Candy Moulton: The Mob Museum
Forget the Strip. The next time you are in Las Vegas, Nev., head downtown to one of the most fascinating museums I’ve visited in quite a spell: The Mob Museum, the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement.
As one well-connected Las Vegas resident told me, this is a museum where you learn about people whom you may actually see on the streets of Las Vegas after you depart the historic courthouse where the museum is housed.
Located at 300 Stewart Avenue, the former federal courthouse and U.S. Post Office that houses The Mob Museum is one of the few remaining historically significant buildings in Las Vegas. It is on both the Nevada and National Registers of Historic Places and appears just as a courthouse that was the center of the nation’s interest in 1950 ought to. Tall, sturdy, imposing.
If only the walls could talk.
Well, in a sense they do as this new museum uses the very space where the Kefauver Committee grilled members of organized crime – The Mob – to tell the story of the Mob and how it “ran the town.” U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver and his committee conducted hearings in 14 cities across the nation in 1950-51, intent on uncovering the criminal activities of the Mob. The advent of black and white television had a profound impact on the hearings as they were televised. People across the nation tuned in to watch, becoming entranced by the real life law and order of the nation.
It was not an easy task for Kefauver, after all the Mob was pervasive in society, not only dealing with the underworld of crime, drugs, and other nefarious deeds, but also have a finger in many economic pies. The Mob quite literally ran companies, many of them providing services and goods all Americans relied upon.
When Kefauver’s committee came to Las Vegas, it held hearings on November 15, 1950 in the courtroom where “America Fights Back” an immersive theater experience now plays. You sit in the actual room, on the actual benches, viewing the actual tables and judge’s bench where participants in Kefauver’s hearings did their work. Just that experience is pretty heady. But when the three-screen show begins, you are suddenly plunged right into the action as you watch a newspaper reporter, Kefauver, and the mobsters themselves recreate the hearings.
But this is not all acting and recreation. Use of archival footage from the actual hearings across the country is incorporated. In one signature part of the show the footage involves, New York City, Mafia Kingpin Frank Costello, “the Prime Minister of the Underworld.” He testified before the Kefauver Committee for several days before he simply stood up, said he was done with the committee and walked out of the hearing room.
In “America Fights Back” actors on the two side screens fire questions at the real Frank Costello, who appears on the center screen Then he gets angry, stands up and walks out – just as it really happened!
The blending of the modern-day acting using a script that came from the original hearing testimony and the news footage makes for a very powerful portrayal.
But there is much more to this museum than the courtroom immersive experience. You can shoot a machine gun, be part of a police lineup, see the actual brick wall where the St. Valentines Day Massacre took place (a film of the massacre shows on the wall), and learn more about the Mob bosses and the law enforcement agents who brought them to justice.
Among those mobsters you will learn more about are Al Capone, also known as Scarface, the most famous mobster of all, who ran the Mob in Chicago and orchestrated the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and Lucky Luciano is considered the true father of modern organized crime, who helped create the National Crime Syndicate. He gunned down rivals – including his own boss – but was so powerful that the U.S. Government came to him for help during World War II.
Bugsy Siegel, known for his extravagance, set the scene for modern-day Las Vegas. He oversaw the construction and operation of the Flamingo Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, but when the opening went bad and there was missing money, he was shot to death in his own home.
In recent times the most recognized Mobster may be John Gotti. He had his own boss killed in 1985 and then became head of the Gambino crime family in New York where he focused on drug trafficking, gambling, extortion and stock fraud. The family made millions, and he faced multiple charges, but was always acquitted earning the nickname “The Teflon Don.” A conviction of Gotti finally came when his own underboss, Sammy The Bull, testified against him. He is now serving life without parole.
The other side of this story involves law enforcement and you will learn about the famous figures who risked it all to bring the Mob to justice including Joe Petrosino, Eliot Ness, and of course Estes Kefauver.
I expected to spend an hour or so at the Mob Museum, but didn’t emerge until at least three hours had passed. It is a fascinating place with truly interesting stories, including an exhibit that strongly suggests President John F. Kennedy would not have won the presidential election in 1960 were it not for the assistance of the Mob in Chicago. I highly recommend you take the time to visit the Mob Museum when you are in Las Vegas. I am certain you will emerge from the courthouse with a much greater understanding of our nation’s history.