Monday, Feb. 13, 2012 | 6 p.m.
When you walk into the Mob Museum in downtown Las Vegas, you are first met by a beyond-life-size portrait of J. Edgar Hoover holding a semiautomatic weapon trained at the entrance.
This sort of visage of old J. Edgar — for decades the overlord of the FBI — cutting down the bad guys, is to be expected from the National Museum of Organized Crime & Law Enforcement, housed inside the old Las Vegas federal courthouse and post office.
What is unexpected as you make your way to the three-story museum’s centerpiece, the courtroom where the Las Vegas series of Kefauver Hearings were staged in 1950, is the fragrance of Murphy’s Oil wiped across the wooden benches. This unplanned, yet interactive sensation speaks to the real newness of upgrades to the old building, which opens to the public Tuesday at 10 a.m. Media members were allowed preview tours on Monday afternoon.
The grand opening for the public is in line with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, an event marked inside the museum with a video description of the event and a segment of the wall from the shooting itself. Before the formal opening, seven couples will join in matrimony at the Mob Museum in a ceremony presided over by former Las Vegas mayor (and current Las Vegas romantic) Oscar Goodman. That lovefest starts at 8 a.m.
The three-story building is densely stuffed with artifacts. Visitors take in the information in self-guided tours that are aided by Mob Museum staffers. One room invites guests to take part in a simulated police lineup under a sign asking, “How Did It Come To This?” The embracing of Mob-pursuing law enforcement agents is depicted with images of such figures as Hoover and Eliot Ness, juxtaposed against a large cutout of Dick Tracy and glass cases of aged artifacts under the heading “Fighting Back.”
A replica of the turn-of-the-century Arizona Club saloon setting, replete with old slot machines and roulette wheels, takes guests back to the city’s origins. An entire room is dedicated to Vegas history, where old film footage of Fremont Street hotel-casinos and Strip implosions plays on a seamless loop. Slot machine reels land on images of such Las Vegas figures as Piero’s owner Freddie Glusman, Nevada Ballet Theatre co-founder Nancy Houssels and former Sheriff Ralph Lamb. Press the person and a video plays interviews of these folks talking about the Mob’s influence on Vegas.
The tour is interesting at every turn and highly educational without being boring. There is no genuine blow-your-mind technology, no use of hologram figures or live actors as used by the other mob attraction in Vegas, which now happens to be called the Mob Attraction, set for a reopening in March at Tropicana.
The centerpiece of the Mob Museum is that Kefauver courtroom, where projection screens drop to play scenes of actors portraying federal officials – including Kefauver – questioning such reputed mobsters as Moe Dalitz and Frank Costello, who are shown in real film footage. Costello’s infamous walk away from questioning, a move that bought him 18 months on a contempt-of-court charge, is played out.
Goodman is featured prominently, of course, with a glass case displaying items he donated to the museum. The courtroom itself is a Goodman landmark, the spot where, in March 1967, he won his first case in Vegas — then promptly retched from acute anxiety on the courthouse’s front steps.
Goodman was on hand Monday, thrilled that his vision of a renovation of the old courthouse, originally dedicated in November 1933 as the city’s first federal building, has finally been realized.
“I think it’s terrific, it’s a great museum,” Goodman said of the attraction assembled by Dennis and Kathy Barrie, the designers of the Spy Museum in Washington D.C. and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. “I think when people are walking around here and look at what’s on the walls, they’ll love it.”
Goodman then glanced back at a series of photos displaying notorious “Made Men” in Mafia history.
“I have a couple of former clients who are going to be very ticked off that they are not on that wall,” he said. “I am not kidding.” (Goodman actually made that point once more, moments later, to Dennis Barrie, who asked that his response to Goodman not be recorded.)
Goodman was in no mood to discuss complaints among some civic activists that spending public money on the $42 million project was an unwise use of taxpayer money.
“I am annoyed at the people who are criticizing us for using redevelopment money for this,” said Goodman, who added that there had been several public meetings prior to the museum’s construction where dissenters could be heard.
“What do they want me to use it for?” he asked in exasperation. “A sewer?”
Current Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman was also on hand. She said she is comfortable with being “mobbed up,” in a manner of speaking.
“It fascinates me at how people are so taken with the mob influence, especially here,” she said. “I can’t believe it’s finally happened. This marriage of law enforcement and the mob will be a great entertainment and educational experience.”
Asked what would have to happen for the Mob Museum to be deemed a financial or business success, Mayor Goodman put the number at 300,000 visitors annually.
“I think it is going to be an explosion of visitors,” she said.
The price is not particularly steep — $18 for adults ages 18-over, $14 for seniors (ages 65 and over), teachers, military and law enforcement; and $12 for children ages 5 to 17 and for students ages 18 to 23 with valid ID; and $10 for Nevada residents, also with a valid ID. Children ages 13 and younger must be in the company of an adult.
“People who are worried about us aggrandizing the mob should forget about it,” Oscar Goodman said. “We have some pretty vicious pictures of some pretty ugly heads being blown off, and we don’t want young children to see that.”