Visitors to the $25 million "Mob Experience" interactive exhibit in Las Vegas are greeted with a stern warning about money from a bootlegger in a dark warehouse.
"Can I trust you with this?" asks "Tommy Shines," handing over an envelope of money to one of the tour’s visitors." Make sure everything in that envelope makes it to 'Big Leo'…or else!"
But "Big Leo," sitting at a table with a half-eaten piece of bread on his plate, isn’t completely satisfied.
"Where's the rest of it?" he demands, counting the money. "That's not how we do business. If I find out it was you who took this, there's gonna be an issue, you understand?"
That's just a taste of what you'll find at the 27,000 square-foot gallery of mobster artifacts, home movies, and a state-of-the-art interactive tour with holograms of actors James Can and Mickey Rourke playing gangsters.It's all taking place at the Tropicana Hotel, the spot for its share of mob activity back in the day.
But does the exhibit pass the "mob" authenticity test? At least some family members of former wiseguys think so.
"These are the original founders of the casino business," said Cynthia Duncan, the granddaughter of Meyer Lansky, known publicly for decades as “the Mob’s Accountant,” and a leading figure in the growth of the casino business in Las Vegas and elsewhere.
Known within mob circles as "Little Man," Meyer ran gambling operations from Cuba to Florida to Sin City. Not surprisingly, he’s well-represented at the exhibit."We have his diaries, his artifacts, family photos…that's the premise of this whole experience," said Duncan.
"It's fantastic, the artifacts are displayed just as if they were in the Smithsonian," said Carole Russo, the niece of New York mobster Vincent "Jimmy Blue Eyes" Alo. A U.S. attorney once described Alo as one of the most significant organized crime figures in the United States. He was also the inspiration behind the fictional "Johnny Ola" character in "The Godfather Part II.
Like Duncan, Russo contributed artifacts to the exhibit, including historical information about Alo's close association with Lansky during the days of prohibition and beyond."Both (Alo and Lansky) were very intelligent men who I'm sure would've been the CEOs of companies if they were of a different background, but they were from the immigrant class," said Russo.
But the idea of celebrating organized crime isn't sitting well with everyone.
"Let's face it, gangsters aren't the most friendly people," said William Donati, an English professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, who once researched 40,000 pages of New York City archives on mobster Lucky Luciano, often referred to as the founder of the modern Mafia.
"I found the 'Mob Experience' to be quite controversial and I don't why (Las Vegas) would honor these brutal killers," said Donati, who feels Las Vegas isn't setting a good example for the youth by honoring individuals like Lansky and Alo. "I think this, quite frankly, glorifies criminals.”
But for Duncan the exhibit showcases a very real part of the city’s history.
"It's time to face the reality This is the story of Las Vegas," she said.