With one mob-related attraction on the Strip open and downtown’s flagship Mob Museum gearing up, this seems a city obsessed with its criminal past. New York and Chicago might have written the book on “the mob,” but Las Vegas is staking its claim on the epilogue.
There’s no denying that organized crime was influential in the development of the casino industry on the Strip, and the backers of the Las Vegas Mob Experience, which just opened at the Tropicana, are hoping nostalgia for the “good old days” of mob domination in Las Vegas will be a golden ticket in an age of reduced expectations and plummeting revenues per available room.
But what’s the Mob Experience offering visitors? It’s a curious mix of the sordid and the stylish. “Our Networks Weren’t Social,” proclaim the blood-spattered roadside billboards, which feature a stylized mobster silhouette and a palette of red, white and black.
With fedora-wearing ticket-takers and an almost-Technicolor presentation, it’s clear that the Mob Experience isn’t a dry, academic colloquium on criminal justice. With costumed actors and sets straight off a Hollywood back lot, this is a haunted-house history of Las Vegas and the mob: Frightening ghosts of Mafiosi past glower at us, but there’s little danger that they’ll make us think as we pass through. It’s Fright Dome with wiseguys instead of wraiths.
So, like the billboards, the museum itself depicts the world in black and white, with blood-red added for effect. Perhaps it’s not the best approach for a city whose history is dominated by shades of gray.
1. What’s it saying?
The Mob Experience suggests that American organized crime is fundamentally foreign and transitory; it was carried over in carpetbags and knapsacks on the passage to Ellis Island and imported into the cities by striving lawbreakers, primarily of Italian and Jewish descent. Serious lawbreaking started with the creation of Prohibition in 1920, and though the gangsters waged bloody war against each other, they posed no threat to anyone outside their ranks. With the passage of the 21st Amendment and repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the mob shifted its focus almost entirely to gambling, culminating in its beneficial founding of Las Vegas.
Visitors to the Mob Experience walk through a series of tableaux, interacting with characters straight out of the movies: an actor playing a burly enforcer speaking fluent Brooklynese named Tony directs visitors to Big Leo, sitting on the patio of an Italian eatery, perpetually uneaten cannoli in front of him. Despite the token presence of a flatfoot with a lilting Irish brogue who ineffectually asks questions about a mob boss still contemplating his cannoli a few steps away, it’s a journey through a fantastic underworld.
The problem with walking a straight line from Ellis Island to a Greenwich Village social club to the backroom of a Las Vegas casino is that it obscures the real history—and brutality—of American organized crime. A history of organized crime that starts with Prohibition and ends with the Stardust’s sale to the Boyd Group doesn’t just distort the past; it hampers the way we see the present. Organized crime has been a part of American life since at least the 1850s. There’s probably not a major metropolitan area in the world that doesn’t have some sort of organized criminal presence.
What’s more, organized crime—from gang-related murders in Las Vegas to brutal narco-terrorism along the Mexican border—is hardly a part of distant history. It’s still a violent part of everyday life, and to claim that gangland violence is dead and buried trivializes the ongoing struggle against it.
You can argue that the sort of messy, vicious crime that drug lords and neighborhood strongmen are perpetrating today isn’t the real deal—sure, it might be crime that’s organized from a clinical perspective, but it doesn’t have the romance of pinstriped dons holding court in social clubs, bestowing gravel-voiced benedictions on the happy souls who seek their aid while club-wielding enforcers stand at the ready, poised to mete out justice that is surely just and never motivated by self-serving greed or petty power-seeking. Maybe the don’s even got a cat he dotes on as he’s ruling on affairs of state, and maybe he gardens in his spare time. That’s the kind of mob history we’re talking about, that’s what we want to venerate.
Once we’ve decided to focus in on the “real” mob—which seems to owe much more to film reels than any reality of the past, narrowly defined as what you’d see in The Sopranos and not on Oz or The Wire—the narrative of the Mob Experience is still troubling. It suggests that the mob was a victimless criminal enterprise, existing only to serve a consumer demand for products priggish lawmakers sought to deny the public. That’s true in part—organized crime wouldn’t be so profitable if much of it wasn’t consumer-driven—but it’s favoring the “organized” over the “crime.” The average crime family didn’t—and doesn’t—keep hold of a lucrative illegal market without the liberal use of violence, both offensively (to move into new areas and intimidate potential competitors) and defensively. There’s no section of the Mob Experience where tourgoers can step (gingerly) around the smashed windows and burned stock of shopkeepers who refused to pay protection money, no pictorials of communities ruined by the introduction of mob-siphoned drugs, no re-creations of debtors in thrall to loan sharks begging for more time to pay off the vig on their loan.
Instead, you get James Caan telling you how it really was while the actors gear up for their next performance. For an attraction that plays up the gore factor, there’s surprisingly little grit.
2. What Did These Guys want?
Then there’s the claim that “the mob ran Vegas,” a claim that’s been repeated so many times it’s accepted as true. Yes, there was a substantial organized crime presence in and around many Las Vegas casinos; yes, mob money helped more than a few casinos get off the ground; yes, there are proven connections between fabled Strip hotels like the Stardust, Flamingo and Tropicana and organized crime families from Kansas City to New York; but this doesn’t mean the mob “ran” anything.
First, that statement assumes that the mob was a single, streamlined entity that moved with the same unified purpose as, say AT&T or U.S. Steel, and not a kaleidoscope of various underworld factions and strongmen. “The mob” as a single unit didn’t deliberately do anything; several different characters, often with competing agendas and rivalries, did.
Second, it takes for granted that the mob guys who came to Las Vegas were interested in “running” a city. For the most part, they were not. They were interested in running their businesses and being left alone.
Third, the corollary that “the mob built Las Vegas,” in addition to being untrue (the first Las Vegas gambling hall pre-dates mob involvement, as does the Strip and, for that matter, the Flamingo itself), imparts a public dimension to decisions that were largely self-serving. As Moe Sedway said before the Kefauver Committee in 1950, you “just go into that type of business and you get into it and you stay in it.” The guys who came out to Las Vegas to build casinos knew the gambling business, so they built casinos; they no more were thinking about the ennoblement of Southern Nevada than the former bootleggers who drifted into waste management had a profound care for the natural environment, or those who went into loan-sharking were keen to fund start-ups.
It’s empty PR spin for guys who don’t need it. Without a doubt, those who built Southern Nevada’s gaming industry were impelled primarily by personal, rather than civic motives; they wanted to make money for themselves and their partners. And, with gambling being legal in Nevada, that’s hardly a crime. Sure, it benefited the community, but it wasn’t because of any benevolent intention.
3. What’s It All Mean?
The most subversive thing about the Mob Experience is that it suggests to the average visitor that, all things being equal, they’d have a good shot of getting “made.” Like daydreamers who imagine that, if given the chance to walk through history, they’d be consulted by Julius Caesar as he pondered the Rubicon, it’s presumptuous to assume that most of us would be welcomed into the inner circle of the Las Vegas mob. For one thing, these weren’t equal-opportunity employers. (Strip and downtown casinos remained racially segregated until 1960, another element of the “good old days” that wasn’t so good.) To be frank, most taxpaying citizens would go out of their way to avoid getting involved with the criminal underworld—prison might be the least of their worries should they start playing the game.
So creating a mob “experience” where all of the re-created mobsters are safely defanged isn’t just a distraction from the slot machines and day clubs—it’s a disingenuous way of looking at our past that also denies the reality of the present, where drug smuggling, loan-sharking and prostitution are mob enterprises that are not unknown in Las Vegas.
As an attraction, the Las Vegas Mob Experience can be fun—well, as fun as a monument to extra-legal violence, tax evasion and grand larceny can be. But the real history of Las Vegas and American organized crime is an innocent bystander, felled in a hail of bullets aimed to thrill audiences whose prior knowledge is distilled from repeat viewings of The Godfather.
Since downtown’s Mob Museum hasn’t opened its doors yet, it’s impossible to say precisely how it will differ, though its organizers seem to have a more educational experience in mind—and they’re giving some much-needed space to the human and law enforcement sides of the story. Nevertheless, a few of the museum’s more lurid showpieces have already been announced: The big find is the barber chair that Albert Anastasia was murdered in 54 years ago. There’s also a gun from an Ohio mobster, and brick from the wall against which Capone henchmen slaughtered the O’Banion gang in the Valentine’s Day massacre, and assorted true crime icons.
What does it say about Las Vegas that we elevate these vestiges of gangland brutality into museum exhibits, and publicly funded ones at that? In the Middle Ages, cathedrals across Europe competed in offering religious relics; a splinter of the True Cross here, the knucklebone of a saint there—these were artifacts of dubious provenance that nonetheless served to channel popular devotion. The devotion, sacrifice and humility of the saints, the memories made immediate by their relics, served as a beacon to the faithful in times of great strife.
What exactly are we paying homage to when we erect a shrine around a barbershop death chair?
In a way, the mob-as-entertainment craze makes perfect historical sense. Having squeezed a fair amount of investment capital and managerial expertise from men—made and not—who came up in illegal, mobbed-up joints, it’s perhaps only fitting that, when faced with an uncertain future, Las Vegas is turning again to the mob. But while many of them were only too eager to “go legit” and leave their bootlegged pasts behind, it’s clear that the mob holds an allure for Las Vegas that’s only too enduring.