The Las Vegas Mob Experience, which opened in early April at the Tropicana Hotel, has on display 1,500 artifacts purchased from the estates of Meyer Lansky, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, Sam Giancana and other mobsters who gained notoriety in Las Vegas.
During the interactive portion, patrons are given credentials with a new mob nickname and spirited through a series of role plays where they become low-level bag men entrusted to deliver cash to an underboss.
At the end of the tour, visitors are brought into a windowless room and given their "final fate." Depending on how they performed as underlings, they are either "made," whisked into witness protection, arrested or "whacked."
If they are whacked (as this reporter was when he took the tour on opening weekend), they're first chastised by holographic thugs for their misdeeds before being "cut down" in a riot of gunfire.
To achieve the realism of a vintage mob execution, powerful air cannons and concert-quality speakers have been embedded in the walls.
While the Las Vegas Mob Experience, or LVME, is promoting itself as fun and educational -- its slogan is "Everyone has skeletons in their closet, though ours are more literal" -- some have panned the exhibit as a gratuitous paean to criminality and a crass depiction of Italian-Americans.
"It's all about money. It's all superficial," said William Donati, an adjunct English professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the exhibit's most vocal critic, in a phone interview with AOL News. "They're treating these mobsters like celebrities. If this were simply generic, I wouldn't care. But these were real people. They were killers."
Donati, who published a biography of Lucky Luciano last year, further believes that the exhibit represents the debasement of American culture.
"In past years, there would have been a public outcry," he stated. "The children of the gangsters have been featured in local newspapers as if they had achieved something."
Spence Johnston, director of public relations for LVME, is well aware of Donati's criticism. While he concedes that the gangsters in the exhibit committed reprehensible crimes, he adds that they played an important role in the development of Las Vegas.
"He's entitled to his opinion," Johnston told AOL News. "I don't think we're trying to glorify the mob. He's trying to sell a book on Lucky Luciano, so I think that's all he's really trying to do."
Donati suggests that the exhibit would have more credibility if it shed light on mob victims as well. He paints a particularly grim picture of those exploited by Luciano.
"You know what Luciano's main source of income was?" Donati said. "Heroin. He was a pimp, so he'd sell it to the prostitutes, get them hooked, and they'd have to go out and earn money to support their habit. It was brutal."
Said Johnston of the victims' fates: "It sounds horrible, but not everyone wants to hear that story."
While Donati's criticism chiefly concerns what he considers the glorification of criminals, two prominent Italian-American organizations have taken the LVME to task for its negative portrayal of Italian-Americans.
"Throughout the history of the U.S., we have dealt with the unfortunate and embarrassing criminal behavior, but we do not think it's appropriate to celebrate that behavior as part of our culture," Joseph Del Raso, president of the National Italian American Foundation, told AOL News in an e-mail. "If the exhibit was appropriately geared to condemning illegal activity and anti-social behavior, it would be different."
Andre DiMino, a spokesman for UNICO National, an Italian-American charity, struck a similar chord.
"Here we go again with the stereotyping of Italian-Americans," DiMino said. "If they had provided a balanced historical perspective, I wouldn't have any problems. When does it stop?"
In February, however, Giancana's contract with LVME was terminated and she subsequently sued Murder Inc. and the Mafia Collection LLC, the exhibit's parent companies.
T-shirts that read "Team Giancana" can still be purchased in the LVME souvenir shop.
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