Las Vegas Sun

January 17, 2018

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Chicago poor example for museum idea

Las Vegas is not the first city to debate whether to embrace its mob past or keep its skeletons in the closet.

Several other large cities have considered opening museums or other tourist attractions to recognize the mob, and at least one city shot down the idea, saying it was not the right way to drum up tourism.

But those cities don't have Oscar.

Mayor Oscar Goodman considers the mob a part of the city's past worth preserving, possibly in the form of a downtown museum that would include other "old-timers."

Goodman, a former criminal defense lawyer who represented some of the underworld's most notorious figures, including Tony "The Ant" Spilotro and Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, has long joked that he never knew there was organized crime in Las Vegas.

His latest idea -- to open a history museum in the downtown post office with an emphasis on the "wise guys" -- is another of his tactics to try to lure people to downtown Las Vegas. Goodman is relentless in pursuing his goal of reviving the dying core of the city by attracting visitors by way of the arts or a minor-league hockey team.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley faced a similar issue in the early 1990s, when a young businessman proposed opening a nearly $4 million museum based on the city's Prohibition and gangster era, dubbed "Capone's Chicago."

Marketed as an entertainment facility bearing the name of a resident synonymous with dark days in Chicago, the museum sparked the ire of the city's Italian-Americans and tourism officials, because it focused on the city's gangster past.

The museum opened in 1993, but under pressure from city and tourism officials, has since closed. Even today Chicago officials are hesitant to talk about the subject that caused so much controversy.

Goodman says he is not advocating the idea of a mob museum, rather broaching the idea of a Las Vegas history museum of old-timers. And Goodman has waffled on whether he's serious about the idea, saying in one breath last week that he meant a "mop museum" and in another saying, "I'm never serious."

The museum would be housed in the building that served as the city's first federal courthouse, where Goodman tried his first case. The city is finalizing plans to acquire the historic downtown building from the federal government.

If the museum becomes reality, Las Vegas could be one of the only cities in the nation with a museum that includes mob memorabilia.

"Vegas tends to implode its history, I want to preserve it," Goodman said.

Goodman envisions the museum being full of the city's history, including recordings of former Sheriff Ralph Lamb and former U.S. District Judge Harry Claiborne. The museum would also memorialize some of the city's tragic events, including the MGM Grand fire of 1980, "all the things people tend to forget," he said.

And it would contain mob memorabilia, some from the mayor's personal collection. Goodman says he has a rare taped Mafia induction ceremony, among other items.

Hal Rothman, professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the city generally ignores its mob past, mainly because the relics are gone and the city is constantly re-creating itself. It's a constant struggle for history buffs, he said.

"We're not interested in what we were yesterday, we're only interested in what we are today and tomorrow," he said. "Las Vegas can change its skin, in the ways Santa Fe or San Francisco can't change. In that sense our past is not as interesting to us. We don't have an investment in our past as other cities do."

But Rothman added that there is a fascination with the mob that would appeal to tourists.

"Someday we will build a hotel called 'Chicago, Chicago,' which will be a mob-themed hotel," he said. "We will do that. Part of our theming is to knock off places, even ourselves. We are one of the few places that really has a sense of humor about itself."

Rothman said the museum would likely bring more people downtown and put tax dollars in the city's coffers. But he doubted it would keep the tourists downtown.

"I can see tour buses taking people to the museum, and then picking them up to go somewhere else," he said. "It would be an attraction in and of itself, but it would in some ways supersede Fremont Street."

Goodman said he'll wait to see how his fellow council members feel about the museum, but that hasn't stopped him from dreaming up an idea for a T-shirt: It would say "Las Vegas Mob Museum" on the front, with bullet holes in it.