Sunday, March 20, 2011

Museums Worse than the Mob?

Frank Cullotta knows having his character assassinated isn't the worst thing that can happen to a guy with his pedigree.

In his former line of work, names could hurt you, but it's the sticks, stones and bullets that do most of the real damage. Cullotta, the former Chicago Outfit hitman-turned-government witness, just received word he's depicted in less than flattering terms down at the Tropicana's new Mob Experience. Specifically, he says, the exhibit devoted to the life and death of his childhood friend Anthony Spilotro portrayed Cullotta's defection in a negative light.

On Monday, Cullotta tried not to weep openly and only briefly contemplated seeking therapy before thinking better of it. That plot line has already been used in "The Sopranos," and he probably didn't want to scare the psychologist. But that's the way it is these days in Las Vegas, where warring traditional mob factions appear to have been replaced by sparring mob museums. In this corner, wearing the black trunks, Jay Bloom's Mob Experience at the Trop. In that corner, wearing red trunks, the Oscar Goodman-inspired downtown Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, also known as the Mob Museum.

The Mob Experience has been faster on its feet and secured the cooperation and memorabilia of members of a number of mob families along with the faces of a number of gangster-movie stars. The Mob Museum, conversely, is focusing on creating a historically accurate depiction of the battle between organized crime and law enforcement. It also is gathering big-ticket items such as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre wall and Albert Anastasia's last barber chair.

Cullotta, 72, could give a graduate seminar in the Chicago Outfit and its role in Las Vegas during Spilotro's era. He also knows something about making money from mob imagery, participating in Martin Scorsese's "Casino" and co-authoring his autobiography Cullotta: The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster, and Government Witness, with Dennis Griffin. (Cullotta, Griffin, Henry Hill, Andrew DiDonato and Vito Colucci will sign books at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Royal Resorts on Convention Center Drive. Bring your own bulletproof vest.)

That's the challenge for reformed wiseguys, killers and other characters who used to carry shovels and rope in the trunks of their Lincolns. How do you go reasonably straight and still earn a living?

By telling and selling your story, of course.

So that's why Cullotta is keeping his sense of humor about getting the cold shoulder from the Spilotro family exhibit. Although, he reminds me, the worst thing Tony would have received from Cullotta's testimony was a prison stretch. It was Tony's supposed friends, headed by Joseph "Joey the Clown" Lombardo, who in 1986 murdered him and brother Michael and buried their bodies in an Indiana cornfield. "I didn't give him a death sentence," Cullotta says. "If he would have went to jail, he probably still would still be alive."

In case you're wondering, Cullotta is a cooperating witness for the downtown museum. He was interviewed by museum personnel for about four hours, he says. Although Cullotta figures his books will be on display in the gift shop, "I'm doing it for free. If you think you're going to make a million dollars doing this, you're kidding yourself." But he's not joking about the irony of living long enough to see the way Las Vegas is courting the mob imagery.

"Usually it's the mob making money off legitimate people," he says. "These are legitimate people making money off the mob. They're worse than the Outfit."

A Cullotta pal took one look at the Mob Experience and suggested Frank the former hitman sue for defamation. Cullotta just laughed.

"Sue? With my character and my reputation?" the mob survivor cracks. "Are you out of your mind?"

Thanks to John L. Smith


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