“In the beginning was The Mob …”

By David McKee ~ March 30th, 2011 @ 1:47 pm

Following several delays and even more advance hoopla, the Las Vegas Mob Experience is open. And it’s, as my wife said, “a mob scene” (pun intended). At last night’s grand gala, a PR guy was overheard saying that — for most media events — 20% of those people who RSVP actually show up. For the LVME, it was 50%. If you’ve been to Disneyland and waited to get on a ride, you’ll know what it was like queuing up for the Mob Experience.

Actually, if Walt Disney had ever decided to create a Mafia theme park, it’d be like the LVME, only bigger … and a lot better. Even by Vegas standards, what was unveiled at the Tropicana last night is cheesy. It’ll be popular, it’ll make a ton of money — but it’s 90% schlock. Its subtext is that The Mob were basically a decent bunch of family men (pun unintended) who broke a few laws on the side, “created” Las Vegas, rested on the seventh day and were generally preferable to the corporations who run the Strip nowadays. Well, OK, that last contention might have some validity. Given the choice between Moe Dalitz and Gary Loveman, for instance, there’s a lot of people in this town who’d rather work for Moe.

Not incidentally, I didn’t see any Dalitz-themed exhibits and that would be a major oversight for a supposedly Vegas-centric museum. (Moe and Allard Roen might be in there somewhere and I simply missed them.) However, since the LVME is made possible by the cooperation of the descendants of people like Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, Meyer Lansky and Sam Giancana, it’s going to be skewed to emphasize their “contributions” to society (especially Lansky’s). Also, certain facts are diplomatically omitted, such as the revelation that Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal was an FBI informant, a posthumous disclosure that would diminish Lefty’s “street cred.”

Worse still, this sort of “Meyer Lansky Presidential Library” peddles the same old fairy tales and misinformation about Vegas’ history that scholars like Dr. David G. Schwartz have been battling for years. To cite but one example, the hoary myth about Bugsy Siegel (left) creating the Flamingo (which was begun by Billy Wilkerson) is not only repeated but embellished, complete with a laughable recreation of the scene in Bugsy where Warren Beatty‘s Siegel was an epiphany while taking a whiz along the old Los Angeles Highway (a public-works project that did far more to “make” Las Vegas than Bugsy ever could). Schwartz’s likening of the LVME to a “mob-themed haunted house” is on the button — and finding a parking spot is a huge pain in the tuchus.

You’re funneled into the exhibit through a serpentine cattle chute (did Temple Grandin have a hand in this?), which is adorned with a couple of explanatory plaques. There’s room for many more of them and I count it a wasted opportunity, since the Experience is going to have people standing in line for long stretches. Why not turn an inconvenience into a “teaching moment”? Once inside, you’ve entered a mazelike set that resembles the Mulberry Street section of nearby New York-New York, but on steroids. Various goombahs and other stereotypes go through perfunctory sketches before hustling you on the next cliché. I’ll give the LVME this: It’s crammed an amazingly elaborate playground into a fairly small footprint.

When we finally got to the museum galleries, we’d been on our feet so long that we only checked out a fraction of them. Too bad, as this is easily the best part of the Mob Experience, rife with artifacts, handwritten documents (some of which have digitized, interactive counterparts), personal photos, home movies, and other paraphernalia, like Lansky’s cigarette case and Mickey Cohen‘s “bulldog” ring. The computer-generated plaques, however, tend to be blurry and pixilated. Ditto a super-low-resolution documentary about the making of The Godfather, whose color registration is godawfully “off” (blue NYPD uniforms take on a kelly-green hue).

Nothing says “historical authenticity” quite like Jimmy Caan.

At various stops along the way, actors like James Caan, Mickey Rourke, Frank Vincent and That Uncle Paulie Guy from The Sopranos shuffle onscreen, via video projector, like four apostles reciting The Gospel According to the Mafia. Vincent gets top marks for tailoring and evoking Martin Scorcese‘s films — the watching of which would be a considerably more edifying use of one’s time. Unlike the LVME, Scorcese cares about getting history right.

As Schwartz writes elsewhere, the whole Experience is closer to Fright Dome at Circus Circus than to an actual museum. And, at $42/head, customers won’t get anywhere near their money’s worth. (Halve that admission fee and I’ll revise my verdict.) Compared to the complex and symbiotic weave of the Mob within Las Vegas between the end of World War II and the exposure of the Stardust skim, the LVME traffics in platitudes, trivialization and near-maudlin sentimentality. (To hear the Experience tell it, mobsters invented casino gambling in America and then the big, bad corporations muscled them aside.) Law enforcement is made to appear considerably more menacing than the Mafia.

While I defer to Prof. Schwartz’s definitive analysis of the LVME, I feel confident in saying that Mayor Oscar Goodman is resting comfortably. His long-sought Mafia Museum Downtown is certain to be a superior representation, if perhaps not as commercial or lucrative.

Even so, it seems as if the Las Vegas Mob Experience is missing something, like a whiskey-smuggling thrill ride or maybe some cool motion simulators. How does a ‘Luca Brasi Sleeps with the Fishes’ Immersive Underwater Experience grab you?

LVA subscribers know that one of our perennial Top Ten favorites is Ellis Island Casino & Brewery. However, the hosts of the Living in Las Vegas Podcast checked it out in the wee small hours of the morning and found hookers, a pimp, a transvestite hooker, gang members and good, cheap beer. The fun starts about 17 minutes into the recording.

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