The last time we were in Las Vegas, we experienced one part of the city’s history by visiting the fascinating Atomic Testing Museum. This time we decided to explore another, even darker side of Las Vegas–the history of the Mafia in creating “Sin City.”
But while the city’s atomic age history generally presented a relatively straightforward recitation of facts and perceptions of Las Vegas, the new (opened in December 2010) Las Vegas Mob Experience, which cost a reported $26 million to build, blends entertainment, education, and technology into an interactive experience.
Induction into the Mob
The introduction and conclusion of the experience are primarily entertainment, with a modicum of education mixed in. The core is primarily educational.
After signing in, you choose an actor to be your guide through the adventure and are provided with a tag containing an RFID chip that tracks your movement through the experience and also activates special effects and videos when you enter certain areas. The introduction begins with a brief stop at Ellis Island, followed by entry into a waiting room where you are introduced to 1920’s era of New York City, during Prohibition. The next several rooms, take you through a series of atmosphere-evoking rooms (warehouses, back alleys, street cafes, police stations), each populated with live actors who interact with you and make you feel like you are being “made by” (i.e., being inducted into) the mob. For example, we were asked to transport an envelope of money to Big Louie. A bit hokey, but fun.
This is followed by entry into a series of transitional rooms, in which you move from Mob street life to life in a Mob-run casino. As you enter each room, your RFID tag triggers videos in which your chosen video actor (we choose James Caan) portrays a Mob casino boss, and combines entertainment and education to introduce you to behind-the-scenes life in early Las Vegas casinos.
Las Vegas’ Mob Personalities
With this introduction complete, you enter into a star-type configuration of about eight rooms that are laid out more like a typical museum, with video, text, and display exhibits that explain the history of Las Vegas-based gambling and the people behind it. Although it provides contextual background around some of the big New York and Chicago bosses, it focused primarily on:
- Meyer Lansky, the “brains” who envisioned and pioneered the Mob’s entry into gambling. It explains how he began with small, concept-proving experiments in New York and Florida, followed by a big push into Havana, and then his counter-intuitive identification of Las Vegas (essentially a remote crossroads in the middle of a barren desert) as the center of an American gambling empire; and his appointment of
- Bugsy Siegel, the dapper, charming LA Mafioso who created and managed the 1946 opening of the then glamorous (not to speak of long-delayed, way over budget) Flamingo Hotel and who helped create the Hollywood relationships that were so instrumental in driving Las Vega’s popularity.
It also provides profiles of many of the Mob personalities that surrounded these two giants and portrayed their relationships with actors (especially Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack), and even with the CIA (in the Bay of Pigs and attempts to assassinate Castro). While most of these stories were told in textual and short video-based displays, they were made more real with reconstructed rooms and display cases with a huge collection of actual home furnishings, clothes, jewelry, and even weapons and personal journals of the primary figures.
Subsequent rooms brought the Las Vegas Mob story into 1960, with discussions of the role of Howard Hughes in buying casinos from the mob and retaining Mob members to run them and how Tony Spilotro and his Hole in the Wall Game eventually led a tough local sheriff and eventually the U.S. Senate (especially Estes Kefauver), Attorney General (Bobby Kennedy) and the FBI to crack down.
The Experience concluded in a replica of Meyer Lansky’s office and a recording in which he bitterly lamented the legitimization of gambling and how it stole the idea and profits from their rightful owners and resulted in a homogenization of the business.
And, to tie back to the original entertainment focus of the Experience, we were, on exit, questioned by an FBI agent and given a chance to push plungers that triggered videos of the implosions of some of the city’s original Mob hotels.
The Godfather Experience
The Experience also has a theater showing a documentary on the Mob’s role in shaping and filming of the movie, “The Godfather”. It explained how the Marlon Brando character was modeled on the real-life Frank Costello, the ways in which the Mob, which initially objected to the movie, acquiesced when the writers agreed to delete the word “Mafia”, and how it eventually, somewhat to the chagrin of Francis Ford Coppola and the studio, embraced the movie. They enabled its shooting (film, rather than bullets) in New York’s Little Italy and even emerged as technical advisors (clothing, how to hold guns, etc.) and in some cases actors (Lenny Montana as the chilling hitman, Luca Brasi) in the movie. Not exactly Las Vegas, but very interesting.
The Bottom Line
On one hand, the Experience seemed a bit schizophrenic, somewhat unsure of whether it wanted to be entertaining or educational. And, other than the James Caan videos, the two purposes seemed a bit disjointed. This, however, is a minor qualification to an experience that we felt, was well worth the $30 admission and two hours of our time required to devour (as we did) the volumes of information that is presented. If you go primarily for entertainment, you may well be disappointed (especially given the options in Las Vegas). But if you look at the entertainment as a fun complement to an educational experience, you will be rewarded. You may also be inspired, as we were, to add “The Godfather” and “Bugsy” to your Netflix queues.