Las Vegas' newest museum puts the Mafia on exhibit

Cuff links and rings that once belonged to mobster "Bugsy" Siegel, who helped get the mob's first Las Vegas casino built.
Cuff links and rings that once belonged to mobster "Bugsy" Siegel, who helped get the mob's first Las Vegas casino built. (JIM DECKER)
Posted: February 14, 2012

As an institution, it has generated hundreds of billions of dollars dealing in "services" and "commodities" that remain very much in demand.

Its leaders include some of the most iconic figures in history.

A pop culture phenomenon, it is continually celebrated on movie screens, in best-selling books, and, most recently, on reality TV.

The mob. The Mafia. Cosa Nostra.

A genuine piece of Americana.

Now there's a museum, the brainchild of a former Philadelphian; a repository of artifacts, documents, photos, and memorabilia that underscores its historic significance.

The Mob Museum opens Tuesday - where else? - in Las Vegas . For those with a sense of underworld history, the date should come as no surprise.

Valentine's Day; hearts and flowers for many, but to others, the anniversary of a massacre of historic significance in Chicago in 1929.

Seven wiseguys affiliated with gangster George "Bugs" Moran were lined up against a warehouse wall and executed. The murders were supposedly set in motion by Moran's rival, Al Capone.

Part of that brick warehouse wall, pockmarked with bullet holes, will be on display in the museum.

So will the barber chair from the shop in Manhattan's Park Sheraton Hotel where in 1957 Albert Anastasia had his shave interrupted by a spray of bullets.

Anastasia (no relation) had headed Murder Inc., a problem-solving division of the larger institution that is the focus of the museum. He and his enforcers are believed to have been responsible for anywhere from 400 to 700 murders during a bloody decade that began in the late 1940s.

Capone, Anastasia, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, John Gotti, Whitey Bulger, the list goes on and on. Each has a place in the officially titled Mob Museum, the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement.

It's in the former federal courthouse and post office building at 300 Stewart Ave. in downtown Las Vegas.

The building, opened in 1933, is itself an artifact. One of the few historic buildings in the city, it was the site of one of Sen. Estes Kefauver's committee hearings on organized crime in 1950.

Those hearings literally brought the mob into the living rooms of America via the then-new phenomenon of television.

"About 30 million people watched those hearings," said Jonathan Ullman, executive director of the museum. "That was about twice as many as watched the World Series."

The courtroom where the hearing was held has been restored to look as it did then.

The museum, a $42 million construction project, was created by the same design team that worked on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum in Cleveland and the Spy Museum in Washington.

Visitors who move from gallery to gallery in the three-story building will encounter interactive audio and video displays built around the history of mobsters and the G-men who brought them down.

The museum tries to tell their stories in historic context, Ullman said, without glorifying or glamorizing the mob.

"It's a big part of pop culture," he said. "I think people are fascinated by stories of people who pushed the boundaries."

The museum was dreamed up by former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman.

Goodman, who graduated from Haverford College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, was a noted criminal defense lawyer before he entered politics. His clients included Lansky, Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal (the Robert De Niro character in Casino), Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, and Phil Leonetti.

"The first federal case I tried was in that courthouse," he said last week.

Goodman was elected mayor in 1999 and served three terms, stepping down last year. During his tenure, the federal government gave the city the historic courthouse building for $1, with the proviso that it be restored as a museum.

Goodman said it didn't take much to figure out what would meet that requirement and attract tourists.

"As a Philadelphian, I'm a great believer in the arts, painting, culture," he said. "But I knew a watercolor museum or a porcelain museum wasn't going to do it."

Las Vegas is what it is, Goodman said, and it doesn't need to apologize. Ever the entrepreneur, the former mayor now works for the convention bureau, practices law, and has opened a steak house.

He calls his joint Oscar's Beef, Booze & Broads.

Barred by law from seeking a fourth term as mayor, Goodman was succeeded by his wife, Carolyn, who was elected in June.

There are those, of course, who believe Las Vegas owes its very existence to the mob; that Sin City blossomed after "Bugsy" Siegel and Lansky saw its potential.

Siegel, tapped by Lansky to oversee construction, was killed in 1947 for excessive cost overruns and missed deadlines in the building of the Flamingo casino hotel, the mob's first big foray into Las Vegas.

The rest, as they say, is history. And much of it is now on display in the city's newest museum.


Contact staff writer George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.

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