[The Strip Sense]

Lawyers, guns … and money

Why a mob museum in Las Vegas would be criminally successful

This monument dedicated to Bugsy Siegel, in the Flamingo Hotel gardens, is the only monument in the world honoring a mobster and a murderer.
Photo: Richard Brian

Every so often, I’m surprised to be holding a minority opinion among friends and journalism colleagues. There are truths that seem so blatantly obvious that it doesn’t even occur to me that anyone would disagree.

So here’s one: A legitimate mob museum at the beautiful, restored historic old federal building Downtown would be an enormous success for Las Vegas.

Now, that’s not the same as saying I support using money from the federal stimulus package to pay for the Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement. Aside from the fact that I can’t touch that matter because I’ve been covering it as a controversy for some of my newspaper clients, I don’t have a strong opinion anyway.


From the Archives
The Strip Sense: Reveling in our gangster past (3/26/08)
Was Vegas better under the mob? (1/16/08)
Beyond the Weekly
Got stimulus? We’ve got a project list (Las Vegas Sun, 1/17/09)
Mayor returns fire over mob museum funding (Las Vegas Sun, 1/12/09)

As I’ve covered that debate, though, I’ve been stunned to realize people actually question whether it could be an appealing tourist attraction.

U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, for instance, was such a full-throated advocate for the Atomic Testing Museum that there’s a room that bears her name in the same building. Yet she detoured from the funding question in my interview with her to groan, “You know, we’re trying to show the world that Las Vegas is moving beyond its past, and then we do something like a mob museum.”

A few days later, my Las Vegas Weekly colleague Richard Abowitz came out on his Los Angeles Times blog as believing a mob museum “is a horrible idea. In 2009, Vegas has reinvented itself in so many ways and so many times that a mob museum already sounds quaint and dated.”

But the big epiphany came during last Friday’s taping of Nevada Week in Review, when I went 4-on-1 on this very question in a fiery scrum that resulted in 10 unusually entertaining minutes for PBS. Fox 5’s John Huck called a mob museum a potential “white elephant,” the Review-Journal’s Howard Stutz suggested it was Oscar Goodman’s legacy hail Mary, and show host Mitch Fox was baffled over what one would even put in such a place. And, most fun of all, Las Vegas Sun political maestro Jon Ralston nearly shouted his belief that people aren’t going to go Downtown for something like this.

The common undercurrent from those opposed to it is that such a place would glorify a generation of violent criminals and glamorize Mayor Oscar Goodman’s own role as the defense attorney for several Las Vegas mob figures.

So before even getting back to the question of whether anyone would visit it, let’s clear something up. Yes, it was Goodman’s original idea. And yes, Goodman has made objectionable statements throughout the years about what terrific fellows these meanies were, at least whenever he’s even acknowledging the mob’s existence. So if Oscar Goodman were the chief historian or curator for this project, I agree it would not be credible.

But Goodman knows that, too. That’s why he’s brought in a board of serious people chaired by none other than former FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Ellen Knowlton. Respected Las Vegas newsman and historian Bob Stoldal is also in. So is Alan Feldman, the MGM Mirage spokesman who was once part of the Steve Wynn regime that represented the shift from mob rule of the Strip to the modern scheme. Through Knowlton, they’ve got participation from archivists at the FBI, including loads of artifacts and documents.

If anyone believes that Knowlton, Stoldal, Feldman or the entire FBI are about to lend their names to a museum that makes Lefty Rosenthal and Tony Spilotro seem like good fathers, they’re simply blinded by their prejudices against the mayor himself.

What’s more, I’ve met the creative director for this project, Dennis Barrie, and his wife and first lieutenant, Kathleen. Their track record is to be respected; Barrie came to fame by being acquitted of pornography charges when, as director of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, he mounted a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit. He’s since been responsible for the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., the museum at Woodstock in upstate New York and the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. All are considered first-rate. Having listened to the Barries discuss their research methodology, I see no reason to think our mob museum would be any less than a legit academic endeavor.

But what would one put in a mob museum? Geez, how much space ya got? This is not a trivial topic. There are scholars who do nothing but study the sociological, economic and political implications of organized crime. It is a critical and highly influential undercurrent of 20th-century America. And the struggle to eradicate it has been a defining task of law enforcement over the past century. The modern FBI, from its tactics to its technology, has been shaped by its tango with the mob.

Yes, the museum plans to provide some trivial touches like standing in a lineup, having a booking photo taken and wiretapping your mom. That’s called interactivity. It’s fun. It tricks people into learning. Everybody does it.

But while some doubt tourists would go for it, I wonder how they could resist it. It’s not my cup of tea, but I’m in the clear minority on that.

Fact is, few topics have been as persistently popular or lent themselves as unceasingly to successful art and entertainment. Not to mention, millions of tourists flock here every year because of their fascination with our mob past. They take mob bus tours and seek out that stupid Bugsy Siegel statue at the Flamingo. Surely, they’d make an afternoon out of checking out a well-done mob museum and then grab a drink at the Downtown Cocktail Room.

Abowitz makes the claim that “museums are not the sort of new attractions Vegas needs right now to recover.” What, then? Fancy new hotels? Expensive nightclubs? Another Cirque show? Gosh, we haven’t tried any of that. And some museums do work. The Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art had to extend its hours and add months to its Faberge, Warhol and Monet exhibits to meet demand. The Atomic Testing Museum, the Liberace Museum, the Springs Preserve and the Pinball Hall of Fame all do reasonably well, too.

Yes, visitors will go to a museum if it’s something they can only see in Vegas and deals with a topic that interests them. And anyway, the city got the old building from the feds for $1 with the promise it would become a museum, so they have to. As the mayor so indelicately told me in a widely reported quote, tourists are far more likely to come learn about the mob than about watercolors, porcelain or model trains.

Will this thing save Downtown? Will it turn around the economy? Beats me. Will it make money and draw tourists? No-brainer.


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