As soon as you step in the elevator of Las Vegas' new Mob Museum, a cop on a video monitor reads you your rights. When the doors finally open, you're greeted by a huge photo of 1920s-era gangsters standing in a police lineup, wearing fedoras.
The Mob Museum — otherwise known as the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement — tells the story of how the mob helped make Las Vegas, and how it influenced the rest of the country. The museum does that by giving visitors a chance to listen to wiretaps, practice FBI-style surveillance, spray pretend bullets from a Thompson — or Tommy — gun and even participate in their own police lineups.
The 'Ultimate' Museum Artifact
The museum's exhibits blur the line between entertainment and education, but there's also plenty of serious history there. For one thing, the 1930s-era building that houses the museum once served as a federal courthouse.
"We do consider the building to be really our ultimate artifact" says museum Executive Director Jonathan Ullman. "There were numerous cases tried that involved alleged mobsters, mob figures. But most importantly, it was the site of one of the Kefauver Committee hearings."
Those were a series of hearings held by Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver to investigate the mob across the U.S. Now, in the courtroom where some of those hearings took place, a video recreates the interrogations, including a scene with ex-bootlegger and Las Vegas founding father Moe Dalitz.
"If you people wouldn't have drunk it," says the video's Dalitz, "I wouldn't have bootlegged it."
'The Mob Doesn't Keep Records'
"When we started this project, it was really about the organized crime in Las Vegas," says museum Creative Director Dennis Barrie.
But soon he and his wife, museum Curator Kathleen Hickey Barrie, realized they couldn't tell the story of organized crime in Las Vegas without telling the story of organized crime in the U.S.
The Barries are the couple behind the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. They say mobsters and spies posed a similar challenge — each had a history that was meant to be kept secret.
"When they shoot somebody, they throw the gun away," Dennis says. "The mob doesn't keep records; they don't keep books, or not many."
So instead the Barries started their own record: A list of 10 things a mob museum needed to have. According to Kathleen, "one was a Tommy gun and one was a brick from the St. Valentine's Day Massacre wall."
In fact, they ended up getting the entire brick wall against which seven Chicago men were massacred in the 1929 hit orchestrated by Al Capone. A video about the massacre is projected onto the bricks. You can still see the bullet holes.
"You never know how you are going to find them, where you are going to find them," Dennis says of the museum's artifacts. "For example, the wall — they called us. And it was a family in Las Vegas that had inherited it from their uncle who had it in his restaurant in Vancouver after the building was torn down."
According to Kathleen, some of their best artifacts have come from people hearing about the museum then calling in to offer up their mob relics.
The Machine-Gun Experience
Back on the museum floor, Kathleen is interrupted by the sound of machine gun fire. The museum didn't just get a Tommy gun — it got a whole collection. They even made a Tommy gun replica that museum-goers can try out for themselves, sound effects and all.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. At a new museum in Las Vegas, you can listen to wiretaps, practice surveillance, and spray pretend bullets from a Tommy gun. It's the Mob Museum, and it tells the story of how the mob helped create Las Vegas. From member station KJZZ, Jude Joffe-Block went in search of the history of organized crime.
JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK, BYLINE: As soon as you step inside the Mob Museum's elevator, a cop on a video monitor greets you.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Stepping out, you see a huge photo of 1920s-era gangsters. They're standing in a police lineup, wearing fedoras.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I need suspects for my lineup, if you don't mind, right behind the glass.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Then museum staff guide you into a police lineup.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Number five, step forward.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Exhibits like this one blur the line between entertainment and education. But there's also plenty of serious history here, starting with the structure itself.
JONATHAN ULLMAN: We do consider the building to be - you know - really, our ultimate artifact.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Jonathan Ullman is the executive director. This 1930s-era building once served as a federal courthouse.
ULLMAN: There were numerous cases tried that involved alleged mobsters, mob figures. But most importantly - that it was a site of one of the Kefauver committee hearings.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Those were a series of hearings held by Senator Estes Kefauver to investigate the mob across the U.S., including Las Vegas. Now in the courtroom where those hearings took place, a video re-creates the interrogations, including a scene with ex-bootlegger and Las Vegas founding father Moe Dalitz.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (as Moe Dalitz) If you people wouldn't have drunk it, I wouldn't have bootlegged.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: Order.
DENNIS BARRIE: When we started this project, it was really about the organized crime in Las Vegas.
JOFFE-BLOCK: That's Dennis Barrie, the museum's creative director. His wife, Kathleen, is the curator. As they did research, they realized...
DENNIS BARRIE: We could not tell the story of organized crime in Las Vegas without telling the story of organized crime nationally, and vice versa.
JOFFE-BLOCK: They are the couple behind the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. Mobsters, like spies, posed a similar challenge: history that was meant to be kept secret.
DENNIS BARRIE: People, when they shoot somebody, they throw the gun away. The mob doesn't keep records, OK? They don't keep books - or not many.
KATHLEEN BARRIE: We did a little list of maybe 10 things that we really thought you needed to have in a mob museum. And one was a Tommy gun, and one was a brick from the St. Valentine's Day Massacre wall.
JOFFE-BLOCK: In fact, they got the entire brick wall from the 1929 massacre that Al Capone orchestrated in Chicago.
DENNIS BARRIE: This is the actual part of the wall where the seven men were executed.
JOFFE-BLOCK: You can see the actual bullet holes. A video about the massacre is projected onto the bricks.
DENNIS BARRIE: To find these things, you never know how you're going to find them, where you're going to find them. And for example, the wall, they called us. And it was a family in Las Vegas that inherited it from their uncle - who had it in his restaurant in Vancouver after the building was torn down.
KATHLEEN BARRIE: Many of the best things we have are because people got a little bit of wind of the fact that this project was going on. And they would call and say, I don't know if you think this is of interest, or this would be good...
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
JOFFE-BLOCK: We're interrupted by the sound of a spray of bullets coming from the other side of the room. Remember that Thompson machine gun - or Tommy gun - that they were searching for? It turns out, they got a whole collection. They even created a replica that museumgoers can try out.
DENNIS BARRIE: So that's what you hear in the background, the ability to fire a Thompson - which you should do.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JOFFE-BLOCK: I adjust the height and pull the trigger.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
JOFFE-BLOCK: For NPR News, I'm Jude Joffe-Block in Las Vegas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.