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A mob exhibit muscles in on the action in Vegas

Reporting from Las Vegas —

For years, this town did its best to ignore its ties to organized crime, to the inconvenient fact that if Mt. Rushmore were in Vegas, the faces etched in granite would include Meyer Lansky and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, who financed the Flamingo, or Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, the surprisingly powerful “food and beverage director” of the Stardust.

But Las Vegas is well versed in indulging in too much of a good thing, the evidence painted in the bloodshot eyes of the tourists who wend their way back down the 15 on a Sunday or in the glut of homes and casinos that helped drive the economy to a standstill in the last few years.

Now it appears the same thing is happening with the town’s sudden embrace of its symbiosis with the mob.

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City Hall is in the home stretch of a drive to open the Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement — a sweeping $42-million museum that investigates the mob’s engineering of Vegas’ rise and the laborious effort by regulators and law enforcement to wrest control. Mayor Oscar Goodman estimated that the museum, a key piece of the redevelopment of downtown Las Vegas, could attract more than a half-million visitors each year.

But in March, a separate attraction called the Las Vegas Mob Experience opened at the Tropicana, the storied resort-casino seven miles to the south. Asked about the essential difference between the two, Jay Bloom, managing partner of the Mob Experience, offered up a distinction that might well be lost amid the noise and the neon of the city: “They are a restaurant. We are a nightclub.”

Goodman launched the campaign to install the city’s museum in 1999, shortly after he was elected to his first term as mayor. He settled on a downtown courthouse that had been converted into a post office, then declared federal government surplus that had become, like so much of downtown Vegas at the time, a forlorn relic.

Today Goodman is wrapping up his third and final term. The wheels of government and public investment turn slowly; time and again, the city’s plans have been stalled in a hornet’s nest of red tape and focus groups. Buying a building from the feds for a buck is not as simple as it sounds once you claw through historic-landmark rules and such.

Last month brought the most ignominious slight yet: City Hall was lapped — sort of — by private enterprise.

It’s enough of an issue that aides to the mayor, who is not exactly known for his delicate sensibilities, requested that he not even be asked about it. Asked anyway — to assess the threat of the colorful upstart — Goodman made the “zero” sign with his thumb and index finger.

“It’s not a museum,” he said of the Mob Experience. “It’s not competition for us. “

But even some of those connected to the city’s project concede that the simultaneous offerings are at the least an awkward, confusing concurrence.

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“Of course they are related,” said Kathleen Hickey Barrie, the principal of a museum-and-cultural-planning consulting firm who is a driving force behind the city museum and previously helped create the lauded International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

In pointed contrast to the nervousness of the mayor’s aides, Bloom seemed almost giddy when asked about potential competition, even suggesting that confusion among tourists could inflate his business.

“I think we’re good for each other — if they ever do get open,” he said with a not-so-subtle smile. “We started in March 2009. We opened in March 2011. It’s the difference between public and private.”

Indeed, by all accounts the Mob Experience could stand out initially, not just because it opened first but because it has been loosed from the measured sobriety the city is working so hard to achieve.

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In a corridor leading to Goodman’s office are signs, literally, that the opening of the city’s museum is around the bend. A tall banner tracks the parallel growth in the ‘40s and ‘50s of Vegas and of mob-backed casinos, “establishing Las Vegas as the organized crime and gaming capital of the United States.” Another shows the value of illegal gambling in those heady days — $169 billion in today’s dollars.

But it’s one of the last signs that underscores the philosophical divide between the enterprises. This one points to another critical moment in the story — the 1967 vote by the Nevada Legislature allowing publicly traded corporations to obtain gaming licenses. Though it would take years, that legislation was the beginning of the end for the mob in Nevada.

Indeed, among the chief backers of the city museum is Ellen Knowlton, a retired FBI agent who once ran the agency’s Las Vegas office. Knowlton refused to sign on, organizers said, until she was assured that the city museum would not be a celebration of wacky mobsters but a somber take on the long law enforcement campaign to end mob rule of casinos.

“This was not some cute, fun thing about the mob and these colorful characters,” Barrie said. Instead — while the city has collected fascinating artifacts, such as the bullet-pocked wall that was the backdrop of the infamous St. Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929 in Chicago — Vegas is attempting to delve into the “dynamic tension between law enforcement and the mob,” she said.

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“The bottom line, like it or not, is that law enforcement won. And you don’t celebrate a loss,” Goodman said.

At the Mob Experience, the contrast is evident before visitors even get through the front door. In the lobby, a fish tank contains a fake pair of skeletal feet encased in concrete. From there, the “experience” only degenerates further into an orgy of fuggedaboudit.

Inside, customers drape a badge around their neck with their mob name — “Lefty,” “Legs,” “Peanuts.” From that point, decisions that visitors make as they interact with actors posing as mobsters and wearing De Niro scowls influence their “fate.”

The Mob Experience has also assembled a startling array of artifacts and has done so the old-fashioned way — mostly by buying estates from mobsters’ descendents, who say they aren’t capitalizing on the family name as much as rehabilitating it, using the Experience as a vehicle.

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Take the case of Anthony “The Ant” Spilotro, a noted mob enforcer. The FBI implicated Spilotro in a series of ruthless killings. But according to his son, Vince — a paid consultant to the Mob Experience, he said, like a number of other mob relatives — “he was a man just like any other man.”

Vince Spilotro said his family, convinced that Spilotro’s exploits were exaggerated by the press and the feds, agreed to participate in the Mob Experience with certain restrictions. “You got to put it in my words,” he said he told the executives. “And you don’t twist ‘em.”

Whatever one may think of those arrangements, it’s hard to argue with the result. Artifacts include a pair of creepy clown-motif bookends that belonged to Mickey Cohen and a thank-you note sent by Frank Sinatra to Vincent “Jimmy Blue Eyes” Alo after Sinatra’s father died and Alo sent flowers. One of Meyer Lansky’s love letters to his wife ends, in tidy cursive: “Keep your legs crossed and go to sleep.”

“Yeah, some of them did atrocious things,” Bloom said. “But then at night, they came home and they were loving fathers and husbands. Some of them were vicious killers but deeply religious. They were thieves but generous donors.... I’m not going to turn them into heroes. But I’m not going to vilify them either.”

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The emotional climax of the “experience” comes when visitors are introduced to Joey Broken Bats, a fictional mobster. Joey has been asked to deal with a casino thief; he hands a wooden baseball bat wrapped in electrical tape to an associate, who is viewed back-lighted as he mercilessly beats the shrieking suspect.

“Music to my ears,” Joey tells the crowd. “Know what I mean?”

The public will determine whether it can indeed relate to that sort of thing. For now, backers of the city museum seem more amused than threatened.

“We present the facts,” Barrie said. “And the facts are so good, we don’t have to juice them up.”

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scott.gold@latimes.com


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