Back when concrete plans were coming together for the construction of a $43 million mob museum in Downtown Las Vegas, I was a vocal media cheerleader. Tourists constantly ask me how they can soak in the town’s Mafia lore, so if this was done right, it would be a slam dunk. On one TV show, I said I couldn’t imagine how Oscar Goodman’s big brainstorm could fail.
Well, now I can. I’m quite worried, in fact.
On Monday, I took a sneak-peek tour of the other museum, the Las Vegas Mob Experience at the Tropicana, which opened Tuesday to the public in so-called “preview” mode. (Full disclosure: The Weekly’s sister publication, The Las Vegas Sun, is involved in a cross-promotional agreement with the attraction.) As I often try to, I put myself in the shoes of tourists and realized there’s not going to be any reason to go all the way Downtown for a museum when such a wild mob fix is more convenient and probably cheaper at the Trop.
I wasn’t expecting much out of the LVME, partly because it was announced before the Trop renovation began to bear fruit, so it was conceived with the stink and low-class gloss that coated its future home at the time. Even with a $25 million price tag, it sounded cheesy and opportunistic.
By contrast, the Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement is being curated by Dennis and Kathy Barrie, the wundercouple who also created the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, among others. They became known for applying serious museum credentials to offbeat topics, and they were setting out to design an institution that would both be fun and interactive, but also grounded in serious research. With support and involvement from various Mafioso descendants as well as the FBI, it would bring people closer to the balanced truth of the era.
That is likely still to be true, and perhaps the most inveterate Mob-obsessed travelers will haul themselves there whenever it finally opens. But for most people, the LVME is going to be more than enough because it’s quite a thing to see and do. It is, as the title suggests, an “experience,” and one in which tourists carry badges with computer chips that make it possible at various points in a cavernous 24,000-square-foot walk-through to be addressed by name by actors and have footage of them posted to their own Facebook pages.
With holograms of movie stars with some showbiz-mobster connections leading folks through and a choose-your-own-adventure element in which visitors get to decide whether to cheat or rat on the Mob, the LVME provides a lot to entertain Vegas-goers who, after all, crave entertainment.
Also, they got help from real Mafia princes and princesses, so you can spend as much time as you want beholding more than 1,000 artifacts once owned by the likes of Bugsy, Moe and Lefty. You get to feel like you did a museum thing, if that’s something that makes you feel better about your Vegas bacchanalia.
Certainly, the Mob Museum folks will rightly insist that their project is a more accurate and complex survey of the entire mob landscape, not just the sexy Vegasy bits dwelled on by the LVME. But it’s not going to matter. There’s already enough public confusion about the idea of two mob exhibits, and very soon people will start hearing and reading that the one at the Trop is a trip.
Time is always too short for Vegas tourists. If they must choose between cabbing Downtown for some seemingly brainy thing or walking across the street to spend time with Paulie Walnuts, which do you think they’ll choose?