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September 23, 2014

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New York Times review: In Mob Museum, Las Vegas embraces its bad guys of old

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Steve Marcus

Members of the San Diego Police Museum Association arrive in a 1932 “paddy wagon” during the grand opening of The Mob Museum in Las Vegas, Tuesday February 14, 2012. The museum, in a former federal courthouse and post office, is one of 14 sites in the nation that hosted the 1950-51 U.S. Senate Special Committees to investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, also known as the Kefauver hearings.

Mob Museum Opens

Members of the San Diego Police Museum Association participate in the grand opening of the Mob Museum in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Lefty, Lucky, the Ant, Bugsy, the Snake, the Chin, Scarface, the Brain. The monikers of mobsters are like the nicknames of odd superheroes. They are two syllables of rat-tat firing, evoking creepy animals, physical protrusions or uncanny powers.

And now, here in a city where such figures were once as comfortably in their element as Zeus and his family on Olympus, they are finally getting something close to the museum they deserve: the Mob Museum, a $42 million survey of the American gangster, unfolding in 17,000 square feet of exhibition space, on three floors of a 41,000-square-foot landmark building on Stewart Avenue.

With artifacts, clever interactive displays, atmospheric exhibits, photographs and videos, we learn how Las Vegas developed out of the early 20th century desert, and how workers on the nearby Hoover Dam gave the town its first population explosion. We see how the mob maneuvered into businesses of pleasure, not releasing its hold until late in the 20th century when corporate casinos trumped their almost quaint predecessors.

We learn, too, of these Jewish and Italian immigrants who treated the “land of opportunity,” as “the opportunity to grab what they could,” and by trafficking in blood and booze built up national empires, until they were brought down with wiretaps, informants and more blood.

Like many things in mob-related American culture (even those nicknames), the museum mixes attraction and repulsion, sentimentality and hard-edged realism, relish and disgust. Like a gangster movie, it seduces us with these figures with one hand, and reminds us, with the other, of the demands of justice. Its alluring colloquial title, Mob Museum, is countered with a stern subtitle on the facade of this 1933 neo-Classical former post office and courthouse: the “National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement.”

And while the museum seeks a kind of romantic appeal by opening on Valentine’s Day – the 83rd anniversary, it points out, of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, when members of George “Bugs” Moran’s gang were murdered by Al Capone’s rival thugs posing as police officers – it also makes sure to deflate gangster romance by reminding us that this cold-blooded episode was so horrific, it led to a turning point, spurring expanded federal investigation. We even see a portion of the original brick wall where the massacre took place, pockmarked by circled bullet holes; it serves as an eerie screen on which one of the museum’s many short films, “Bootleg Wars,” is projected.

The tension between allure and disgust recurs throughout. We may be shocked by the description of Bruno Facciola’s murder in New York City in 1990 (shot in both eyes, stabbed and a dead canary jammed in his mouth), but we also see photographs of 1950s celebrities in mob-run casinos and of glamorous film stars playing criminals. The mob is portrayed as weaving a web of evil (the museum believes John F. Kennedy’s assassination was the result of mob involvement in the attempted assassination of Fidel Castro) but also as an object of fascination.

The exhibition designers, Gallagher & Associates, and the “content developers” Barrie Projects and the curator, Kathleen Coakley Barrie, begin their double-edge treatment soon after you enter the lobby where the original post boxes are still in place behind video screens and text panels.

You are lured in with an overused museological conceit: You are treated as a mobster “under suspicion.” The elevator to the third floor where the exhibitions begin includes a video of a policeman sternly reading you your Miranda rights, and the first “gallery” is a police “lineup” where photos are taken (eventually to be sold at the museum shop).

That conceit, though, is soon left behind. The emphasis is ultimately placed not on the mysterious appeal of the mob, but on the fight against it. The museum’s heart is a splendidly restored courtroom, where the Senate’s Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce held its seventh hearing in 1950, led by Sen. Estes Kefauver. The Kefauver hearings were held in cities across the country, televised live and seen by 30 million people – the first media sensation. Here, that courtroom becomes the backdrop to a film about the hearings.

Emphasis on enforcement grows as the exhibitions proceed, with accounts of bugged homes and telephone booths, informants marked for death, and undercover agents trying to prevent killings. The museum never leaves behind hints of mob romance – one gallery includes heart-warming family photos of mob figures – but such fascination is never allowed to go unanswered: The next gallery is a chronicle of thuggery and blood.

There can be no surprise in the ultimate emphasis. The president of the nonprofit governing board of the museum, Ellen B. Knowlton, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and had been in charge of the agency’s Las Vegas division. Another board member, and one of the forces behind the museum, is Oscar B. Goodman, who served as Las Vegas mayor until term limits forced his retirement; he was then able to swear in his wife, Carolyn G. Goodman, the current mayor, in his place.

Even Goodman has two perspectives, one as former mayor, and the other as a former defense lawyer for many of the city’s mobsters, including Meyer Lansky and Anthony Spilotro. Las Vegas, to no surprise, doesn’t come off badly in this account of its mob-marred past. This museum is meant to be an anchor to revive the downtown area. The bulk of the funding has come from the city, with additional assistance from the state and federal governments including almost $9 million in grants for the restoration and preservation of the landmark building by the architects, Westlake Reed Leskosky.

Does Las Vegas get off too easy? Maybe it always did. One comment cited here is credited to Tony Accardo, a Chicago mob boss: “We don’t want no blood there,” he said. “It’s bad for tourist business.”

And in a gallery devoted to what is wryly called the mob’s “greatest hits,” the murders are mainly in cities other than Las Vegas. Besides, look around, outside of downtown: the economic veneer has chipped in recent years, but the legacy of mob-run spectacle and sensation is still astonishing.

But the gangster romance is far more dominant in another mob exhibition in town. Called “Las Vegas Mob Experience” when it opened last year at the Tropicana, it turned visitors into mob aspirants on a journey through various stage sets representing mob history, met along the way by moving images of James Caan, Mickey Rourke and other cinematic mob personas addressing them.

The show went melodramatically bankrupt but will soon be revived under new ownership as “Mob Attraction Las Vegas.” Visitors will move through stage sets of mob history; at the center is a series of galleries of artifacts provided by local gangster families. In a gallery labeled “To Meyer Lansky,” there are his home movies, outfits and favorite poems; in another is living-room furniture of Sam Giancana, Capone’s “efficient and ruthless triggerman.” We are indeed meant to be attracted by these figures; and a tour I took of the show’s planned script suggests that it will turn the mob into an amusing entertainment, refusing to take itself too seriously.

The Mob Museum has entirely different interests, but the tension with mob romance remains. And to a certain extent, that may be unavoidable, partly because of where we are standing: “Las Vegas was an ‘open city,”’ the exhibition tells us, “meaning that no one syndicate dominated the town. That made it an exciting destination for mobsters nationwide who were eager to start fresh and launch new ventures.”

The mob-run hotels even shaped Las Vegas culture as we know it. Sure, they were bad guys, but the appeal here was to the potential bad guy in everyone, while guaranteeing a degree of immunity: “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” In displays here, the hotels of the 1950s and '60s have an avant-gardish freewheeling style. We see a photo of Elvis Presley and Liberace clowning around in the 1950s, or of Marlene Dietrich performing with Louis Armstrong at the Riviera in 1962. One picture here from the Sands shows a floating crap game that puts Nathan Detroit to shame: It is being played on a pool raft.

Moreover, in their embrace of lawlessness and in their assertion of power over life and death, mobsters could seem masters of the very forces of chance to which gamblers here are in thrall. Their gestures and decisions were as swift and sure as the click of a ball falling into a slot on the roulette wheel; their killings as mechanically ruthless as the spinning fruit on one-arm bandits. They are still the gods of Vegas. And here, with great verve, they have become objects of both homage and retribution.

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