratered heads, imploded cars and full body bags likely will be its biggest draw among fans expecting a hefty dose of mob violence. There’s Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn, his lifeless body splayed out in a Chicago bowling alley in 1936. Another photo depicts the death of Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria, assassinated at his favorite Italian restaurant in New York in 1931.
A small gift store also plays up the mob’s bloodthirsty reputation. The shelves lined with novelty items feature mobster paper dolls and gangster teddy bears dressed in striped suits and armed with plastic machine guns.
A T-shirt reads: “In Godfather We Trust.”
By Michael P. Orsi
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