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March 3, 2015

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Jon Ralston:

Mob Museum may be hit, but questions never a hit with Oscar

As the media generally gush over the Mob Museum and Las Vegas momentarily forgets Oscar Goodman is not the mayor anymore, here’s your Friday Flash with some musings on the National Museum for Organized Crime and Law Enforcement:

• What’s in a name? I still can’t get over the addition of “Law Enforcement” to the museum. How obvious is it that they were sensitive that this might just be a glorification of organized crime? Those last two words and the addition of former local FBI boss Ellen Knowlton were done for credibility, to intimate that this would show the good, the bad and the ugly. And from what I am told, that it does — the bloody violence, the innocents killed, the justice achieved. But it’s not nicknamed “The FBI Museum.” It’s the Mob Museum and always will be known as such because people are fascinated with la Cosa Nostra.

• Reserving judgment: I have not yet toured the museum — I figure I will do so when all the hype and media-escorted tours are over. The gushing coverage makes me wince, so I will judge for myself. I will say that I visited the Spy Museum in Washington with my daughter a few years ago and it was a spectacular, memorable experience. The Barries, Dennis and Kathy, know what they are doing. They also designed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and are a delightful, obviously creative couple — I interviewed them on “Face to Face” and you can see it here: here.

The Barries can’t really answer why people who come to Las Vegas would want to go to a museum of any kind, and they acknowledge the inherent gamble of the facility being in downtown Las Vegas. Dennis Barrie also acknowledged that 200,000-300,000 people a year might be a better estimate than the city’s 300,000 or ex-Mayor Goodman’s 800,000 pronouncement.

He said that after I presented him with initial estimates of the Rock and Roll museum that indicated as many as a million a year could come — the biggest year was 477,000.

• Brooking no dissent: Some things never change, so I was not surprised when Mayor Thug reappeared when the Nevada Policy Research Institute questioned how the museum was financed. The questions were legitimate, even if you disagree with NPRI’s conclusion that it is a waste of tax money. The $42 million in financing was cobbled together from various public sources — the city even borrowed against its sewer fund at one point — in a desperate attempt to satisfy the ex-mob lawyer’s fantasy of reliving his glory days. He even criticized senators who thought that was a bad outlet for stimulus funds. But, as NPRI highlighted in a video, which you can view here, Goodman simply cannot abide being questioned, just as he couldn’t when he was mayor and descended into his Nixonian, or worse, thug-like fulminations and threats. He once publicly said someone should break a reporter’s legs after she asked about financing the Zappos deal, so I can only imagine what he threatened to do to non-sycophants in private.

And when questioned on the Mob Museum?

“Those are morons and idiots … all of a sudden these monkeys … They’re not going to rain on my parade,” Goodman ranted to a reporter when asked about NPRI’s criticisms.

Monkeys? Really?

No matter. He was The Teflon Mayor when he held the office and he will be The Teflon Ex-Mayor now.

It’s just Oscar, the paid ambassador to the world from Las Vegas by the convention authority.

• Where are Harry and Lefty? The Review-Journal’s Jane Ann Morrison asked the same question others have been asking, which is why there is no section in the museum reflecting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s tenure as chairman of the Gaming Commission, during which he took on the infamous Lefty Rosenthal. Dennis Barrie had said it wasn’t a good story, but even his wife, on “Face to Face,” acknowledged the video of Harry and Lefty we played was great. (Dennis Barrie said he had never seen the footage.)

Both said Reid didn’t make them an offer they couldn’t refuse. And you should have seen Dennis Barrie’s face when I suggested Reid was scarier than any of those memorialized in his museum. He was more than mildly skeptical. Oh, the stories I could tell you, Mr. Barrie.

The truth is, though, that the museum really is not Vegas-centric. It is about the mob in America, with only a glance toward its Las Vegas activities. It is meant to be universal, the Barries say, showing how the mob affected America and how, because of the frailty of human nature, we enable the mob.

That is a timeless story. We’ll know in a year or so whether people want to hear and see it.

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  1. "And here, folks... Step up smartly now. Don't dilly dally. We got others that want to get in here for their tour. Anyways. Here, in this glass case, is the very same briefcase I used to stuff mob money in. It was payment for services rendered. Suffice it to say, I was paid handsomely. Was it kickback money? Hell, I dunno. I didn't ask. Was it obtained illegally and did you know that? Hell, again, I dunno. I just took it. I didn't care where it came from. They just paid me stiff fees that I set out of the blue, all in order not to represent them in court, but to make sure that I got continuance after continuance after continuance after continuance. The name of the game back then was just put off the court date as much as possible. Anyways, as you can see, the suitcase was WELL used back in the day. The money? Nah. It's gone. I spent it. Do I feel guilty. Nah. I earned it. This concludes your tour. Hope you enjoyed it. Come back again someday....."

  2. It's been interesting to watch Oscar's slimy yet successful political career. I try to remind myself that he could not have done what he did in office if the people would not have elected him. So - who's to blame? Oscar, for being a slimeball - or the people, for electing a slimeball?

  3. Actually, one of the exhibits does have a late '70s vintage photo of Harry Reid with a few sentences about his appointment to the Nevada Gaming Commission. On the second floor, where Las Vegas mob connections are shown and explained.

  4. I'm disappointed you'd write about a place you haven't visited, despite the disclosure.

    When you do go, allow three hours to take it all in. It is done very well, but there are some places that are frustrating ("top secret" books under glass that leave the visitor wanting to see inside them, or to at least read some interpretation of their contents ... a room of suitcases and furs with little more than a suggestive caption...).

    Still, it's very informative and entertaining, balancing lighthearted and silly props (the "shoot a Tommy gun" area) with uncensored wiretap recordings. It's historic location is also important; the sympathetic restoration of the courthouse/post office is impressive.

    You can call this museum Goodman's reliving of his glory days, but it also tells an important story, not just about "the Mob" but about the social and political forces at play that helped push a place like Las Vegas into existence, and shape its very core.

    I like to think museum visitors, especially short-time locals, will come away with a greater understanding of our city, and why the gap between old Vegas and new Vegas exists.

  5. I always enjoy how enamored journalists get over white elephant projects.

    The city council drove downtown Vegas into the ground and there is no shortage of white elephant flops across the country let alone in our own backyard.

  6. "city council drove downtown Vegas into the ground"

    Really? Downtown is better than it has been in decades, and with all the projects coming on-line in this quarter, is amazing.

    So, please, elaborate.

  7. James, the few successes downtown have nothing to do with the city and everything to do with brave entrepreneurs. Like most city councils and local governments, they are focused on building vanity projects to boost their own egos.

  8. Why is this subject debated. If the Mafia did not invest in Las Vegas many years ago it would not be what it is today. First thank Castro in Cuba because that was going to be the Las Vegas of the united states. He over threw the government and the rest is history. How many deals and etc went on in the Mafia run days will never be known. Oscar as true blue he is will never tell all but I am sure he could write a book that will make many people squirm to this day. Please keep one thing in mind as the past is looked upon through the Mob Museum and how business was done then it has not changed much except the word legal corporation business took place of the MOB!. So enjoy 100 years from now the museum will be about us lol.

  9. Downtown Las Vegas is very interesting to me. There is a New Vegas (Smith Center, Outlet Center, World Market, Ruvo Center) an Old Vegas (Fremont Street) an Upcoming Vegas (Ogden, Farmers Market, Arts District and Zappos) and a Scary Vegas (all the derelict Places in between and around the area). It will be interesting if there will develop a cohesive Plan for the Entire Downtown to make it Safe, Walkable and Fun at ALL hours.

  10. I see the old post office and once Federal building is now a museum. I used to go there for Red Cross training and to look at the GSA surplus vehicle sales.

    Good use of empty space. To promote usage and complete the look, I would surround it and the parking area with a Bailey to take parking fees and high granite prison walls with razor wire and banks of searchlights.

    Then I would see to it that anyone from the neighborhood who stumbles into the area gets escorted quickly away in leg irons in a Ford "Maria." Give them the Sheriff Lamb treatment at the county line and soon you will have a better atmosphere for the downtown tourists.