The really interesting story in the wake of the Mob Museum’s Feb. 14 debut will be how the museum reacts to its downtown casino neighbors—and how they react to it. Usually, when people think of the mob in Las Vegas, they think of Teamster-financed Strip resorts, complete with visions of Frank Sinatra, Sam Giancana and Carl Cohen having a schwitz in the Sands’ steam room while mob lackeys bagged up money for Chicago in the count room. But downtown, even though it’s better known for characters like Benny Binion, Sam Boyd, Mel Exber and Jackie Gaughan, was just as open to mob influence as the Strip.
Everyone who’s seen Casino knows about the skimming that went on at the Tangiers under Ace Rothstein’s watchful eye. Those who know some Vegas history are aware that the Tangiers is a not-so-thinly veiled stand-in for the Stardust, and that De Niro’s Rothstein is based wholesale on Lefty Rosenthal. But not so many people know that Rosenthal’s Vegas bailiwick also included downtown’s Fremont Casino, which is today mere steps away from the Mob Museum.
Even after Nevada gaming regulators forced Rosenthal’s ostensible employer, the Argent Corp., to sell its portfolio, skimming continued. In 1983, federal and state authorities combined to take on Trans Sterling Inc., the company that took over the Stardust and Fremont from Argent and also owned the Sundance, a downtown casino opened in 1979 by Moe Dalitz, the longtime boss of the Desert Inn and a former bootlegger who had long been linked to organized crime.
When it became clear that cash was still being skimmed at all three casinos, Nevada regulators forced their sale. The Fremont and Stardust ended up with the Boyd Group, predecessor to Boyd Gaming, while the Sundance was eventually reborn as Fitzgeralds.
As Gaming Control Board agents were securing the casino cages at the Sundance, few could have imagined that, 30 years later, Dalitz and several of his associates would be featured in a museum in the old Post Office and courthouse on Stewart Street.
But downtown’s done what downtown has always done: adapt. With the Chicago and Kansas City mobs’ hold on its casinos now a generation in the past, it’s suddenly OK to be cozy with organized crime.
In the run-up to its 70th anniversary last year, El Cortez promoted the fact that, for a while in the mid-1940s, underworld casino superstar Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel owned a piece of the casino. General manager Mike Nolan says Meyer Lanksy had gotten his hooks into the property when builder Marion Hicks ran into money problems. Unlike the Fremont and Sundance, though, which were ultimately the targets of a federal strike force, El Cortez exorcized mob influence relatively early on.
Still, El Cortez sees the value in the mob’s historical appeal and is putting together packages that will let guests combine stays at the property with visits to the museum.
Down the street, Fifth Street Gaming’s Sidebar has already been transformed into the Mob Bar, a Prohibition-themed lounge. Fifth Street specifically wanted to align its bar with its new neighbor, and the company’s plans for the former Lady Luck may help better integrate the Mob Museum with the downtown casino scene.
At the other end of Fremont, mob influence is an appetizer at Oscar Goodman’s new steak house at the Plaza, which takes the speakeasy concept to the next level. The restaurant’s full name, Oscar’s Beef, Booze and Broads, has its origins in an early-1970s trial of several Vegas gambling figures with suspected mob ties. The judge, having heard the wiretapped conversations between the principals, which dwelled more on extracurricular activities than the details of organized crime, referred to it as “the booze and broads” case. Steven Rosen, the Plaza’s chief marketing officer, thinks that there’s a natural connection.
“Anyone who goes to the Mob Museum,” he says, “needs to have dinner at Oscar’s to finish the experience. If they’re lucky, he’ll be there himself to answer their questions.”
Just as the California became, in the 1970s, the ultimate Vegas destination for Hawaiian gamblers, and El Cortez has already strengthened its ties to downtown’s art scene, if the Mob Museum proves to be a draw, expect the casinos of Fremont Street to play up this part of their history. It wouldn’t be the first time downtown has changed to meet the times, though this time it might be looking to the past to get to the future.
Don’t expect, though, anyone to bring back skimming, extortion or robbery as tourist highlights. Like some neighborhoods, the past might be a nice place to visit, but few would want to live there.