Preserving the history of the mob in Las Vegas

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Las Vegas strip postcard, ca. 1980s. Image credit: Brian, Flickr Commons, CC BY-NC 2.0

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of pieces  focused on Las Vegas and its regional identity which will be posted before and during the NCPH Annual Meeting in Las Vegas in April.

If NCPH members want proof that the mob no longer has power in the city hosting their conference this year, try to find a 99-cent rib special.

When I was growing up in Las Vegas, we had cheap food. The owner of the neighborhood casino where my family often ate had ties to the Chicago mob. When I was about four years old, his casino manager, who had similar connections, would bounce me on his knee, then comp my family for that rib special. My grandparents had thrown enough nickels into the slot machines to justify it.

Now I write and teach about the place where I grew up and serve on the board of directors of a popular, nationally recognized museum that examines the history of the mob, and the law enforcement officials who fought and defeated the men behind it. Las Vegas has changed, and so have I.

When organized crime groups owned the hotel-casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, they tended to charge less for the food, entertainment, and rooms. They reasoned that they would win enough from you at the tables. Besides, that money was easier to skim and send back east to be invested in other mob activities.

Today, Las Vegas is much more corporate and seems impersonal because the resorts are so much larger. They’re also better. Las Vegas is costlier, but not outlandishly so. You also get what you pay for: more luxurious rooms, shows with more elaborate technology, stars appearing in state-of-the-art arenas, and better and more ethnically diverse food in restaurants that often bear the names of celebrity chefs known throughout the world.

In my youth, Las Vegas was better known for having gambling and great entertainment, but also for serving the mobster diaspora. My family moved to Las Vegas in 1967. A cousin helped my father get started as a casino dealer. He wound up at the Stardust Hotel, dealing blackjack and some other games.

Eventually, my father had the dubious pleasure of being fired by Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal. If you saw the film Casino, he was the character played by Robert DeNiro. They looked and sounded nothing alike; Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi took some liberties. Now at liberty from the Stardust, my father worked for 20 years at the Showboat, owned by a corporation but built by the mobsters from Cleveland who also had built the Stardust.

“Casino” theatrical release poster. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Casino includes an explosion. DeNiro’s character gets into his car and it blows up. That happened to Rosenthal. By the time the real-life bombing happened, in 1982, I had graduated from high school and gone to work for a local newspaper, The Valley Times, which had uncovered many of the stories about the mob that formed the backbone of that film.

I didn’t get to cover the Rosenthal car bombing, but the next night, I learned that, years before when he was a local power, Rosenthal had called our publisher, Bob Brown, and ordered him to fire our editor for insulting him. Brown had been helping Rosenthal skim money for the Stardust and the other casinos he ran: Rosenthal paid an outlandishly high price for advertisements, our paper kicked back the excess; the newspaper survived, thanks to the ad revenue, and the skim continued. But Brown didn’t fire our editor; he simply sent him out of town on vacation for two weeks and removed his name from the staff box. By the time he returned, as Brown expected, Rosenthal had forgotten all about it.

By the time I graduated from UNLV with my master’s in 1988, the mob’s influence in the Las Vegas tourism industry had cratered. The Justice Department had indicted and convicted most of the key mob figures. State regulators had revoked the gaming licenses of those tied to them. Corporations played an increasingly important role in casinos. And Rosenthal’s lifelong friend, Anthony Spilotro, a fellow Chicago mobster sent to Las Vegas to control street rackets, had died violently at the hands of some of his colleagues.

I took that background into my historical work. My training is actually in nineteenth-century America, but I started writing and teaching local history even before going off for my Ph.D. Las Vegans have long been fascinated with their history, contrary to the belief of those who think we blow it up, much as the mob blew up Rosenthal’s car. Actually, Las Vegas implodes its older casinos, but otherwise does an increasingly good job of preserving its older buildings.

One of them is the 1933 neo-classical federal courthouse downtown. By the new century, almost all of the federal offices had vacated the building, and the government planned to tear it down. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman had been an attorney, often representing mobsters. He tried his first case in that building and wanted it saved. Federal officials replied that the city could have it for $1 if it became a cultural center and conformed to federal standards for any renovations.

The Mob Museum, Las Vegas. Image credit: Mob Museum website

Goodman proposed a museum about the mob. I wound up consulting with the consultants studying it for the city, then with the curators putting together the finished product. Researching and reading about the battles involving the mob, law enforcement, and state regulators in the 1970s and 1980s brought me back to my youth, watching this unfold in the press and on the news.

The museum opened on February 14, 2012, as it had to: one of the key exhibits is the wall where Al Capone’s men lined up part of Bugs Moran’s crew and committed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. The next year, an old friend of Capone’s opened a nightclub on what is now the Las Vegas Strip. And the night after the opening, at a party to celebrate the event, I walked into the room between Henry Hill, the central character in Goodfellas, and Frank Cullotta, who had been a hitman for Spilotro before turning witness and testifying for the prosecution.

Only in Las Vegas? Perhaps. When I bought the house where my wife and I live in a suburban neighborhood just east of UNLV, I asked the previous owner whether the area was safe. He said, “It was a lot safer when Spilotro lived around the corner.” Every day, when I leave the house, I can see the home where Spilotro used to trim his hedges. The mob era in Las Vegas may be over, but, in our past and present, it’s still with us.

~Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV and the author of several books on Nevada and Las Vegas, as well as the Nevada Public Radio history feature “Nevada Yesterdays.” He serves on the board of directors and as chair of the content committee of The Mob Museum, and as director of Preserve Nevada, a statewide historic preservation organization

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