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Las Vegas’ long and influential history with organized crime is brought to light with the opening of The Mob Museum this February.
Photo: Studio J Photography (The Mob Museum opens to the public February 14, 2012.)
Jim Germain has lived all of his 63 years in Las Vegas, watching the town grow from a small desert retreat to the worldwide attraction it is today. Two years before Germain was born, in 1946, Benjamin ”Bugsy” Siegel arrogantly rushed the opening of his elaborate Flamingo hotel and casino, even though the building was incomplete and in a world of financial trouble. On December 26, locals and a few celebrities flocked to the new casino, only to be greeted by construction noise and drop cloths and the desert’s first air-conditioning system functioning only sporadically. The luxury rooms that were to lure high rollers were uninhabitable.
Siegel’s reckless operation of the Flamingo ultimately led to his demise, as the mob lost patience and “retired” him on June 20, 1947 in his girlfriend’s Beverly Hills home. Siegel’s time in Las Vegas was brief—he came to the desert in spring 1946 to supervise the Flamingo project—but he is one of the more famous faces and names attached to the city’s mob history, which was born in Siegel’s day, prospered from about 1950 to the early 1980s, and died when the FBI used wiretaps and other new law-enforcement technologies to essentially eradicate the city’s mob scene.
Germain, the board secretary of The Mob Museum, the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, which will open its doors in Las Vegas on February 14, has not forgotten the days when characters like Siegel ran the city. His father, Ray, was a reporter for the Las Vegas Sun and once wrote an article about Siegel that used the term “Bugsy.” The day the article hit newsstands, two of Siegel’s associates visited Ray’s office and pointedly told him that Mr. Siegel did not like the article because he despised that word.
Siegel earned the nickname—said to be based on the slang “bugs,” meaning “crazy,” and used to describe his erratic behavior—from media during a 1939 murder trial in which he was eventually acquitted, but his reputation was forever tarnished. Germain says, “My dad made a vow at that time and told me later on, ‘I never broke it, and I never would have because I knew what the consequences were. I never wrote another word about Siegel, much less used that word.’”
Whether it was Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal—the basis for Sam “Ace” Rosenthal’s character played by Robert De Niro in the 1995 film “Casino”—or Anthony “The Ant” Spilotro—portrayed by Joe Pesci as Nicky Santoro in the same movie—Las Vegas’ mob history was ruthless and brutal. But for those who didn’t cross the mob, it was also a glorious time to be a Las Vegan.
“If you lived in town those days, you weren’t worried about gangs, you weren’t worried about the kind of violent crimes that you see now, and a man’s word was his bond,” says former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who was once a defense lawyer for Spilotro and Rosenthal and a number of other figureheads of organized crime. “I like the interrelationships of the old days more than today. People were a little more laid back and not as aggressive.”
Starting in February, not only will guests of The Mob Museum inside the former federal courthouse and post office on Stewart Avenue relive the city’s mob past, they will get a nationwide and worldwide perspective on organized crime and the men and women in law enforcement that fought it and continue to fight it today.
Following are four Q&As associated with the February 14 opening of The Mob Museum in Las Vegas.
A key visionary for the project and current board member is former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, a previous go-to defense attorney who made a name for himself representing such reputed mobsters as Meyer Lansky, Frank Rosenthal, and Anthony Spilotro, among others. Goodman’s new steakhouse at Plaza Las Vegas, Oscar’s, should be open when this magazine hits newsstands. When we talked to him in mid-November, he was also filming a new Las Vegas-based television show, “Vegas Night Court with Oscar Goodman.”
Q: How did The Mob Museum originate in Las Vegas?
A: The first thing I did when I was elected mayor [in 1999] was look out my window of the 10th floor of city hall, and I saw the old U.S. post office and courthouse, where I tried my first federal case [in 1967]. I said, “What’s happening to the old post office?” They told me the General Services Administration (GSA) of the federal government had declared it a surplus. We called them, and they said they would sell us the building for $1 on two conditions: one, that we refurbish it to its original condition and two, that we use it for museum purposes. So I began to think about what kind of museum. I knew that’s what we had to use the building for, to get that feeling of liveliness in downtown because it was a very lethargic downtown at the time. It dawned on me: What differentiates us from any other city in the world as far as where we came from? And I said, “The mob.”
Q: What’s your excitement level for the opening of the museum, and what’s it going to mean for the City of Las Vegas?
A: It looks like the opening will take place on Valentine’s Day, which is very interesting in that we have acquired the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre wall, and that will be one of the major exhibits. The thing that I was criticized for was a glorification of mobsters, and of course that’s nonsensical because we have retained the services of the former head of the FBI here, who has the blessing of the FBI back in Washington D.C. Memorabilia is being provided to the museum from there, and in fact, it’s a historic place because this is where the Kefauver hearings took place in the 1950s. Not too many people are around to remember those days, but Senator Estes Kefauver from Tennessee was trying to run for president based on holding these hearings in major cities where he believed there was a mob influence, and he did spend time here in that very building conducting such a hearing. It was of world interest at the time, so it does have all the necessary ingredients to be successful.
Q: Put yourself back in the federal courthouse where you defended mobsters such as Lansky, Rosenthal, and Spilotro. What was it like?
A: Those days were exciting days for Las Vegas because every day something was happening during the late ’70s to early ’80s—that’s when the FBI came here and began to use wiretaps as an investigative technique. The newspapers and media were all over these reputed crime figures who were in town. There were allegations of hidden ownership of the hotels; the wiretaps supported those allegations. And every day there was either a search and seizure taking place, where you had to go down and argue things at the courthouse, or an arrest that took place, grand jury appearances—it was very, very busy. It was a time like no other city ever saw. I was right in the thick of things because I represented most of the people who were the subjects of the interest of law enforcement, and it kept me very busy, kept me on my toes. It was a great life because every morning I woke up I knew it was going to be a new and different challenging, exciting experience, and the folks who I was representing were all characters. That kind of intensity ended in the late ’80s.
Q: Tell us about some of those “characters” you mentioned.
A: There was a time when the senior executives at Caesars Palace had been indicted for illegal bookmaking. The evidence obtained against them was acquired by virtue of wiretaps, and they were heard talking about ladies, partying, drinking, and all the things that make a man feel good. When they were indicted, the local judges wanted no part of it because they were leaders in our community, so they sent a judge in from Los Angeles. I’ll never forget it; the clients did not want their wives to hear the tape recordings because they were naughty. The judge came out, and of course all three of the defendants are there, and their wives are with them in the courtroom. And for the first time the judge brings out the indictment, and he looks at it and says, “Oh, this is the booze and broads case.” At that point in time, pleas were entered immediately [laughs]. At Oscar’s, I have “beef, booze, and broads” in the title, and it was always with that story in the back of my mind. I’ve always wanted to open up a speakeasy steakhouse-type place.
Ellen Knowlton, who served as FBI Special Agent in Charge, Las Vegas Division, from 2002-06, heads the museum’s board of directors. She retired in 2006 as a 24-year FBI veteran. Knowlton is president of 300 Stewart Avenue Corporation, the nonprofit overseeing development and operations of The Mob Museum.
Q: What do you think this museum will do to enhance our knowledge of the mob—not only in Las Vegas, but nationally?
A: I think it’s going to be a fantastic learning opportunity for anybody who wants to understand not only what happened here in Las Vegas, but to understand the structure of organized crime—where it started, how it got here, and then what happened here. And what law enforcement did to combat it, how long it took—it was a huge effort to eradicate it, frankly, and it involved not just the FBI, but certainly metro and other federal and local law enforcement, plus the Department of Justice. We’re working very hard to have a correct balance to make sure people understand that this isn’t a glamorous road to go down. It’s gritty, it’s dangerous, it can be disheartening, and it’s very negative, so we’re striving to provide really educational information along with entertainment.
Q: Give us a rundown of what the museum experience will entail.
A: There are some very unique weapons, some from law enforcement, some from organized crime, that will be on display that have all been authenticated. There is the recreated, original St. Valentine’s Day Massacre wall, which, after the massacre, was dismantled and preserved. From the locals’ standpoint, the building was also a post office. There are a number of artifacts from the post office, including mailboxes. The building has been completely restored. The courtroom is fabulous; that’s probably the centerpiece of the museum. It’s very ornate. There are audio-visuals throughout the museum that are interesting and entertaining. There are also several interactives, including one that involves firearms, where people can be in a situation in which they’re the law enforcement officers. They have a weapon, and they’re interacting with a bad guy on a video screen.
Q: What are the main eras highlighted at the museum?
A: The museum covers the period of time from prohibition to the present. Organized crime was involved in bootlegging, so that’s included. Organized crime is still in Las Vegas, it’s just not in the mainstream. It’s everywhere really. We want our museum to focus on the late ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, up through the mid-’70s because that’s when the activity was most prevalent. But we also have current events. We talk about some non-traditional organized crime. There is a provision where we can update, so as new things come to light we can update the exhibits and features.
Q: Why does a tourist or Nevada resident have to see The Mob Museum once it opens?
A: It’s unique. There’s nothing like it in the world. While it focuses on the history of organized crime in Las Vegas, because you have to set the stage and explain how people got here, it actually goes into organized crime around the nation. So if you’re from Kansas City, you can come here and learn about organized crime in Kansas City and the history of that organized crime element. So wherever you’re from, you can focus on your city.
Q: How do you measure the mob’s influence on the City of Las Vegas?
A: I don’t think it was a major influence, and I don’t think it was necessarily a positive influence. I’ve heard people say things like, “The town was never better than when the mob influence was strong and prevalent,” and I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think the major influence on Las Vegas was the legalization of gambling—that was the major impact. The legalization of gambling opened our city up to all kinds of people and enterprise. Las Vegas would still be glittery, would still be what it is today—a major worldwide attraction. We didn’t need organized crime to do that for us.
Q: The public has seen such films as “Casino,” which shape our idea of what it was like in mob-era Las Vegas, and in general around the country. How accurate of a portrayal is that film and movies like it?
A: “Casino” is probably one of the more accurate ones. I also think there is a lot of research done and efforts made to be realistic in “The Godfather.” I also think that when people see those movies, the sensational and the glamorous lifestyles are exaggerated. I don’t think that’s the accurate part. I think the brutality is.
Q: The building dates to 1933 and was Las Vegas’ first federal building. Why is it important to preserve that history?
A: You have a lot of history in Northern Nevada that’s been preserved, and there is not a lot of history that’s been preserved in Las Vegas. They tend to blow things up, rather than preserve them, so this is a historical site.
Jim Germain (shown in photo on the left with The Mob Museum Executive Director Jonathan Ullman) is as Nevadan as they come. He is a native Las Vegan and a member of a pioneer Las Vegas family. At one time, Germain’s grandfather, Frank Garside, owned 14 newspapers in the Silver State. Garside moved from Tonopah to Las Vegas in 1926 and eventually became publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and was the city postmaster from 1933-53.
Garside held such prominent status in Las Vegas that he dined with Bugsy (oops, Benjamin) Siegel on a few occasions. Garside did not think highly of Siegel, “who liked my grandmother because she came to Nevada by herself as a young lady on a stagecoach, and he thought that was a pretty interesting background,” Germain says.
Germain, a tourism consultant, previously worked in sales for a number of Las Vegas resort-hotels and ran a nationwide special-events and meetings company for more than 20 years. He holds a degree from each of the state’s major universities.
Q: You have a personal connection to the building through your grandfather, the former postmaster. How special is it to you that this building has been given new life?
A: That’s how I got involved with the building. It was our post office. My grandfather’s office was there—I don’t remember visiting my grandfather because I was only five years old when he retired from that position. But I went into his office afterward many times. That’s where my dad’s business was, downtown. He’d send me to the post office to open his box and get his mail. That’s where we went to mail packages. When the city got [the building] in 2002 from the federal government to use as a cultural site, I became very interested in it and talked to the mayor’s office and said, “If we do something with the old post office, I’d like to be involved because of my family history, and I’d like to help.”
Q: What do you think this museum will do to enhance our knowledge of the mob—not only in Las Vegas, but nationally?
A: We’ve really worked hard to give an authentic portrayal of organized crime. The museum’s going to show that it wasn’t like the movies. It was probably horrific to be a member of organized crime, and once you get into it, you don’t get out. It’s going to show that we have great people working for us in law enforcement against a very nefarious group of individuals. It’s not going to be a stodgy, dusty museum. It’s going to have interactive exhibits, and it’s going to be a vibrant representation of the truth. Those of us who have been involved with it from the very beginning are so excited.
Q: Do you see the museum attracting a new wave of tourists to Las Vegas?
A: I think it’s going to bring people to Las Vegas. I think it’s going to be a strong enough attraction that it will be a reason for people to revisit Las Vegas, and not for the same reasons that they’ve been here before. It’s going to do a great job of revitalizing that section of downtown. It’s going to bring a significant number of additional tourists to Las Vegas because it’s an attraction that will exist nowhere else.
Q: What will the demographic be?
A: It’s going to be older. We’re expecting that it will be of interest to middle school students and older. There are some pretty graphic representations in the museum, and it’s not going to be a place for very young children.
Q: How has your sales experience in Las Vegas helped you market the museum?
A: I was also in special events, and we really had a lack of exciting destinations to take people for private parties. I had offices in Washington D.C., San Francisco, and New Orleans—a lot of places that had fantastic venues outside the hotels to host parties and events. Las Vegas is unmatched with their hotel facilities, but it lacks historical and cultural venues—we just don’t have old buildings. We don’t have old museums, and this is going to fill a niche for the special-event area in Las Vegas, and we’re really excited about that.
Q: How do you measure the mob’s influence on the City of Las Vegas?
A: The mob funded some rather special hotels. We needed that growth. Las Vegas was a pretty isolated place. Without the mob’s influential money, then we might not be where we are today. It wasn’t until the city was pretty well established as a world-class tourism destination that the corporations came—Hilton and some of the others that bought the mob businesses and took them over. The development continued, of course, but without that push in the very beginning, I don’t think Las Vegas would be where it is today.
Q: What was Las Vegas like when the mob ruled?
A: We as residents weren’t involved in the organized-crime aspect. My parents probably knew more about what was going on than I did. The big thing about being a resident of Las Vegas at that time, unless you were involved in organized crime, you might have been aware that it was here, but there was no threat to the residents. In other words, we weren’t worried that one day we were going to be driving along on the street and a black car would pull in front of us, and we would be machine-gunned. It didn’t happen that way. It happened, but it didn’t happen to people who weren’t involved. And we had no fear of that. A lot of the old-time casino people liked it the way it was when organized crime ran the casinos because they felt they were better treated than when they corporations first got here. They were treated more as individuals. The threat was that if you crossed the line, and you did something that would upset organized crime, then you had reason to worry. That’s exactly what that story about my dad represents.
In May 2010, Las Vegas writer Eric Gladstone interviewed surviving mob member-turned-informant Frank Cullotta, on the occasion of his appearance for a discussion in Las Vegas. Cullotta, shown at left in 1981, was a key member of Anthony Spilotro’s infamous Hole in the Wall Gang. Following are excerpts from the interview, which can be read in its entirety at ecgladstone.com.
Q: This isn’t the first time you’ve made an appearance like this since coming out of the witness protection program. What do you get out of doing this?
A: The satisfaction of putting people on the right track, letting people know what it’s really about. They’re hearing it firsthand from a guy that’s been there, instead of seeing it in movies and all that baloney, ’cause half of that stuff is so much exaggerated.
Q: What do people ask you about most?
A: Well, the strangest thing people ask me is how it felt to kill somebody. I think that’s sort of a weird question. And how did you have to do these things: Are you ordered to do these things, and what happens if you don’t do these things, the consequences that would take place?
Q: And from what I know about your past, you were really born into the mob.
A: Well, I was, I was. I grew up in that neighborhood where everybody was a cop, a fireman, or a gangster. I come from that background, I had no other way to go. I don’t think I had any other choice, ’cause I thought tough choices were the ones I had to make, and there weren’t any other choices left. There was no such thing as college; nobody even talked about college. You had to be a millionaire to go to college; that’s the way we looked at it. And what good would an education do you back then if you had street sense? With street sense, you could make money, and you’d see these guys that you looked up to, and they always had big wads of money on them, nice cars, and stuff like that.
Q: I was reading about the number of crimes you’ve been involved in, and the thing that struck me is, how do you even remember doing that many?
A: I understand what you’re saying, and I get that question to me a lot of times. And I just sit back alone, and I talk into the recorder, and things start coming back to me. You know, every robbery you go on, 90 percent of them are exciting, they’re a challenge, so they stay with you. Some are more exciting than others. I did a lot of robberies.
Q: Is that part of the appeal of that life?
A: No, the glamour. People sort of look up to you. Money is the root of all evil—let’s say it like it is. You got money, you got friends; you got no money, you got no friends. You got money, you got people following you all around the place. If you’re a bum, nobody wants to be around you. It’s power. You get off on it. Everybody does.
Q: Speaking of glamour, let’s talk about Vegas in the old days—any favorite memories?
A: Every day over there was a nice day. Even the days I got followed by the cops. Small town. I was never bored there.
Q: What kind of experience do you want people to get out of the museum?
A: I’m not the curator of the museum, but they were quite interested in my story and Tony’s story, because I’m a part of the history of Las Vegas. I’m actually the only guy left. So they needed that, and I gave them all I could. There’s no money in it—99 percent of the stuff I do here, there’s no money in it. But what’s the difference? I’m making money, I got a good life.
Q: A lot of people say Vegas was better back in the old days when the Organization was running things. You’ve spent some time in Vegas recently. How do you feel?
A: I think it was a warmer place back then, more social. It wasn’t a meatpacking place that only wanted your money. Or kids all over the place. Now it’s starting to come back, they’re getting rid of that Disneyland effect. It’s a nice place now; I wouldn’t talk anyone out of going there. I like it there. But I don’t think it’s ever going back to the way it used to be, and I think the way it used to be was nicer.
Seniors, Military, Law Enforcement, & Teachers: $14
Children (5-17): $12
Students (18-23 with ID): $12
Nevada Residents: $10
Hours: Sun.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-7 p.m.;
Fri.-Sat., 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
300 Stewart Ave., Las Vegas, NV 89101
WORTH A VISIT
201 N. 3rd St., Las Vegas
Hours: Mon.-Sat., 4 p.m.-midnight
WORTH A READ
Cullotta: The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster, and Government Witness, by Dennis N. Griffin, 312 pages, huntingtonpress.com, 702-252-0655
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Vegas Mob Tour
This 2.5-hour bus tour begins with tales about the mob’s connection to Las Vegas. You’ll visit the sites where murders, strange disappearances, and mob activity occurred. Your tour guides, dressed in pinstriped suits and fedoras, weave eerie stories about Sin City’s darkest secrets. hauntedtoursusa.com, 866-218-4935
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