Remember the explosive opening to Martin Scorsese’s “Casino”?
Sam “Ace” Rothstein, the Las Vegas bookmaker and casino kingpin played by Robert De Niro, slides behind the wheel of his Cadillac, turns on the ignition and — boom! — the car bursts into flames.
These days, you have to go to the pirate show at Treasure Island for pyrotechnics like that. But back in the days when Las Vegas was a mobster’s paradise, car bombings didn’t seem so unusual.
Long before the corporate bean counters took over, guys with names like Lefty, Lansky and Bugsy called the shots and “the skim” was a nightly ritual in casino counting rooms. Organized crime money — with some help from Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters’ pension fund — helped shape the gambling mecca that we know today.
For many years, Las Vegas kept its mob past at arm’s length — gangsters didn’t quite square with that whole “family friendly” marketing strategy. But with public fascination continuing unabated for all things Mafioso, Sin City decided the time is ripe to dredge up old ghosts. Two Mob-themed attractions are set to open in Las Vegas. And in true gangland fashion, the pair will duke it out for supremacy.
Opening in the second half of December at the Tropicana on the Strip, the Las Vegas Mob Experience will feature artifacts acquired from the estates of underworld figures such as Meyer Lansky, Sam Giancana, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Tony “The Ant” Spilotro.
Visitors can wander the 26,000 square feet of exhibit space for a look at Lansky’s handwritten diary, Siegel’s 1933 Packard and home movies of Spilotro in a Santa suit.
“We’re not going to glamorize the mob, but we’re not going to vilify them either. Some of them did atrocious things but they went home and were loving family members,” said Jay Bloom, managing member of the Mob Experience.
Spilotro was dispatched to Las Vegas by the Chicago Mob to keep an eye on the skim — casino earnings siphoned off before Uncle Sam could get his share. He inspired Joe Pesci’s Nicky Santoro character in “Casino,” creepily memorable for an all-but-unwatchable scene in which Santoro squeezes an adversary’s head in a vise.
Things ended unhappily for Spilotro, as they did for many Las Vegas mobsters. His badly beaten body was found buried on the edge of an Indiana cornfield. Siegel, who helped the mob gain a foothold in Las Vegas with construction of the Flamingo in the 1940s, was shot dead while reading a newspaper at girlfriend Virginia Hill’s home in Beverly Hills.
Set to open in summer 2011 is the city-backed $50-million Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement — a.k.a. The Mob Museum. The museum will make its home at the old post office and federal courthouse in downtown Las Vegas. Exhibits will be spread over three floors in the Depression-era neoclassical building.
It was here, in a second-floor courtroom, on Nov. 15, 1950, that the Kefauver Committee sought to uncover the dirty truth about organized crime in Las Vegas. After less than a day’s worth of testimony, committee members left town with little to show for their efforts. Key witnesses were conveniently out of town or had little to say.
While the two Mob attractions share a theme, each promises an experience unlike the other. The Mob Museum, which has the support of the FBI, aims for a serious-minded look at organized crime and the forces that eventually drove it out of town. The Mob Experience, which has backing from family members of reputed mobsters, will strive to score entertainment points. Both will use high-tech gadgetry such as holographic imagery to bring history alive.
The car bombing in “Casino” was drawn from real life. Incredibly, Rosenthal escaped with minor injuries that fall day in 1982 outside Tony Roma’s on Sahara Avenue. What his assailants didn’t know was that the ’81 Caddy had as standard equipment a metal plate under the driver’s seat that diverted the blast.