In this casino town partly built on gangster money, it's a sentiment you hear with some frequency: Things were better when the mob ran Vegas.
It conveys a certain wistfulness for the smaller, ostensibly friendlier city where, decades ago, locals shrugged at mobsters' running casinos and reinventing themselves as civic leaders. Sports handicapper Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal hosted a television show. Bootlegger Moe Dalitz helped build a hospital.
The city began formally cashing in on its mafia legacy Tuesday with the opening of the Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement -- better known as the Mob Museum.
The publicly funded museum opened in a former federal courthouse where a U.S. Senate hearing on organized crime was held in the 1950s. Its exhibits were shaped by historians and former FBI agents, and include crime scene photos, tommy guns and a brick wall shot up during the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day massacre in Chicago.
The $42-million project has raised some hackles among fiscal conservatives, who consider it a waste of taxpayer money, the Associated Press reported. But the museum's cheerleaders -- including mob attorney turned mayor Oscar Goodman -- are betting it will draw tourists from the Las Vegas Strip to a slowly gentrifying section of downtown.
Other recent efforts to capitalize on Sin City’s mobster past have had mixed success. The Vegas Mob Tour, a 2½-hour jaunt that includes a stop at Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel's Flamingo hotel, has managed to rumble along for several years.
“I try to do it tactfully and with taste, as much as you can with a mob tour,” founder Robert Allen told The Times in 2008. “You can say someone cut off someone's head with a machete, but we prefer to say ‘decapitated.’ ”
The Mob Experience at the Tropicana casino had a tougher time, despite its Strip location and an extensive collection of gangster artifacts. For example, it displayed one of Meyer Lansky's love letters to his wife: "Keep your legs crossed and go to sleep."
The attraction closed last year amid a bevy of problems, including the bankruptcy of its owner, Murder Inc LLC. It's slated to reopen under a different name.
-- Ashley Powers in Las Vegas
Photo: A tommy gun exhibit at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas. Credit: Isaac Brekken / Associated Press