Published on Monday, July 4, 2011

BLOG: Mole in Vegas: Breakfast with an ex-Mob lawyer and a boneyard tour

When the mayor of Las Vegas asks you to a breakfast meeting it's difficult to refuse, especially when that mayor is Oscar Goodman, one-time lawyer to some of America's most notorious mobsters.

On Wednesday Goodman will be replaced as mayor of the city by his wife Carolyn, but on one of his final days in office he summoned our small group of visiting journalists to meet him downtown at El Cortez Hotel & Casino, the oldest continuously operating hotel in Vegas, once owned by the mob's Bugsy Siegel.

No-one was quite sure why Goodman, a former lawyer who once represented leading organised crime figures such as Nicky Scarfo, Herbert 'Fat Herbie' Blitzstein and Frank 'Lefty Rosenthal wanted an audience with us but, as I said, it was an offer we couldn't refuse (apparently) and over breakfast in the hotel's cafe things became a little clearer.

He is also chairman of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and he was keen to talk about the ongoing regeneration of the downtown area, which many of the 37m tourists who visit Vegas every year never see. Although this is the heart of Las Vegas, the spot where it all began in the 1930s when Siegel and other mobsters moved in, it slipped into a decline in the 1960s and 70s with the growth of the suburbs and the development of mega resorts on the Strip, a 15-minute drive to the south, where the majority of visitors to Vegas stay. Now Goodman wants to to lure them back.

One of his pet projects is The Mob Museum, or the Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement to give it its proper name, which he believes will draw 600,000 to 800,000 visitors downtown when it opens next year. Featuring a bullet-studded wall from the Chicago mob massacre, the museum will document the history of organised crime in the US. Goodman says it will open on February 14, but others admit it is unlikely to open before March (although Goodman said he'll shoot anyone who says so and as this guy was once sued for threatening to kill a man I'm not sure he was joking).

A $450m centre for performing arts is also due to open next spring, at roughly the same time as the Las Vegas City Hall complex, a five-block multi-use project which will bring 1,000 employees to the area and fuel many small businesses including restaurants, bars and galleries.

As the mayor said, neon is to Las Vegas what jazz is to New Orleans, and so next spring The Neon Museum, known locally as the boneyard, will open a new visitors centre. Housing some of the most iconic neon signs in Vegas, including the old signage from the Moulin Rouge, The Golden Nugget and the Stardust, the museum already offers guided tours but at the moment there are no fixed opening hours so you'll have to tell clients to email to book a tour (www.neonmuseum.org). If you've got any clients getting married in Vegas it's worth noting that it can be hired as a location for wedding photos for $200 an hour.

"I think people are fascinated by history, people want the old Las Vegas," said Goodman. And for those who also want to do Vegas on the cheap, downtown ticks the box. Here hotels are less than half the price of those on the Strip, even the stylish new retro suites at El Cortez on historic East Fremont Street, which is now in the hands of the Epstein family, close friends of Goodman's. One, The Big Sleep, has gold floors and ceilings, a bowl of spent bullet casings and a giant 1950s mural covering one wall.

Across the road, the hotel's executive manager Alexandra Epstein has transformed what was once a dingy overspill property for El Cortez, back in the day when the hotel had more customers than it could cope with, into the Cabana Suites, 64 boutique-style rooms with modern decor, fixtures and fittings. A pool will be added next year. The Golden Nugget, another of the city's iconic hotels dating back to the '50s, has just opened a $500m tower and other new developments include the Emergency Arts Center, an old medical clinic which now houses a coffee shop, a vintage clothes outlet, a retro record store and a bunch of local artists showrooms.

"We are coming out and building the city again," said Epstein, which might be an overstatement but they've certainly shaken off the dust covers. Viva Las Vegas.

Linsey McNeill flew in Premium Economy with Virgin Atlantic which has daily non-stop flights from Gatwick direct to Las Vegas and two non-stops flights a week from Manchester. She stayed Aria Resort & Casino.

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