Research in Las VegasBy Jennifer Samson
Las Vegas has always fascinated me. There are so few cities on earth that have grown at the speed of Las Vegas. It’s history is full of the mafia, nuclear weapons testing, murders, reclusive billionaires, and amusement park-like casinos. What’s not to love?
When I decided to set my book Sin City in 1960s Las Vegas, it was the perfect excuse for a trip to see “old Las Vegas”. Which was great until I’d seen the only 3 casinos on the Strip that still existed from that time (Tropicana, Flamingo, Caesars Palace).
Downtown Las Vegas and Fremont Street preserved a little more of that time, with casinos like Fremont, Golden Nugget, Binions, Four Queens, Golden Gate and the El Cortez still standing from another era. Granted, it’s hard to picture another era with a giant TV screen canopy stretched over blocks of Fremont, and people on zip lines overhead. Even the old school was shrouded in new.
“Old Las Vegas” is things that happened five minutes ago, so I knew it was going to take some major research to get things right regarding what it was really like in the 1960s. The problem was where to research.
It’s only been in the last 20 years that Las Vegas has made efforts to preserve its past with museums like the Neon Museum and Mob Museum.
Founded in 2012, the Mob Museum (http://themobmuseum.org) is located in the former Clark County Courthouse, just a block from Fremont Street. Armed with my camera and a notebook, I spent one of the hottest days in July (note: aim to visit in spring or fall if you don’t like melting to death) on a self-guided tour through the blessedly air-conditioned museum to research.
It was pretty overwhelming, and completely fascinating.
From the early days of Las Vegas and the early days of the mafia in Chicago and New York, to recent criminal activity, the Mob Museum has it all. Artifacts included the wall the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre happened against (complete with bullet holes), Bugsy Siegel’s sunglasses and watch, and the headstone of mafia figure Meyer Lansky, along with weapons, photos, and stories from “the good ol’ days.” Artifacts and displays are regularly swapped out and reconfigured so every trip you’ll see something new.
The amount of information was staggering, but it gave me such a great feel for the time period. Parts of what I learned made it into the first book and will make it into sequels – from the Sheriff’s Blue Book entries on local criminals, to the skim at the Stardust, and inspiration for mafia characters.
Recently the Mob Museum hosted a talk by former Chicago Outfit associate Frank Cullota about his days working in Las Vegas with Tony Spilotro. Cullotta testified against Spilotro after being caught as part of the “Hole in the Wall Gang” – a group that robbed local Las Vegas businesses by cutting holes in the roof to gain access. Cullotta was later a consultant on the movie Casino, and had a small part in the film. Mr. Cullotta runs mob tours in Las Vegas (http://www.frankcullottascasinotour.com), and my next visit is going to include his tour, which is very highly rated. A future book of mine is set in 1970s Las Vegas, and I think the tour will be a great source of info.
Nothing really compares to doing in-person research when you can. I originally loved Las Vegas for its crazy mix of architecture and endless places to eat (I recommend the sticky toffee pudding at Gordon Ramsay Steak), but now I appreciate so much of what came before. I just hope I’ve captured a tiny slice of 1960s Las Vegas in Sin City.