A few weeks ago, I visited the Las Vegas Mob Experience at the Tropicana. I shared some of my thoughts here, and then thought about it some more. The result is a feature piece Vegas Seven magazine:
With fedora-wearing ticket-takers and an almost-Technicolor presentation, it’s clear that the Mob Experience isn’t a dry, academic colloquium on criminal justice. With costumed actors and sets straight off a Hollywood back lot, this is a haunted-house history of Las Vegas and the mob: Frightening ghosts of Mafiosi past glower at us, but there’s little danger that they’ll make us think as we pass through. It’s Fright Dome with wiseguys instead of wraiths.
So, like the billboards, the museum itself depicts the world in black and white, with blood-red added for effect. Perhaps it’s not the best approach for a city whose history is dominated by shades of gray
This was a hard essay to write. Certainly anyone trying to put together a museum or attraction about organized crime history that’s geared towards the general public has their work cut out for them. It’s a controversial area that, to put it mildly, was not well documented. It’s difficult, then, to put together something that’s as comprehensive as, say, a history of the Civil War, or even of the Union Pacific Railroad.
And I kind of had a good time interacting with the actors at the LVME. It’s just that boiling down the history of American organized crime to bootlegging and skimming from Vegas casinos doesn’t seem to do anyone justice. And claiming that “the Mob built Las Vegas” is a real disservice to all of the non-mobbed-up men and women who actually did build Las Vegas.
Yesterday I checked out the Las Vegas Mob Experience, the new attraction at the Tropicana. I had profoundly mixed feelings about it.
We start out in a line, waiting to get in for about 20 minutes. There’s a big fake ship, with what is apparently bootlegged booze being off-loaded. As I tweeted, it reminded me of the Star Trek episode “A Piece of the Action,” in which Kirk and Spock make mischief on a planet that has inexplicably patterned itself off of 1920s gangland Chicago.
Here’s a clip:
Much like the LVME, it was a fun costume romp that wasn’t long on historical accuracy. But who cares? You got to see Spock in pinstripes and Shatner talking gangster! Or, in this case, you get a tag with your “gangster name” to wear around your neck.
BTW, my gangster name was “Peanuts,” which is uncannily appropriate, given my former labors on the Atlantic City Boardwalk as Mr. Peanut.
While waiting, we had to listen to a Las Vegas native, who seemed like a nice enough guy, tell us repeatedly that the Mafia “created Las Vegas” and “ran Las Vegas.” Groan.
Pretty much everyone’s wearing fedoras and other cartoon gangster fetish stuff, and a disturbing number of employees were talking with exaggerated Noo Yawk accents.
Improbably enough, the LVME proper starts at Ellis Island, which the docent/actor/whatever told us, “Is where America begins, 1900 to 1930, where Noo Yawk started.”
At that, I can’t contain myself and roll my eyes.
“What?” she says.
“America started in 1900?” I ask.
“Well I’m not good at math.”
Plus, just looking at Wikipedia tells us that Ellis Island was open from 1892 to 1954, though a lot of the “New” immigration that they’re apparently blaming for organized crime slowed to a trickle after the restrictive immigration acts of 1921 and 1924.
When Wikipedia is kicking your ass factually, maybe you need to look at how you train your employees. I’m not saying you need someone to give a nuanced lecture on the history of American immigration, but at least don’t say stuff that isn’t true.
The whole idea that organized crime was an outside menace foisted on American society by immigrant groups during Prohibition is false. American organized crime goes back to at least the 1850s; watch the film Gangs of New York if you want to take your history from cinema; Scorsese actually got a lot of it right. And Daniel Day Lewis as Bill the Butcher Cutting (based on Bill Poole) is masterful. If you want to check out something more academic, I’d suggest Mark Haller or Joseph Albini’s work.
The LVME is divided into two sections, which overlap a bit. There is the actors doing skits part, which is fun, and the historical artifacts, which are mostly behind cases with some interpretive text. You start out at Ellis Island, talk to a guy named Tony, then a guy named Leo, then get interviewed by a cop with an Irish brogue straight out of Central Casting, and keep on running into people like that along the way. That aspect of the LVME is actually fun: it’s like a mob-themed haunted house, which isn’t the first thing I’d want to do for fun, but at least the actors were engaging.
There are also little bits recorded by famous actors (my group got to see James Caan) telling us all the “real story” of how the Mob is responsible for all that’s wonderful in Las Vegas. Towards the end you get more artifacts, most of which aren’t inherently that interesting—seeing a recreation of Meyer Lansky’s library doesn’t really tell us anything about his career.
Focusing the story on Prohibition and gambling makes it seem like organized crime had (and has) no victims, only happy customers. I wonder what the restaurant owners and garment district entrepreneurs thought about while they were being shaken down for protection money? That’s really glossed over.
One funny moment: after the “casino surveillance” section (a facsimile of a catwalk), we go to a “backroom,” where a guy with a baseball bat tells us we’ve caught a cheater. What should we do? Kill him? Maybe just break a leg or two?”
“Why don’t we call the Gaming Control Board?” I ask, recalling my own experience in casino security and surveillance. “They’ll make the arrest.”
This didn’t go over well. The guy went into a backroom behind the backroom and we heard a gunshot. So apparently a fictitious guy was murdered for peeking at the dealer’s hole card.
The funniest thing was the reaction from one of the other visitors: “There was no Gaming Control Board!” Which might have been true before 1955, but even then I’ve got to think that the idea of glamorizing a vigilante group that metes out the death penalty for theft is a bit daft. This is the biggest problem with the LVME: despite all the protestations that this is really a serious, loving look at the real history of Las Vegas, it’s just a schlocky retread of bad gangster movies.
I’m not trying to say that there wasn’t organized crime involvement in Las Vegas—clearly there was. I’m just saying it wasn’t quite so…Technicolor.
In the run-up to the opening, I heard a lot about how we’d have holograms of famous mob figures touring people around. Needless to say, that kind of holodeck technology (which even Kirk and Spock didn’t have; they had to wait until Picard and company for that) didn’t happen. The actors who appeared seemed to be a regular front-projection video. Towards the end, there was a positively grotesque series of 3-D busts of Mickey Cohen that changed their angle depending on your position. They looked almost, but not completely, inhuman–like some kind of alien embryo. Very creepy, and again it brought up the “Mob Haunted House” vibe.
If you’re looking for a theme park ride version of the mob, the LVME is for you. If you’re looking for an even somewhat-accurate historical interpretation of the evolution of Las Vegas or of organized crime in America, you’re out of luck.
On a positive note, this has inspired me to make my next project a “real” real history of the development of Las Vegas casinos. I’ve done some great interviews with people who were really there, from Allard Roen to Jack Binion, who I think deserve to be heard.
And, by the way, if you’re interested in learning a little slice of this “real” real history, I’ve got a very entertaining talk that I give called “Gambling and the Mob” that covers the story they’re trying to tell with the LVME but does so from a factual perspective that actually addresses the positives and negatives of organized crime’s legacy. If you have a convention group that’s coming to Las Vegas and want to hear it, please contact me to discuss availability.