Page last updated at 11:57 GMT, Thursday, 27 January 2011

The battle to showcase Las Vegas' mafia past

Las Vegas strip at sunset

By David Willis
BBC News, Las Vegas

Many visitors' first encounters with Las Vegas will be bright lights, casinos, glitz and glamour but the city's foundations have a darker past.

Legend has it that when a man by the name of Bugsy Siegel stopped off in Las Vegas to answer a call of nature he had a vision.

The Flamingo Casino on the Las Vegas Strip
The Flamingo hotel casino was built by the mafia

Siegel deemed the dusty desert town perfect for an upscale casino resort, and when he got home he mentioned the idea to his business associates, who liked it and agreed to bankroll construction of what was to become the Flamingo hotel.

Billed as the most luxurious hotel in the world when it opened its doors to the public in December 1946, the Flamingo also marked the start of a long and lucrative relationship between Las Vegas and the Italian Mafia.

But for Bugsy - himself a notorious gangster - it proved less fruitful.

The Flamingo finished over budget, so they shot him. Which only goes to show that if you want to impress the Cosa Nostra, do not go spending too much on the curtains.

Sin City

Anywhere else in the world, the fact that a city's founding fathers were a bunch of gangsters would probably be a source of discomfort to its residents, if not shame.

But one look at the drive-through wedding chapels and the "all you can eat" buffets, is enough to remind you: Las Vegas has no shame.

Bugsy Siegel
The museums will act as a memorial to men such as mobster Bugsy Siegel

So when the mayor, Oscar Goodman - a man given to making public appearances with a showgirl on each arm - came up with the idea of a museum devoted to Sin City's delinquent ancestors, folks here barely batted an eyelid.

It is a subject Mr Goodman, a former criminal defence lawyer, knows a fair bit about. Before being elected he spent 35 years defending people with names like Fat "Herbie" Blitzstein, and Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal - the sort of characters who made Tony Soprano look like Mother Theresa.

Mr Goodman also had in mind what seemed the perfect location for his museum: the former federal courthouse in downtown Las Vegas - a stately neoclassical building which hosted senate hearings into organised crime back in the 1950s.

Not only did it have the perfect pedigree, but basing the mob museum there would bring thousands of people to an area long overshadowed by the Las Vegas Strip - where the big casinos, including the Flamingo, are to be found.

For a while funding proved an issue, then the FBI agreed to donate exhibits from its archives, and eventually the city had the $52.4m (£33m) it needed to start work.

Imagine then, how Mr Goodman must have felt when he woke up one morning to discover his pet project had a rival.

Turf war

The Las Vegas Mob Experience is the brainchild of a local investor, Jay Bloom, who with the help of the relatives of several former mobsters, has assembled what he says is the largest collection of organised crime memorabilia in the world- more than 1,000 artefacts including home movies - which will form the basis of an, "interactive theme park type experience".

Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman
Oscar Goodman's plans for a mob museum took an unexpected twist

There will be no need for visitors to trek all the way Downtown to see it either, because Mr Bloom has a home for his exhibition on the Strip. What is more, it is opening six months before the mayor's.

At first, Mr Goodman did not seem terribly troubled by the prospect of competition, but the rivalry between the two camps took a somewhat bizarre twist when it was announced that Mr Bloom had added a woman called Antoinette Giancana to his team of advisors.

Seventy-five-year old Ms Giancana is the daughter of the legendary Chicago mobster Sam "Momo" Giancana, who was gunned down in his kitchen one day as he was frying some Italian sausage.

Among the murder suspects was a chap called Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, a small man with a bad temper, so legend has it, whose party piece was to put a rival's head in a vice and tighten it until their eyes popped out. As you do.

Yet while there is nothing good about organised crime, few would argue the mob played a key role in making this place what it is today

Now, Tony The Ant beat the rap more than once because he had good lawyers, and his lawyer in Las Vegas was none other than - you've guessed it - the mayor himself, Oscar Goodman.

A couple of decades ago a turf war of this kind would have ended with somebody being measured for concrete shoes, but Las Vegas is a different place now.

Yet few would argue the mob played a key role in making this place what it is today - a city that has been dubbed "the gambling capital of the world".

And for that alone they probably deserve a museum in their honour. And maybe even two.

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