LAS VEGAS -- Just-opened The Mob Museum here packs a lot of punches -- from Tommy guns, film clips, artifacts of real mobsters and a Hawaiian shirt worn by TV mafioso Tony Soprano, to part of the wall from the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago, to interactive exhibits that clue you into casino scams and mobster trivia.
Wednesday night, in a surreal grand opening party scene, it packed in some former gangland figures, including a police informant and alleged hitman seen in the film Casino as well as the inspiration for GoodFellas, former protected witness Henry Hill. I chatted with the affable Hill, who told me he used to be "a scumbag" when he was doping and killing, and with Meyer Lansky II, the dapper grandson and namesake of the organized crime boss whose gambling empire included early Vegas casinos. Both say they're working on TV shows dealing with mobster exploits.
Museum creative director Dennis Barrie was a force behind the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and The Spy Museum in Washington, so it's no surprise that the downtown museum -- in a renovated courthouse where Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver held 1950 hearings that exposed organized crime -- is no penny-ante deal. Its longer title is the National Museum of Organized Crime & Law Enforcement, and its slogan is "There are two sides to every story." The museum includes displays and interactive exhibits on three floors.
"The idea is to be as immersive as possible," Barrie says, and that means "participating" in a police lineup, reading actual files of mobsters, punching in a city and seeing its mob crime history, watching how agents spied on mobsters and listening to actual wiretaps and tapes of gangster schemes. Photos from mob hits are chilling.
Touring The Mob Museum with Barrie and former Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman is an experience, because both are walking encyclopedias on mob weapons, law enforcement and gangland lore (did you know that Mafia inductees had to swear that they would leave their dying mothers' hospital beds to serve their comrades and that their fingers were slashed during the initiation ceremony?). Lawyer Goodman defended reputed mob figures in the courthouse and is featured in a number of displays, including one in which he is angrily attacked by a lawman for representing crime bosses. Every American is entitled to legal counsel, Goodman retorts.
Meanwhile, on the Strip, another gangster attraction, the Mob Experience, didn't do well after it opened last year at the Tropicana resort. It went into bankruptcy, has new owners and is being retooled. Vegasinc.com says actors are being hired for the interactive experience, which has been renamed the Mob Attraction Las Vegas. Its museum with mob artifacts remains open.
Some former crime kingpins, at first hesitant about the Mob Museum, now ask for their photos to be displayed, Barrie and Goodman say. "When they see what it is, they want to be in," Goodman exults. The martini-loving former mayor is stopped at every turn by visitors, who recognize him and say a kind word about him or the museum (Goodman is one of its creators and is on the board of directors).
At one point, a tourist from Finland asks for Goodman's autograph and pulls out a dollar. You're not supposed to write on money, Goodman tells him. But with a grin, he signs the bill.