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  • The Mob Museum in downtown Las Vegas. (Cindy Yamanaka/Orange County Register/MCT)
  • The mobster theme carries through to even the restroom designations at the Mob Museum in downtown Las Vegas. (Cindy Yamanaka/Orange County Register/MCT)
  • The mob's tangled web and those affected by it is on display at the Mob Museum in downtown Las Vegas. (Cindy Yamanaka/Orange County Register/MCT)
  • Museum Executive Director Jonathan Ullman is shown next to the St. Valentine's Day massacre wall at the Mob Museum in downtown Las Vegas. (Cindy Yamanaka/Orange County Register/MCT)
Sunday, March 11, 2012

Las Vegas’ new mob museum is a ‘hit’

Valentine’s Day is for a day of love and kisses and chocolate and roses.

Except on Feb. 14, 1929, in Chicago, which featured Tommy gun bursts, shotgun blasts, pistol shots and headlines of the slaughter of seven gangsters in a South Side garage – a hit ordered by Al Capone.

Today, the wall peppered with bullets, buckshot and blood from “The St. Valentine’s Day massacre” has been transplanted to downtown Las Vegas. It’s a major piece of the new $42 million National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement.

But nobody calls it that. Not even its own website. Befitting its subject, it only prefers its alias: the Mob Museum.

The Valentine’s Day opening marked a new turn in Sin City’s embrace of its long relationship with organized crime.

“We’re the only American city that springs from the mob,” former Mayor Oscar Goodman said. “We want to tell that story.”

Goodman is part of the tale. His old briefcase is on display in the museum – the one he used when he was a high-profile defense attorney for alleged mobsters. The one that would sometimes travel east to visit his clients’ associates.

“It was full when it left Las Vegas and empty when it came back,” Goodman said with a wry smile.

That a colorful former organized crime lawyer could be a three-term mayor, then be succeeded by his wife, says a lot about how much Las Vegas views its longtime relationship with the mob. What outsiders might view as the bad old days are seen from inside the Clark County line as the good old days.

It’s an attitude that Mob Museum Executive Director Jonathan Ullman is acutely aware that he has to deal with. He has to satisfy – or at least not enrage – those who see the mob’s 1950s to 1970s heyday as a golden age for Las Vegas, while telling a story filled with gambling, prostitution, graft and murder.

“What we’re trying for is something as close as possible to the truth,” Ullman said.

Tracing mob’s roots

The eyes of Al Capone glare out at an exhibit that starts by looking back 100 years to the roots of organized crime in the U.S. After a brief introduction near the entrance, visitors begin on the third floor and work their way down.

The opening portion shows how immigrants from various communities in Europe bound together in the U.S. and created ethnic gangs that expanded into the Mafia. Groups such as the Italian “Black Hand” kept their ties with the old country, importing the codes of secrecy and brotherhood – of “made men” who proved their worth and then made the one-way trip into the society of criminals.

Battle lines often formed along these ethnic lines, as in Chicago, where Capone’s Italian-American mob battled Bugs Moran’s Irish mob. Moran was the intended target of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, but he was delayed getting to the garage and missed his date with death.

In Nevada, the mobsters flourished in the desert. Capone was a bit of a pioneer with Nevada gambling, having an interest in a casino in Reno.

The northern Nevada town was the original haven for mobsters because of its place on the transcontinental railroad. Swarms of bored out-of-towers spent weeks to establish residency and get a quickie divorce.

A Capone ally opened one of the first Las Vegas-area casinos just outside Las Vegas, long before the stretch of road became known as “The Strip.”

Capone died in Florida in early 1947, the same year Bugsy Siegel was shot to death in the Beverly Hills house of his girlfriend, Virginia Hill. Siegel had run the El Cortez in downtown Las Vegas for the mob, then dreamed up the Flamingo resort just outside town.

An expensive flop at first, it would become the new standard for a hotel rush.

Siegel wouldn’t see it – the mob thought he was skimming from the construction funds and had him killed. A large photograph shows the final insult for the proud Siegel, the toe tag on his body with his name misspelled: “Homicide. Benjamin Seigel. 810 Linden, Beverly Hills.”

It’s one of the images in the museum that causes Ullman and his staff to post notices that some exhibits aren’t appropriate for children or the squeamish.

Of course, that’s exactly the kind of stuff visitors will come to see. They might go away disappointed. Unlike the innovative but ultimately hokey Las Vegas Mob Experience that opened and closed at the Tropicana last year, the Mob Museum isn’t a mafia nostalgia theme park.

Museum’s stories

The centerpiece of the Mob Museum is the federal courthouse on the second floor, scene of many mob trials and also the 1950 racketeering hearings held by Sen. Estes Kefauver. When renovating the courtroom, the Mob Museum staff found a quarter-inch-thick steel plate had been built into the front of the judge’s bench, just in case a defendant or his friends tried to take a potshot.

But the hearings didn’t slow the mob’s love affair with Las Vegas and the art of skimming – taking a portion of the winnings from casinos back to the bosses in the East. By the 1960s, the roster of mob families involved in Las Vegas read like the baseball standings – New York, Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Cleveland, St. Louis and Miami.

There’s a fun section on the mob in popular culture, including movies that swung from romanticizing the Prohibition era gunslingers to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s efforts to get Hollywood and even comic book publishers to glorify his “G-Men.”

Many of the exhibits point back to Martin Scorcese’s 1995 film “Casino,” in which Goodman, then the future mayor, essentially played himself as a mob defense lawyer.

The museum winds up its story by showing the decline of the mob’s influence in Las Vegas.

Law enforcement was part of the story, putting more names into the “Black Book,” which barred known criminals from involvement with casinos.

But more important was the diluting effect of the casino buying spree of billionaire Howard Hughes, who arrived in Las Vegas in 1966 and spent much of the rest of his life in a penthouse at the Desert Inn.

Wall Street stepped in after the Corporate Gaming Act of 1969 allowed corporations to own casinos. Slowly, the “families” were replaced by the “companies.”

Meanwhile, organized crime has gone international, as illustrated by a world map covered with hypodermic needles, knives, gambling slips and other criminal ephemera.

On the way out, there’s a nice bookstore with lots of scholarly books on the mob, along with T-shirts. Even the bathrooms get into the spirit. Suspect lineup-style height charts are set on the walls marking the entrance to the men’s and women’s rooms.

New boss in town

Whether you like the Mob Museum might depend on how you come down on the famous final voice-over of Ace Rothstein, the character played by Robert DeNiro in “Casino.” He’s no longer running the Tangiers hotel (based on Stardust) for the mob and left Las Vegas. It’s said over a montage of implosions leveling the old mob-era hotels and the rise of the new cartoonish megaresorts that took their place.

“The town will never be the same,” Rothstein says. “After the Tangiers, the big corporations took it all over. Today it looks like Disneyland. And while the kids play cardboard pirates, Mommy and Daddy drop the house payments and Junior’s college money on the poker slots.

“In the old days, dealers knew your name, what you drank, what you played. Today, it’s like checkin’ into an airport. And if you order room service, you’re lucky if you get it by Thursday.

“Today, it’s all gone. You get a ‘whale’ show up with 4 million in a suitcase, and some 25-year-old hotel school kid is gonna want his Social Security number. After the Teamsters got knocked out of the box, the corporations tore down practically every one of the old casinos.

“And where did the money come to rebuild the pyramids? Junk bonds.”