The day the new Mob Museum opened started like every other day in Vegas: with a quickie wedding.
But this one was a bit different.
“Do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?” asked former Mayor Oscar Goodman of a very tan, tattooed bride in her 50’s, wearing a low-cut gown and a smile so bright it could’ve be seen from space. “Will you love him, be a friend to him and honor him, until death do you part…or until you sleep with the fishes?”
|Couples await their wedding ceremony in a museum gallery|
Laughter filled the courtroom. She assented, and, in short order, so did the six other couples fanned around her, a group chosen randomly from the 10,000 applicants who wanted to be married as part of the opening ceremonies for the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement (aka The Mob Museum).
It was a joyous opening for an ambitious, often disturbing, and indisputably important new American history museum.
And an interesting third act for former Mayor Goodman, who started his career as a lawyer, representing some of Sin City’s most notorious gangsters. As council, he’d claimed that the Mob didn’t actually exist. “Well, I saw the movie “Casino” and realized I’d been wrong,” he replied and winked, when I asked him how a man with his personal history had become the driving force behind a museum of organized crime history.
We were standing in the courtroom where Senator Estes Kefauver held his famous syndicated crime hearings in 1950 and 1951. Watched by 30 million people, the most for any televised event of the time, the trials made it incontrovertibly clear that organized crime did exist in the US. This beautifully restored courtroom is the centerpiece of the museum and gives heft to the idea that a new museum should open here, in a city where the majority of museums last no longer than mob stooges.
To avoid that fate, the designers and founders have added a healthy dose of razzmatazz to the proceedings: a fascinating 10-minute film on mob movies narrated by Nicholas Pileggi, slot machine-like displays of video testimonials, the opportunity to take part in a line up, fake machine guns to fire.
But the Mob Museum also has a thought provoking side, and makes a gripping case for the idea that mob history may actually be the truest history of the United States. “If you go deep enough , you can see the mob’s fingerprints on everything,” one bit of wall text grimly asserts, followed by exhibits on fixed elections, presidential assassinations, labor disputes. It’s a dark vision, enhanced by the unrelenting gore that assaults the visitor (this is NOT a museum for kids), with pictures of blood splattered crime scenes adorning at least half the walls in the place (they start to look like grisly Rorschach Tests after a while).
To its credit, the museum does not glorify crime (as does the prurient “Crime and Punishment Museum in Washington, DC.) That may be because the chairperson of its board, Ellen Knowlton, is the former bureau chief for the Las Vegas division of the FBI. One would assume that its thanks to her that the museum has had access to such artifacts as the hidden mic conversations between John Gotti and his associates that landed him in jail; as well as detailed exhibits on organized crime activity today in Mexico, Russia, China and yes, the US.
But I left thinking that Oscar Goodman’s fingerprints were all over the place, and in a good way. A renowned showman (he makes most of his public appearances flanked by two showgirls), the museum has a glitzy edge to it that will appeal to those who get bored in more traditional venues. Beyond that, Goodman and his colleagues seemed to have known what stories to tell. “The museum embodies the history of the United States, warts and all,” he told me. “This is a way of looking at how immigrants came to the US, at how they got a foothold here, how they gained power. Its an important American story.”