Bruce Spotleson: New museum revives Las Vegas’ mob history

A night full of Italian-American memories at the Mob Experience.

Bruce Spotleson

VEGAS INC Coverage

Not long ago, one of our other sister magazines carried a feature about being born and raised here. It was a popular piece, mostly because natives are so hard to find.

Census figures tell us that three out of every four adults residing in our metro area were born outside Nevada. I’m one of the three, having landed here only 15 years ago.

Relocation runs in the family. Back in 1909, the man who would become my grandfather left Italy for America, finally settling in Youngstown, Ohio. The steel mills there were doing a lot of hiring in the early 20th century, and so Vincenzo Spatolisano found employment. His last name got garbled on an early paycheck, but immigrants rarely wanted to cause a scene, and so the new version stuck.

The Youngstown of my early childhood was often defined primarily by the signature aroma of the mill furnaces, but I also have more pleasant summertime memories of fireflies, ponds and amusement parks. Because so many immigrants had found work there, it was a true melting pot of cultures. Although in my own family circle, it seemed the world belonged mostly to Italian-Americans.

Outside of the tight-knit family unit, it seemed Italian-Americans had an even higher profile. Music. Movies. Sports. And, in that time and place, organized crime. Youngstown had just a few things going on in this regard.

The numbers still astound me: the mob was connected to more than 90 bombings and 11 murders in Youngstown during the 1950s and 1960s. A 1963 article on the topic in the Saturday Evening Post said the city was also known as “Murdertown.”

I came of age as a newspaper reader on the Youngstown Vindicator, then an afternoon newspaper that more than 90 percent of the homes in my neighborhood subscribed to. I recall a few sports stories in the paper back then, but I remember only one photograph. It was a picture of part of a leg hanging from a telephone pole, the result of a mob hit that blew its intended victim and his 11-year-old son to smithereens.

Such bad behavior was of course not restricted to Italian-Americans, but it seemed like they were always nearby, always associated with news that left quite an impression on us kids. It was kind of a crazy thing to grow up with in a town that really wasn’t all that large.

So when concrete plans were conceived for a couple of large museums memorializing long-ago mob activity in Las Vegas, I knew I’d have to be there, see what it was all about. The first one, the Mob Experience at the Tropicana, officially opened for business a few weeks ago.

I had a family member visiting, so I invited her along for the opening night tour. On the way, she innocently inquired as to whether the mob was still controlling the hotels and casinos here, a question that I am often asked by visitors but which still never fails to surprise me.

No, the mob is not involved anymore, I said. And these are like other large businesses now, I told her, many of them publicly held companies managed by some of the best and brightest minds in the nation. I’m not sure she believed the part about the mob control. Whatever.

The remodeled Tropicana looks very nice these days. When we arrived at the Mob Experience for the event, I was taken by how bright, large and tourist friendly it was.

There, we saw depictions of big-name bad guys, explanations on how their systems worked and mementos from their era. Actors James Caan and Mickey Rourke even played hosts in some cool holographic films.

Italian-American troublemakers were obviously well represented. But no splatters of blood, no scenes of the collateral damage that often took lives of the innocent and certainly no photos of legs hanging from telephone poles.

As promoted, it’s pretty much a factual representation of an era that today seems so long ago and far away. An era that most local residents have no actual firsthand memory of, since the overwhelming majority didn’t live here then. Or simply weren’t born yet.

We’ll have to wait and see how the next museum performs in this regard, but at the Mob Experience, at least, the bad guys aren’t deified. Which is as it should be, because they were no less ruthless than the dreaded gangs of today, who have brought so much pain to so many people.

Still, I left the Mob Experience that night with a funny impression. It really did remind me of my childhood. And that’s something.