Vegas Reclaims Its Ties to the Mob

After more than a decade of playing every possible hand to draw visitors, Las Vegas is finally pulling its organized-crime card.

Swept under the table in favor of celeb chefs, theme nightclubs, and Broadway-style productions, Vegas’ ties to the mob continued to captivate both Hollywood and history buffs; from the ’40s through the ’70s, these ties made the city the gaming capital of the U.S. Now, two new, heavily publicized “interactive attractions” aim to cash in on that legacy.

Sure, there’s a story in the attractions’ similarities: Will a blood-crusted fedora here or bullet-pocked divan there dramatically alter one exhibit’s attendance? (Both properties have annual expectations in the mid- “hundreds of thousands.”) It’s far more illuminating, however, to look at their differences, and how each attraction might stimulate the city.

Open since late March, the for-profit Las Vegas Mob Experience at the Tropicana Hotel takes a revisionist approach to organized crime history. While life-size movie gangsters (James Caan, Mickey Rourke) provide running commentary, visitors with mob monikers like “Lefty” and “Legs” do “favors” for “bosses” and avoid being “whacked.”

Playing on romantic, Mack the Knife notions, the Mob Experience suggests gangsters committed atrocious acts by day, “but then at night, they came home and they were loving fathers and husbands,” explains managing partner Jay Bloom.

This, writes Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith, is the sanitized, “Hitler had a dog” version of organized crime history. (In a nation of movie-viewers who laugh out loud remembering scenes from Analyze This and My Cousin Vinnie, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.)

The Mob Experience does have an impressive array of memorabilia mostly purchased from the relatives of gangsters including Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel and Sam Giancana. A few mobster-spawn are even among its paid consultants. Vince Spilotro, for example, the son of convicted murderer Anthony “The Ant” Spilotro, signed on in an effort to expose the truth about his dad. (Vince believes the FBI and the press exaggerated his father’s exploits.)

With its on-the-Strip location, $39.95 entry fee (on par with Vegas’ other “interactive” attractions), and fully stocked gift shop, the Mob Experience isn’t targeting historians but the Hangover crowd: Vegas visitors in search of a hot desert day diversion, something air-conditioned to do between pool-cabana naps and afternoon cocktails. And though independent from the hotel, it’s helping to bring much-needed attention to the long-suffering (recently renovated) Trop.

In stark contrast is the $42 million Mob Museum –- officially, the Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement — where the focus isn’t on the ruthless antics of colorful killers, but on the very real, brutal “dynamic tension between law enforcement and the mob.”

Spearheaded by three-term outgoing Vegas mayor (and former mob defense lawyer) Oscar Goodman, the publicly funded museum –- housed in a historically renovated federal courthouse — is finally set to open this December, after seven years of red tape.

To achieve his creative vision (and appease wary critics), Goodman tapped a top-notch team of historians, law enforcement officials, museum-design specialists (and maybe a reformed mob crony or two). Among the experts: creative director Dennis Barrie, co-creator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the International Spy Museum, and curatorial head Ellen Knowlton, a former FBI agent who ran the agency’s Las Vegas office.

Hands-on displays focus on the consequences of organized crime –- not just by gangsters, but also by crooked cops and politicians — displayed via photos, wiretap transcripts, audio and video tapes, and (donated) artifacts.

Details are still being formalized, but one thing’s for certain, Barrie promises: “There’ll be controversy in this museum.”