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Vegas embraces its mob past

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Las Vegas has never shied away from putting its vices on display, with one exception: its connection to the mob.

Until now. One of Sin City’s newest attractions pays homage to its Mafia roots with more than 1,500 artifacts provided by the families of such notorious gangsters as Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky and Tony Spilotro. The $25 million Las Vegas Mob Experience at the Tropicana hotel, one of the oldest properties on the Strip and a former playground for the gangsters who helped shape the Vegas landscape, opened earlier this year. And the $42 million Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, which has the backing of the mayor, is scheduled to debut in December.

Having grown up in a household where it was considered a sin to channel-surf onto any of “The Godfather” movies and not stop to watch, I couldn’t resist heading to the Tropicana on a recent trip to Vegas. The $30 price of admission was a bit over the top, which made sense once I entered the museum, where everything is over the top.

There’s a reason it’s called the Mob Experience. You don’t just walk through the 33-room, 26,000-square-foot museum, gaze at photos and exhibits and read the descriptions. The museum uses what it calls “interactive entertainment technology” to make you feel like you’re a participant, not a spectator. In other words, expect to do some role-playing.

As I bought my ticket, the young lady behind the counter said, in an accent I would have expected to hear in Queens, “Sign your lives away. If you’re whacked, it’s not my fault.”

For my virtual “tour guide,” I had to choose among characters played by James Caan, a.k.a. Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather,” Tony Sirico, alias Paulie of “The Sopranos,” Mickey Rourke and Frank Vincent, who’s appeared in many Martin Scorsese movies. I went for Sonny, of course, given my “Godfather” obsession.

I first walked through a traditional display with a lot of text describing such tenets of organized crime as “omerta,” or the code of silence that binds gangsters. “No matter the consequences, if you told the Mob’s secrets to the police, you were a dead man — the Mob would make sure of that.”

After that introduction, I walked into a room where my photo — or my mug shot, as they called it — was taken. “Welcome to the streets of New York,” the photographer said.

A holographic image of Sonny would occasionally appear on a screen to give directions or offer some tidbit of Mafia history.

At one point, an actor handed me an envelope and told me to proceed to another room to look for Leo. Leo was sitting at a red- and white-checkered table — of course — on the patio of a restaurant, a bottle of red wine in front of him. He wore a dapper suit and reminded me of Tony Bennett.

“Who are you?” he asked me.

I gave him my real name, but I quickly realized my mistake. I looked down at the tag I had been instructed to wear around my neck. It bore my nickname.

“I’m Doves,” I corrected myself.

I handed him the envelope. In exchange, he handed me cash.

In the next room, I was confronted by a cop, who asked me how I knew Leo.

“I’m a friend,” I replied.

“For how long?” he asked.

“A couple of months,” I said.

I had my poker face on. He looked me up and down and let me move on to the next room.

After some more similar role-playing, I arrived at the heart of the museum — room after room of photos, videos, letters, outfits, weapons and cars owned by gangsters such as Siegel, Lansky, Sam Giancana, Johnny Stompanato (who I learned dated Lana Turner, abused her, then was killed by her daughter) and Allen Smiley, who was known as the Hollywood gangster and was Bugsy’s best friend.

I especially liked the Meyer Lansky rooms, which displayed his Presidential Medal of Freedom and had touch screens with his handwritten journals. Vincent “Jimmy Blue Eyes” Alo, a New York mobster, got his own display too, which included his matchbook collection.

And lest we forget that the mobsters committed serious crimes, and that crime doesn’t pay, there is much space devoted to the telling of how Nevada State Gaming and law enforcement officials eventually took down the Mafia.

“We’ve had a lot of people say we’re glorifying the mob. This is untrue,” Spence Johnston, marketing and public relations director for the new museum, told me after my visit. “We’re not hiding the fact that many of these people did very bad things. We’re offering a never before heard/seen look into their private lives as told by their families.”

After my history lesson, I reached the final room, where I would find out if I had played my role well enough to be “made,” arrested, whacked or taken into witness protection.

I was made. I had no idea why. But for some reason, I was relieved.

Las Vegas Mob Experience, Tropicana Casino and Hotel, 3801 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 702-739-2662, www.lvme.com. Tickets $30; $22 ages 5 to 12; $25 local residents, seniors and military.

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