Two museums shine light on Vegas' mob past

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 3, 2013 - 9:27 AM

The Mafia continues to make its mark on Vegas, where two museums devoted to organized crime put a shine on the city’s gritty past.

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▲ A vintage car at the Mob Experience Museum.

Our country’s frontiers have always attracted men of vision and grit. The Pilgrims. The pioneers. The prospectors. The Mob. When Bugsy Siegel saw tumbleweeds amble across Las Vegas’ two-lane Arrowhead Highway and envisioned a gambler’s paradise in the desert, he was simply following the manifest destiny that has inspired so many trailblazers. He convinced his associate Meyer Lansky, the mastermind behind casinos in 1930s Havana, to push the territorial reach of organized crime westward, building the first big-time celebrity resort in a hinterland town of penny-ante saloons and gambling halls.

It did not begin well. With a visionary’s ambition, Siegel overspent madly on the Flamingo, named for his girlfriend, long-legged redhead Virginia Hill. He ordered tuxedos for all the staff, from janitor to maître d’, and installed a luxurious newfangled air-cooling system. A germophobe, he specified that each toilet in the 93-room hotel should have its own dedicated sewer line. Oriental date palm trees were imported for the lavish landscaping. Smelling a sucker, profiteering contractors delivered building materials in the morning, stole them back at night and resold them to Siegel the next day.

The opening was a debacle and cost overruns led to Siegel’s termination. Six months after the Flamingo’s December 1946 debut, he was shot dead on Virginia Hill’s sofa.

Twenty minutes after Siegel’s demise, Lansky’s operatives marched into the Flamingo and took control. Sound management practices were restored, profits flowed, and soon Vegas became a sunny haven for shady people.

When corporate interests finally ousted the Mafiosi from casino management in the late ’80s, the town’s outlaw reputation was a matter of chagrin to the Chamber of Commerce. City fathers spent years trying to reposition it as a family-friendly vacation spot with recreations about the same as those legally available in Peoria.

After mob lawyer Oscar Goodman was elected mayor in a 1999 landslide, City Hall reversed the Disneyfication strategy. Boosters began to flaunt Vegas’ crooked roots. The tourist authority launched the iconic slogan “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” It’s at once an invitation to hedonistic excess and a Mafioso-style promise of immunity, even if a visitor’s indiscretions are merely second helpings at the buffet.

Today Vegas is as proud of Bugsy Siegel as Philadelphia is of Ben Franklin, inviting tourists to savor the unsavory history of America’s only mob-created metropolis. A range of new attractions enshrine the scams and payoffs, bribes and beatings and burials in the desert. Las Vegas boasts two gruesomely fascinating underworld museums, several firing ranges where the would-be Scarface can blast away with a Tommy gun, and a new fine dining restaurant dedicated to the town’s most mobbed-up celebrity, Frank Sinatra.

In the Tropicana Hotel, there’s the Las Vegas Mob Attraction, a 26,000-square-foot gangster theme park featuring live actors, filmed commentary by famed Hollywood hoodlums, and more than 1,500 criminal artifacts. The $13 million museum, opened in 2011 by holding company Murder Inc., went through its own Flamingo-like takeover just months after opening. A bankruptcy accountant appointed by the court to untangle the operation’s murky finances found “unspecified payments” of $2.5 million to individuals and $1 million to companies “for purposes the special master cannot presently determine.” The Las Vegas Sun declared it a “story fit for ‘The Sopranos.’ ”

Theatrical approach to mob

Fittingly enough, the crime series’ stars Tony Sirico (“Paulie Walnuts”) and Frank Vincent (“Phil Leotardo”) are among the reopened Mob Attraction’s filmed guides, offering prerecorded commentary throughout the tour. Visitors enter through an elaborate stage set evoking 1930s Little Italy. Here an improv actor in Al Capone pinstripes recruits you into the Cosa Nostra. If you successfully outwit a second actor playing a cop and contact another mobster, you are a made man. If you fail, the tour ends with filmed executioners strafing you with machine gun fire for your blunders.

Theatrical hokum aside, the exhibit provides an entertaining overview of organized crime in Sin City. There are confiscated weapons and personal relics (Lucky Luciano’s banana-yellow Studebaker limousine, diamond pinky rings from L.A. kingpin Mickey Cohen.) Flat-eyed men with doughy faces stare from mug shots alongside plaques detailing their colorful, blood-spattered careers. Here you can learn about Tony “the Ant” Spilotro, the Chicago mob’s chief overseer in the Southwest, whom the FBI says committed at least 22 murders, some quite grisly. Former Mayor Oscar Goodman, the defense attorney who represented Spilotro time and again, described his client as “kind and sweet and gentle as a human being can be.” (Admission: $33. Tropicana Hotel, 3801 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; 1-702-739-2662)

Where Sin City began

A mile north is the renovated Flamingo Casino. It’s now a 3,500-room mega­resort related to the original 1946 hotel through heritage and location only. A plaque and stone pillar in the garden courtyard behind the hotel towers pay tribute to Siegel, but the last remains of his luxurious folly were bulldozed in 1996. The current facility is disappointingly down-at-the-heel, with woebegone carpets, weary waitresses and a fashion colonnade that suggests a burial ground where ailing businesses go to die. Still, the hotel’s facade, a glittering lollapalooza of pink-and-orange neon plumage, bears witness to the mobster-hotelier’s garish notion of sophistication, and the X Burlesque show “Bugsy’s Girls” honors his taste in long-stemmed showgirls. It’s well worth a nighttime gawk, if not a lengthy pilgrimage inside. (3555 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; 1-702-733-3111.)

A mile farther north one enters another galaxy. The Sinatra restaurant in the chic new Wynn Encore Resort is an experience of understated elegance no well-heeled traveler can afford to miss. This is a trattoria where Italian-American home cooking and regional Mediterranean specialties are raised to the level of art. Frank was no food snob. He liked simple fare — lasagna Bolognese, sautéed green beans, Caesar salad — well prepared. Here everything is made from scratch daily, cooked as lovingly as if your grandma was a gourmet chef, and served in a warm, relaxed and attentive atmosphere. For starters, I ordered “Frank’s spaghetti & clams” with sweet manila clams in a succulent tomato garlic broth ($29). The main course was veal parmigiana, a paper-thin pounded chop wreathed in melted mozzarella and pomodoro sauce ($49). Reservations are essential and worth the planning. You leave a bit awed, as if you’d just seen Old Blue Eyes performing from a front-row seat. (3131 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; 1-702-248-3463)

Mob meets Vegas stagecraft

The Mob Museum, alias the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, is two blocks from the neon canyon of downtown’s frenetic Fremont Street, in a handsome former post office and federal courthouse. The $42 million museum, which has drawn some 200,000 visitors in its first year of operation, offers an intriguing glimpse into the dark world of crime and punishment, pleasingly balanced with high-tech Vegas stagecraft. The displays are a veritable greatest hits collection of American organized crime. Here’s a bullet-riddled section of the Chicago garage wall that was the backdrop to the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. There’s the barber chair from New York City’s Park Sheraton Hotel where in 1957 Gambino family overlord Albert Anastasia was whacked while awaiting a trim, a historically bad hair day.

The museum tempers romantic notions about mobsters with realistic depictions of their crimes. A casino “skim room” explains how enormous amounts of cash evaporated between the gaming floor and the bookkeepers’ ledgers. Much of the space is devoted to the exploits of G-men, with authentic surveillance films, wiretap recordings, and displays of scientific evidence-gathering. Limber visitors can crawl inside a small packing crate equipped with a peephole to experience how agents spied on mob-affiliated freight handlers. The immaculately restored third-floor courthouse, home to crimebusting Sen. Estes Kefauver’s 1950s organized crime hearings, now serves as a lecture hall where authors, FBI field agents and legitimate descendants of crime figures share their stories. For the full deterrent effect, have a seat in the starkly lit electric chair. (Admission: $19. 300 E. Stewart Av., Las Vegas; 1-702-229-2734)

No walk on Vegas’ wild side would be complete without a trip to one of the city’s firing ranges. The Guns & Ammo Garage is a onetime muffler shop reborn as a 12-lane shooting emporium. The Garage has partnered with the Mob Museum, offering visitors the chance to fire a range of Prohibition-era weapons under the guidance of safety officers. For $139.95, the Garage’s Mob Package allows a customer to shoot 16 rounds from a semi-automatic 1911 Colt .45 pistol, 10 rounds from a .38-caliber snub-nose revolver (dubbed “the Mafia paperweight”) and 50 rounds from a fully automatic Tommy gun (nicknamed “the Chicago typewriter”). The package includes museum admission, limo service to the range, and a souvenir T-shirt. The experience is intense, short-lived and somewhat costly, but no more so than a few spins at the roulette wheel. Missing it would be a crime. (5155 S. Dean Martin Dr., Las Vegas; 1-702-440-4867)

  • related content

  • Tanya Morris took a photo of her husband, Ted Morris, at Guns & Ammo Garage in Las Vegas, a shooting range designed to draw tourists in Las Vegas.

  • Today Las Vegas is as proud of Bugsy Siegel as Philadelphia is of Ben Franklin, inviting tourists to savor the unsavory history of America’s only mob-created metropolis.

  • ‚ A handgun that once allegedly belonged to mobster Bugsy Siegel at the Mob Experience at the Tropicana.

  • Red makes a fitting backdrop to the barber chair where Gambino family head Albert Anastasia was shot dead in 1957. The chair is on display at the Mob Museum in Vegas.

  • if you go

    For information on hotels, shows and more, go to the website of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority at www.lasvegas.com.

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