A Mob Museum?

Roundup: Talking About History

Harriet Baskas, National Public Radio (May 21, 2004):

After a brief attempt at selling itself as a family vacation land, Las Vegas is restaking its claim as America's most decadent destination.

Unidentified Man: Yeah, hi. I was wondering, could I get a wake-up call tomorrow morning please? Could I get that to go to my cell phone instead of my room? Well, here's the thing. I--I'm not quite sure if I'm going to be in my room tomorrow so...

BASKAS: A new national ad campaign sports the tag line 'What happens here stays here.' The ads are paid for by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. And while gambling and a bit of hanky-panky seem to be acceptable, the authority's Terry Jicinsky says illegal mob activity isn't an image the city wants to promote.

Mr. TERRY JICINSKY (Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority): It's part of our history. It was acknowledged as part of our history. It isn't really what Las Vegas is about today.

BASKAS: Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman doesn't entirely agree. In fact, the mob museum was his idea.

Mayor OSCAR GOODMAN (Las Vegas): If you had mobsters during a certain period of time that contributed to what we became today, that's all part of it, and I think it's as cool as it gets.

BASKAS: From his celebrity photo-lined office overlooking downtown Las Vegas, Goodman acknowledges his first-hand knowledge of the mob. Before becoming mayor in 1999, he was a noted criminal lawyer.

Mayor GOODMAN: And I represented a lot of mobsters around here, and my practice was about 5 percent mobsters. I'm not afraid to say I was a mob lawyer.

BASKAS: For better or worse, according to historian Hal Rothman, organized crime transformed Las Vegas from a bedraggled collection of desert gambling halls into an oasis of luxury hotels, fancy casinos, leggy showgirls and big-name entertainment.

Mr. HAL ROTHMAN (Historian): Anybody in their right mind knows that from sometime in the 1940s till sometime in the 1970s, the city was mobbed up. The sources of capital and power in the city were closely tied to organized crime.

BASKAS: Rothman is the author of"Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Began the 21st Century." He says the mob and its money first made a mark on Las Vegas when New York gangster Meyer Lanski sent Benjamin"Bugsy" Siegel to town to oversee the mob's investment in the Flamingo Hotel.

Mr. ROTHMAN: The original face--you know, when Bugsy Siegel built the Flamingo and all the way up through the Stardust, the money came really from shoe boxes. Mobsters went around to each other and said, 'I'm building a hotel in Las Vegas. I'll sell you share for $50,000, and they'd get the shoe box out from under the bed and they'd give them the cash.

BASKAS: A downtown museum exploring this history strikes Mayor Goodman as a great tourist attraction. But when he first floated the idea round town, the local Italian American community voiced concern.

Mr. ROTHMAN: When I said 'the mob,' I was not thinking of Italian Americans. I really was thinking of the mob as I knew it here, where you had fellows who had reputations like Mo Dalitz, Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lanski, who was one of my clients. It was a Jewish mob that I was thinking of.

BASKAS: No one in the business community has actually come out publicly against the mayor's idea, even if privately they may be concerned about drawing attention to the seamy underbelly of Sin City.

Mr. DAVID MILLMAN (Nevada State Museum): I can understand not wanting to dredge out these so-called bad aspects of one's past, but I think to fully understand where we are today, you've got to understand where we've been.

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