The mob is making a comeback in Las Vegas
LAS VEGAS — You've always come here for experiences: at the gaming tables and buffet tables, in the lounges and showrooms, or just gawking at surreal replicas of world landmarks in the middle of the desert.
Now, when you come here, you can also get rubbed out by Soprano-style bad guys with thick necks, Brooklyn accents and automatic weapons — virtually, of course.
The Tropicana Hotel launched the Las Vegas Mob Experience this spring: part museum, part theme park, with nifty interactive special effects designed by Disney "imagineers."
The visitor becomes a character in the story, and has choices to make. The wrong one could get you whacked. The right one — per the underworld code of morality — you get "made."
There's a T-shirt for either outcome in the gift shop.
The Tropicana "experience" is the first of two installations charting the rise and fall of Mafia involvement in Las Vegas.
Miami Beach mob boss Meyer Lansky and his top lieutenant, Hollywood's Vincent "Jimmy Blue Eyes" Alo were in on it from the start as associates of Lucky Luciano and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel in turning the Flamingo Hotel into first casino resort in 1946.
Not yet up and running: the city's official "mob museum" — formally the Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement. The $42 million project, housed in a 1933 downtown post office/federal courthouse, is set to open on Feb. 14, 2012. The date is deliberate, since one of its marquee attractions will be a section of the Chicago garage wall in front of which seven Prohibition-era hoods met their demise on Feb. 14, 1929, in the notoriously bloody St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Look for the original machine gun-slug pock marks.
The facility also snagged the barber chair in which New York crime boss Albert Anastasia died amid a hail of bullets, and an audiotape from an actual "made man" induction.
The Tropicana's Mob Experience is part of an overall, $200 million hotel renovation by the South Florida-based Nikki Beach Club entertainment group.
What you get for $39.95 and about an hour at the Mob Experience is a chance to role-play actual wiseguys, also Mafia-flick actors like James Caan and Mickey Rourke as holographic narrators, and an impressive collection of memorabilia, in a 26,000-square-foot display.
The flashiest find: Bugsy's 1933 Packard limo, impeccably restored. But some might be more entranced by Lansky's handwritten diaries, in which he muses about his destiny. Visitors can turn the pages electronically, and read a transcript.
"My role wasn't assigned to me," Lansky wrote. "I chose my role the same way as any businessman chose his role. I listened, and read a lot about men in all kinds of endeavors. The men who mostly went to the top were men with integrity. Whatever business I decided to be in would never change my principles."
Jay Bloom, managing partner of the Mob Experience, calls the diaries — acquired from Lansky's granddaughter, Cynthia Duncan of Miami — one of the attraction's "Holy Grails."
He said he cold-called Duncan, who ultimately offered a trove of photos and artifacts and consulted on the project.
The Alo artifacts came from his niece, Carole Russo, also of Miami.
All the major Vegas-related characters are represented, including Luciano, enforcer Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, Hank Greenspun (the Flamingo publicist who later ran the Las Vegas Sun newspaper), Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, Frank Costello, Sam Giancana, casino owner Allan Sachs, tycoon Howard Hughes, and entertainers Frank Sinatra and Eddie Fisher.
Some artifacts Bloom said he politely declined, including Louisiana crime boss Carlo Marcello's teeth.
Some vocal critics, including academics, have panned the project for romanticizing organized crime and glossing over the violence and corruption which, as much as the block and plaster, built Sin City. But Bloom defends the premise.
"The families did not see these men as psychotic killers," Bloom said during a walkthrough days before the March 29 grand opening. "Yes, they killed, but they were also religious. They stole, but they were generous, and they tried to shield their families from their business.
"The families were discouraged with the way Hollywood portrayed them."
So, because every gangster needs a moniker, that's what you get first thing in the door, along with a bar-coded badge that will trigger various activities in your native language as you proceed through the exhibits.
If a guide gets you to give up your cellphone number, you'll get an extra dimension of interaction when you least expect it: a phone call from an actual "made man." And he'll know your name.
I become Peanuts, an amusing coincidence for one who is vertically challenged.
The exhibit begins with the Italian immigrants who came through Ellis Island and planted the seeds of La Cosa Nostra on New York's Lower East Side that ultimately sprouted in the Midwest, New England, California and, by the 1940s, Nevada.
One of the holographic narrators — Caan, who played Sonny Corleone in the "Godfather" films — in a sharksin suit and silver tie, explains the mob's involvement in bootlegging. Then he tells you to go down the alley and knock on the last door on the left.
A slot opens. A guy in a loose tie with a cigar hands you an envelope. You are now a "bag man."
"Give it to Big Leo," he says. "And watch your back."
A pair of guidos lead us to a guy draped in gold jewelry, including the requisite giant pinkie ring, relaxing with a bottle of red wine at a cafe table.
"Treat Big Leo wit' due respect," one of them warns. "If da cops pick you up, I'll help you in da jail."
"We're very big in Miami," Big Leo says, having been cued by my badge.
The room devoted to Lansky and Alo all but brings them to life through talking holograms, home movies, audiotape, family snapshots and personal effects: Meyer's iconic white shoes, hat and light-blue sportcoat in a glass case. His bow tie collection and leatherbound library. His Social Security card, silver cigarette case, his glasses and their case from Sutton Optical, 1660 Meridian Ave., Miami Beach.
His Dade County "declaration of domicile:" 5255 Collins Ave., apartment 2-A; his love letters to his wife, Teddy — "keep your legs crossed and go to sleep" — and his written pleas to the president of Israel seeking asylum, as the federal government pursued him near the end of his life.
A front page of the old Miami News on Jan. 15, 1983, announces his death at age 80.
There's nearly as much on Alo, Lansky's tight-lipped advisor, who helped run mob operations in Vegas, Florida and Cuba.
An avid golfer, he's pictured on a golf course mid-swing, riding a burro in Cuba, and outside his house in Hollywood, Fla., with his wife, Florence.
He died of natural causes in 2001, a widower just shy of his 97th birthday.
"Alo took on near-mythical status in the world of organized crime," a plaque reads. "To the average foot soldier in the mob, it was unfathomable that Lansky (who was Jewish), could be one of the biggest bosses in the world of organized crime and have an Italian (Alo) as his right-hand man. Surely, they thought, Lansky had to be working for Alo, not the other way around."
While the Mob Experience is long on flash, the Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement promises a more sober look at the same era, roughly the post-war 1940s to the mid-1980s, when the casinos went legit, with greater emphasis on the crime fighters who drove the mob out than on the gangsters themselves. In fact, Sen. Estes Kefauver's Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce held hearings in the building's main courtroom in 1950 and '51.
His aim was to shut the casinos down. Precisely the opposite happened, making Las Vegas the center of the gambling universe.
The museum is the brainchild of Oscar Goodman, Las Vegas mayor from 1999 until his wife replaced him in June. The former mob lawyer doesn't see the Tropicana project as competition, and can barely tolerate the mention of its name.
He had a sentimental feeling about the building that will house the city's museum, because it's where he tried his first federal case. The city bought it from the feds for $1, with the proviso that any renovation had to meet national landmark guidelines.
"We will have a museum second to none!" Goodman declared.
He explained that in the end, the racketeers ran themselves out of business because "they got greedy and sloppy, and didn't realize about the government wiretaps."
He said the museum would be "an educational experience. This is really America's story."
The 43,000-square-foot space spans three floors and a basement, and will retain original windows, oak flooring, hardware, marble, brass post-office boxes, heavy safe doors and other architectural features.
Working off original blueprints, designers were able to recreate just about everything they couldn't find or salvage, from chandeliers to leatherette doors.
Kathy and Dennis Barrie, who created the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., were hired to do the same in the old Vegas post office. With most of the construction work finished, they began installing exhibits in mid-June.
"We collected from a number of people in the FBI or their children," Dennis Barrie said. "We also are working with a couple of major collectors of organized crime material."
There will be a car from "a recently deceased mobster," 3-D projections in the courtroom, federal-agent weapons training and wiretapping exhibits, and a feature that "lets you trace mob activity in your own community," Barrie said.
There's material from South Florida and from Tampa, which had an active underworld.
"We'll have a lot of interactivity, but no live actors," he said. "That's pretty hokey."
They do, however, have audio and video of John Gotti, some of the Dapper Don's clothing, and "a whole exhibit on mob hits."
"We want to show the interconnectivity of the mob, politicians, judges, labor leaders and famous celebrities," Barrie said. "These people are not cartoons, and you can't exclude talking about the really bad things these guys did."