Tuesday, March 1, 2011 | 9:17 p.m.
The idea was not sketched on a cocktail napkin, exactly.
It was a wax paper wrapper for a Subway sandwich, which Jay Bloom used as his first easel for what is, today, the $25 million, 26,000-square-foot Mob Experience at the Tropicana.
“It’s an incredible feeling, to look back at how this started and to see it now,” Bloom said this afternoon as the attraction opened for previews in the hotel’s convention area on the south side of the property. “I don’t know what it’s like to have kids, but imagine being pregnant for 24 months before you can give birth.”
In the first four days -- or, through Friday -- admission to the Mob Experience is free, with a suggested donation of $10 for the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. Then from Saturday through March 29, the official preview period, tickets are $29.95. After March 29, the full ticket price of $39.95 will be in place. Hours of operation are daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., with the final admission allowed at 9 p.m. (The Sun is involved in a cross-promotional agreement with the attraction in which it shares photo and video content in exchange for brand placement.)
The Mob Experience has already overcome significant obstacles in its infancy. Expected to be ready for business by the end of December, its opening has been delayed for what Bloom says are two chief reasons. Suppliers overseas have struggled to promptly fill orders, and the acoustic issues in the hotel’s old convention space required additional sound equipment to overcome. Many affects, such as some of the hologram images of the celebrity “guides” and some memorabilia provided by famous mob-affiliated family members are still on arrival.
These logistic and technical concerns discount the real-life conflict Bloom has with former Mob Experience spokeswoman Antoinette Giancana, the daughter of Sam “Momo” Giancana, who has sued Bloom’s Murder Inc. (Mob Experience’s parent company) for more than $80,000 in a breach-of-contract suit. Through her new attorney, Ihab T. Omar of Las Vegas, Giancana has also issued a cease-and-desist letter to the Tropicana and Murder Inc., notifying that both parties should stop using the name “Giancana” in the attraction.
Bloom has responded by essentially ignoring the letter, saying, “It has no bearing on anything.” The Mob Experience remains unaffected by the suit or the cease-and-desist letter, and Bloom has ended Giancana’s consulting contract. In a knife twist worthy of any tantalizing mob saga, he has hired her deposed son, Carl Manno, as her replacement as a paid spokesman for the attraction.
Family conflict? In a mob-themed tourist attraction? And we’re supposed to be surprised … Why, exactly? And this isn’t even delving into the downtown Mob Museum, backed by Mayor Oscar Goodman and housed in the famous Federal Courthouse building in downtown Las Vegas, which was home to the Kefauver Hearings in 1950. That attraction, too, will be open this year, to spark quite a mob-off in Vegas.
As of today, what you do experience at the Trop’s Experience is still a lot of promise and hints of what the attraction will become.
“What we’re doing has never been done,” Bloom says. “And we are still dialing all of the technology and getting it all dialed in tightly.”
As you enter, you’re first met with a gift shop featuring such items as an “I Got Made” T-shirts and “I’ve Got An Offer You Can’t Refuse” women’s briefs, just to get in the mood.
At the box office, each guest is asked to provide such information as his or her name, city and state of origin, approximate age and even native language (more than a half-dozen are used as the celeb guides walk visitors through the tour). The information is stored on an RFID card implanted in each guest’s admission badge. Visitors also can opt out and take a generic, non-customized tour.
Guests select their own celebrity guide among such hard-ass actors as James Caan, Frank Vincent, Mickey Rourke, Steve Schirripa and Tony Sirico. They have all provided their images and voices to the Experience, appearing in hologram form throughout.
The tour unfolds in three acts: The Beginnings, The Heyday and The Decline and Fall of the Mob.
Upon entry, you meet your celeb guide -- mine was Caan, who begins to tell the story of Prohibition as videos of that period play on panels across the entryway. You knock on a door, and a mail slot opens with an Italian gentleman saying that “Big Leo” needs to see us. A whiskey barrel slides to the side, and you are led to a goombah sitting over a plate of cannolis, an apple and an orange. He asks for an envelope stuffed with cash; maybe you have it, maybe you don’t.
This is one of the decisions you make on the path to the culmination of the tour, where your fate is ultimately decided.
You move on to a police station, where yet another actor (this one with a comically thick Irish accent) pesters you about Big Leo. You answer accordingly -- maybe you’ve met Big Leo and disclose what happened, or you just lie to the officer. Again, your call.
A Prohibition-era saloon, replete with old hooch bottles, leads to one of the more inventive scenes: images of Meyer Lansky and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel talking of their grand designs for the Vegas desert. They stand behind a 1933 Packard 12 once owned by Siegel, and which was long ago displayed at Main Street Station before it was snapped up at auction by a collector in 1991, who in turn sold it to Bloom.
The tour spills into the office of Las Vegas Sun founder Hank Greenspun, where on the vintage RCA Victor black-and-white, the celeb guide continues the narrative, talking of how organized crime took hold of Vegas in the 1950s.
A scaled-down depiction of the Tropicana casino floor is next, outfitted with an old blackjack table and a vintage “Folies Bergere” costume encased in glass. That leads to a catwalk, where video images of gamblers playing 21 are shown far below. Someone down there is cheating, we surmise, and it’s the guy on third base. He’s pulled from the table by a couple of muscled-up guys in suits, and we are then met by a guy brandishing a Louisville Slugger bat wrapped in black electric tape. This highly agitated actor makes Joe Pesci look like Charlie Brown, and asks, “Whaddya wanna do to dis guy?”
We want to beat the crap out of him, of course, and that violence plays out in silhouettes behind glass doors. The violence is so realistic that the reason the actor’s bat is taped is because he broke it against the wall during rehearsals. Later we are led to a “soft count” room and are told all about how “the skim” works, information we might want to keep a secret for future questioning.
We enter Act 2, the mob’s heyday period, by entering a circular space bearing the images of Lansky, Siegel, Giancana, Tony Spilotro, Mickey Cohen and Lucky Luciano. In separate rooms, you find such personal effects as Siegel’s own home movies, shot on 16-milimeter film in the 1930s and showing the notorious gangster at the pool, wearing what seems to be an early version of white Speedos and smoking a foot-long cigar. As this plays out, a hologram image of Siegel tells the story of -- who else? -- Siegel.
Such intimate artifacts as an International Hotel ashtray Spilotro palmed from Elvis Presley’s suite, and the keys to Lefty Rosenthal’s ill-fated 1981 Cadillac Eldorado (the one blown apart in a 1982 assassination attempt outside Tony Roma’s on Sahara Avenue) are displayed among dozens of such items. Luciano’s 1927 Studebaker, a heavy-duty mob mobile, also is presented.
As you enter the inevitable decline of the mob in Act 3, you meet Howard Hughes and the story of how he began snapping up hotel-casinos (starting with his own residence, the Desert Inn) to bring about the demise of organized crime’s hold on the city. Thankfully, we are spared the sights, sounds and smells of Hughes’ suite at the D.I.
A busted-up jewelry store, with a noisy burglary in progress, brings to life Spilotro’s “Hole in the Wall Gang” activities. Then we encounter an FBI surveillance van, equipped with cameras we learn have been tracking our tour. We re-live the meeting with Big Leo and the scene of the backroom beating of the blackjack cheater.
On the way out, Lansky’s image is shown once more, looming ominously over a cutout of today’s Strip skyline and warning us of the methods used to fight crime. We are walked through a hallway lined with the busts of the famous crime figures we’ve encountered (Spilotro is particularly creepy, for his piercing eyes and Fonzie-style coif) until we meet our “final fate.” The decisions we’ve made can lead to any sort of conclusion -- being whacked, being sent to the Witness Protection Program, getting in a gunfight with Tommy-gun toting gangsters in a drive-by shootout. In that scenario, air cannons augment the blasts of gunfire, and the smell of spent gunpowder hangs in the air.
And when you leave, you return whence you started -- the gift shop!
Worth 40 bucks? Sure. And how long will this Mob Experience be experienced?
“Look around,” Bloom says. “This is permanent.”