Geoff Schumacher has authored two books: Sun, Sin & Suburbia: A History of Modern Las Vegas and Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue. He earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Nevada, Reno, and a master’s degree in American History from Arizona State University. He then began a 25-year journalism career at the Las Vegas Sun. Schumacher knows Vegas. He’s covered the city, and the mob, almost as closely as a casino camera can watch the counting out of a jackpot win.
Schumacher served as director of community publications for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and also wrote a public affairs column. The VP has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, History Channel, Travel Channel, Reelz Channel, PBS, and HLN. The extent of his knowledge could fill a hole in the desert; that much is obvious after an hour-long sit-down with him to get more of the story.
Dodson: So how’d you get your start in The Life, so to speak? What drew you to Vegas and led to your position with The Mob Museum?
Schumacher: “I was a journalist for 25 years, most of that time in Las Vegas. I took a great interest in the history of Las Vegas, and whenever you start learning about the history, you can’t avoid learning a little bit about The Mob. About eight and a half years ago, I was in my career, and journalism was fine, but the industry itself is, as you know, not quite going very well. My interest in history resulted in a couple of books I wrote about the history of Las Vegas, not so much about the mob, but about the city. So, I thought I could leave journalism and find a landing spot, maybe in the museum area.
I still do research and write, focusing on history. This position opened up at The Mob Museum that kind of fit the bill, so I was able to make that transition and then dive headfirst into mob history. And it’s been fascinating. It was a bit of a crash course when I first got here. I read dozens and dozens and dozens of books, reports, articles, and watched videos. I’ve been interviewed and talked to a lot of people who have been involved in organized crime over the years, as well as law enforcement people who fought the mob. And it’s really become quite an industry now for me.”
Why is keeping that history alive so important, going forward? Both personally and professionally in today’s contemporary culture?
“Well, the part of organized crime history that fascinates me the most is those times when the mob intersects with mainstream society. Those times when you see that the history we learned at school, the history that we typically regard as the Main Street history of the United States, intersects with organized crime. That’s just a fascinating scenario, right? Something like when Al Capone is targeted by the White House, by the President of the United States who says to his federal agents at the time, “We need to go and get Capone. We need to put him in prison.”
There are other times, bigger things like when we passed constitutional amendments to ban alcohol. That helped organize quiet crime to flourish, and then we passed a constitutional amendment to unban alcohol because we wanted to stop the mob from running roughshod over the country. Those kinds of intersections of mainstream history and the mob are what fascinate me the most.
As far as the why, why bother? I think we’re finding out new things all the time about this history. I think setting the record straight is important. The need to distinguish between what happens in a movie and what happened in real life so people understand some of those things better. And then I also think there’s just this endless fascination with this idea of an underworld, right? The feeling is kind of that some other people are pulling the strings, that we don’t know who they are, and that sometimes has an impact on our lives in ways that we can hardly imagine. Whether it’s organized crime or corporate America or domestic terrorists or whatever, people want to know what’s really happening, what really happened, and what’s really happening today. And I think that we’re part of that.”
You talked about prohibition, and not to jump ahead to some of the later questions, but you get some of the mobsters of that time fighting against Capone. Then, depending on the conspiracy theories and what was in the movies, you get one of those bootlegger’s sons in the White House with JFK.
“Oh, well, that comes later. As much as I, the more I read about organized crime, the less interested I am in the conspiracy theory about the mob having anything to do with the JFK assassination. In fact, I don’t think they had anything to do with it. But there’s no question that JFK, first of all, his father had a hand in bootlegging during Prohibition. He definitely had connections and interacted with organized crime back in the day. And it’s also I think, pretty clear that John F. Kennedy himself, you know, hobnobbed with some of those people over the years.”
So, is it a waste of time looking at conspiracy theories, especially ones played up by The Mob or Hollywood?
“Well, yeah. You know, that’s the thing. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the evidence was pretty clear that even though the Chicago mob is claimed to have sort of engineered the JFK election in 1960. The numbers in Chicago, the actual voting tallies, and the precincts have been studied. And they show no real evidence that the mob did anything special for Kennedy in 1960 in Chicago. Now, that’s not to say they didn’t have an influence in West Virginia or some other places. But as far as the actual hard numbers are concerned, in Chicago, the mob did not have a notable difference there. Kennedy was gonna win either way.”
Looking through the lens of politics: How would you say those mob and contemporary cultures have collided in modern times versus how much friction there was between the different mobs? I don’t know if the cartels existed like they do today. How much did fringe players affect the way the mob has grown up over the last few decades?
“Yeah, so the way we talk about it in our world is the traditional mob. That’s what we think of when we consider Capone and John Gotti. These are the old-school kind of Mafia, Italian Americans, or the mob in general. These guys are the classic mob. You know, labor racketeering, bookmaking, loan sharking—all of these things that they were involved in street crimes, if you will, as well as drugs, yes. In Las Vegas, the mob was involved in being shadow owners of casinos and then benefiting from the skim—skimming off the top of the casino profits. That’s the traditional mob, and that mob really saw its power decimated in the 1980s and early ’90s by very aggressive federal law enforcement. Those prosecutions started using the RICO act against the mob in a big way. I think it all kind of started to peter out after John Gotti was sent to prison in 1992. But, you know, some of those groups still exist. They are not nearly as prominent as they used to be.
What’s happened in the meantime, is the Colombian and the Mexican drug cartels have ascended at the same time. Pablo Escobar, in Colombia in the ’70s and ’80s, then the Mexican cartels rose in the ’90s. We saw some new players on the field. In some cases, they were even more ruthless than the traditional model, but they tended to be very focused on drugs, as opposed to trying to infiltrate other aspects of the American economy, American culture. So there’s that. And then nowadays, the phrase would be transnational organized crime.
Certainly, the cartels fall into that, but you also have cybercriminals. You have human traffickers. You have wildlife traffickers and all kinds of different crimes occurring. Oftentimes, with multinational applications, they’re not trying to control a neighborhood in LA, or, you know, our region of Chicago anymore. They are really based all over the world. They’re making all these logistical connections to benefit themselves. And when it was drugs, then, you know, there’s still, in the end, some drug dealer on a corner who was selling the drugs to American citizens. It is part of a huge infrastructure. The bigger operations have more of a global reach.”
It has definitely taken a turn with the new technologies, from cybercrime to submarines. But starting way back when, in the MMH world—back with Robert Johnson’s original deal with the devil—the mob and music go back to the ‘20s and ‘30s. It continued on with acts like The Jersey Boys. How did the music scene in general benefit in any way from this connection? Why would the industry make deals with the mob?
“The story begins during Prohibition. This really gained momentum during the great migration of African Americans from the South to the North. In the conventional narrative, most of them entered industrial jobs and worked in factories. However, a good number of people were musicians, and they moved north as well, seizing opportunities provided by figures like Al Capone.
Al Capone and his brother, Ralph, owned a series of nightclubs in Chicago in the mid to late ’20s. They employed Black blues and jazz musicians, paying them exceptionally well. Some of these musicians have been interviewed over the years, although most have passed away. When interviewed, they would say, ‘I made more money in one night in Chicago than I made in a year in Mississippi.’
Despite Al Capone’s many faults, he was a lover of the arts. He frequented theaters, movies, and loved live music. Capone took care of many of the musicians he favored, contributing significantly to their income in Chicago. This, I believe, is one of the mob’s major contributions to the growth of jazz music in America.
While it’s true that some performers faced consequences if they offended the boss, it wasn’t just a matter of being fired. They might also get beaten up or worse. But, you know, nevertheless, it was a relationship that thrived during that time.
Black performers were competing with the top musicians of the ‘20s and ‘30s, rising through nightclubs across the country.
Many of these nightclubs were owned by the mob, a popular means of making money in those days. Often, they housed illegal gambling dens or operated prostitution rings. All the prominent entertainers of the ‘20s and ‘30s performed in mob-controlled nightclubs, including Frank Sinatra and nearly anyone you can name. One immediate example that comes to mind for me is Joe E. Lewis. Do you know who I’m referring to?”
I’ve heard the name some, but I can’t say I went deep into his story.
“That’s alright, Joe E. Lewis was a singer and a comedian. And he started playing in nightclubs, a lot of them were under mob control. He had a contract to perform at the Green Mill Lounge, a nightclub in Chicago in the late ‘20s. The Green Mill was associated with Capone. It’s not clear whether the Chicago mob actually had an ownership piece of the Green Mill or not, I don’t know, the mob didn’t keep a lot of records. So it’s hard to know for sure. (note: laughs all around. The Wire reference.)
The story goes that Joe E. Lewis had a contract that was expiring with the Green Mill. A rival nightclub offered him more money at a place called the New Rendezvous so he decided he was gonna go work at this new club. Jack McGurn, who was known as Machine Gun Jack was a Capone enforcer and a hitman. He went to Lewis and said, ‘Do not leave the Greenville.’
Lewis went anyway. A couple of months pass and while Lewis is staying in the Commonwealth in Chicago, three men, we might call them goons, knock on the door of his hotel room. Lewis opens the door and they proceed to beat the living heck out of him. They cut out a piece of his tongue. Amazingly, Joe E. Lewis survived but he was in bad shape. He did not perform again for several years and when he finally came back, he was mostly a comedian at that point. Singing was kind of out of the question. So there’s a story about the mob; where a guy, you know, once you cross them up, even if you’re a popular entertainer, it may not go well for you.”
Right, there have been several people who thought that by getting more famous they would insulate themselves from violence from the mob. That usually turns out to not be the case, correct?
“Yeah. A more recent example, in the 1960s, was Frank Sinatra himself. It happened in Las Vegas, where he was acting erratically at The Sands Hotel. Sinatra got in the face of a guy named Carl Cohen. Carl Cohen was the man who was a casino manager, I think, or the hotel manager at The Sands. When Frank got really unruly, Colin’s response was to punch him in the face. Sinatra lost two teeth. Needless to say, Sinatra took his act down the street to The Palace after that.”
It seems like you can ride the wave of benefits the mob gives you—the money, the access, and all that—but you better know that the valleys and the downside come if you make the wrong move. But would you say, looking at all the mob’s rackets, that music was the easiest way to extort a dollar, so to speak? It’s a safer racket than drugs and gambling. They can still control the whole revenue stream down to the stores, publishing, and printing the vinyl. It’s a little different than the economic streamline of drugs and even gambling. Less risk involved.
“Yeah, well, we could sort of argue about which rackets are easier to manipulate than others. However, there is no question that when the mob was able to infiltrate into legitimate businesses, like the record industry, and kind of be involved in pulling the strings, manipulating that industry without notice, without being really obvious that they were there; that was always a good thing for them.
Probably the classic example of that is Roulette Records. Morris Levy was the man in charge of Roulette Records, but the reality was the Genovese crime family out of New York was really in charge. And Roulette Records became successful by really screwing the performers more than anything, right? They would take all the money and the performers got very little. The best example of that is Tommy James, Tommy James and the Shondells.”
I’d read more about how he had a big piece and Aaron Neville.
“That’s another one, but probably the one that was the most egregious was Tommy James, who signed a contract with Roulette Records in 1966. He didn’t see a dime of royalties until after Levy sold Roulette Records in 1986. For 20 years, Tommy James had number-one hits but never saw a single dime of royalties during that period of time. He made money through his concerts and different things, but Tom estimates that $30 million to $40 million in royalties stayed in Morris Levy’s—or the mob’s—pocket rather than going to him.”
“I think it’s really hard today. First of all, you’ve got so much scrutiny on what you’re doing in business, and everything’s computerized. The federal government is very savvy about what’s going on with taxes and watching people’s balance sheets. I think it’s hard. And also, an example of the way the mob would make money in the music industry is they would take unsold records, right, and then sell them to jukebox operators during the jukebox era. Now, there’s no physical manifestation of what you’re doing anymore in music. No Jukebox joints. So, I could be wrong, there could be something going on I’m not aware of, but it strikes me that a lot of the old mob rackets are difficult to execute today.”
Going past the streaming revenue, big corporate names are coming in trying to run the music venues and the big festivals nowadays. It would still be kind of easy for the mob to pick on struggling artists, people that are kind of down on their luck. That seems to be their customer base for most rackets, wouldn’t you say?
“The mob was never the biggest player in the music industry. Historically, the traditional mob has done well in cash businesses, right? So a lot of cash coming into cash registers or slot machines or what have you. Then they have to have a way to hide that money from the authorities. Everything now is a wire transaction, a check, or a debit or credit card. It makes it much harder for the mob to function. Now, they could find their ways, right. The mob has been known to be involved in Wall Street manipulation. So, it’s not like they can’t get involved in these things. But it’s becoming more difficult for sure.”
Since we’ve covered music, let’s talk movies; Can the mob still be an influence in Hollywood?
“I think so. Historically, the mob’s primary way in becoming involved with the movie business was to control unions. If they controlled certain labor unions, they could control what was happening within the movie industry that way. Unions were a huge mob extortion racket in the ‘30s. That was ultimately busted up where they were extorting, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars from all the studios. I think the unions are still fairly strong in the movie industry today, as opposed to some other industries. And so, in theory, the mob could go in and control a particular union and have some success there. But, essentially, the traditional mob that you’re seeing now is, maybe there are more unscrupulous people in the corporate world that are finding ways to infiltrate these things, right? Rather than traditional mobsters.”
The boardrooms changed, the guys running the business didn’t, so to speak. But they were a considerable influence. It was never a product of reputation or over-embellishment?
“Right. Fast forward to the early ‘70s. This movie about the mafia was going to be made and the mob in New York took notice. Joe Colombo, who was heading the Italian-American Civil Rights League, decided that he didn’t like this idea that it would be bad for the reputation of Italian Americans for The Godfather can be made. While he wasn’t able to prevent the movie from being made, he wanted to call a meeting with the producer and others associated with the movie to make demands. And if they didn’t meet, if their demands were not met, then the unions that The Godfather production were dependent on were not going to cooperate with making the movie. The mob still controlled the unions.
Colombo insisted the word ‘mafia’ never actually appeared in dialogue in that movie. He also had some casting influence and got some of their guys who had acting aspirations to actually appear in the movie.”
I just finished The Offer. I love that scene where a few of the mob guys get their SAG cards. Tony Sirico had 27 movie appearances and 28 arrests or something like that. Quite a running through hoops situation for the movie. Switching to hoops, how much of the mob’s revenue can come from sports betting, especially now in the days of legalization?
“So, a person might imagine that the widespread legalization of sports betting wouldn’t be bad, right? Because the mob’s bookmaking operations will be hurt by that. I think there’s there’s some truth to that. But the reality is that historically, illegal bookmaking has still thrived, even when we’ve had the opening of sportsbooks. And certainly with Las Vegas, and then other states started trickling out. Even with legalizing sports betting, you still have a lot of illegal bookmaking going on.
That ties in with Central America, the Caribbean, and other offshore places. I don’t think people definitely change their habits overnight. I think the mob will still able to be involved in illegal bookmaking, for a while anyway. It will be a while until people can get comfortable with going down to a sportsbook and being very public about what they’re doing. I think that’s part of the issue, right? You have to you have to make your presence known. And you also have to make that trek to the place. Whereas with the mob, you know your traditional neighborhood bookmaker. Gamblers are used to making a quick phone call and that’s it. The internet provides that option.”
And the IRS doesn’t see as much activity either. Do you think that’s one of the benefits to the mobs, that they just rolled it into loan sharking? You actually have to have the cash to place a bet at Caesars, but if you had a local bookie they might let you float some money?
“That’s right. I think bookmaking and loan sharking are closely intertwined. They always have been, because a lot of the guys who get into trouble with their sports betting, they have a problem because they’re overextending themselves, right? They need to get loans. If they’re not sharps, they’re not really good at betting. They’re gonna lose money. And when they start losing money, their wives are wondering what’s going on. And they have to get loans for loan sharks and then they got to figure out how to pay back these loans and loan sharks, you know, demand payments or else and so there’s no question those two industries are closely aligned and you almost have a mob operation anywhere in the US. You want to control both the bookmaking and the loan sharking.”
Gotcha. Looking at it from different perspectives, from a college player and an NBA ref like Tim Donaghy, there are many ways to shave points. Is there a way the mob goes at specific individuals to make money or move lines? Or is it more trying to control the market in their area?
“I think the history of point shaving and basketball, the pinnacle of the mob’s involvement in fixing sports has been in the boxing more than any other sport. Horse racing, baseball number two, and maybe, you know, basketball is like a third or fourth. But we do have high-profile point-shaving scandals going back to the ‘50s.”
Tulane got shut down for a few years back in the 1980s…
“Yes, exactly. So there have been these cases where the mob has gotten their hooks into certain college players to shave points. In this day and age now, where, if you’re worthy of becoming a pro basketball player, you’re gonna make so much money. And then the NFL. Now there are the Name, Image, Likeness deals. Now they can make money in college. So I’m not sure it’d be very easy to get a kid to shave points today.
But this definitely something that happened now as far as UNLV. With Jerry Tarkanian, I don’t think I mean, there have been, you know, rumors and allegations for years that somehow, you know, something bad happened in relation to that second championship run with UNLV. The one when they should have won the second year in a row, the NCAA title they lost to do badly.
I don’t think, me personally, I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence to show that any players (shaved points) through that game. I don’t believe there is and I don’t think there’s any evidence to show that they did. They just had a really bad game. But, that persisted in part because of these revelations about Richard ‘The Fixer’ Perry and his associations with UNLV basketball. For sure Perry was a guy who was convicted right of fixing basketball games before, and then suddenly they’ve found those pictures of him in a hot tub with some of the players, is obviously guilt by association. It didn’t look good. That’s for sure.”
No didn’t look good on him, and I think Larry Hoover Big Meech was running around those same circles. They made songs about him. He was part of that same Detroit mob.
“Yeah. And I learned from it your write-up. I didn’t know. We have a speaker who covered those Detroit brothers and we didn’t even talk about UNLV at that time. I learned that from your questions, I want to look into that. Yeah.”
The mob has always been a fascination. I’ve seen The Godfather probably every few months for the past two decades. What’s something you want people to know, something that sometimes gets glossed over? About your own story or the resources being used to grow the positive nature of The Mob Museum?
“One of the things that’s important to understand about the museum is that we do not glorify the mob. We do not make these guys out to be heroes or anything else. We present their stories. We also equally present the stories of how law enforcement responded to the mob, and how they took them down, ultimately. And so I think it’s important for people to understand that, you know, we’re a very serious-minded museum. We’re nationally accredited, and we take the history very seriously.
The museum’s a great deal of fun but it’s also incredibly educational. We want people to understand that we’re looking for the true story. And we’ll enjoy, you know, the movies, and we’ll talk about the movies in our museum. But we do that in the context of how they differ from what really happened.”
And most involved are not here to defend themselves. There’s so much that they’ve done criminally, is there any empathy from you, knowing their stories? They weren’t always wearing mob jackets, is there empathy for the situations they come from?
“We have definitely addressed that in the museum. Fact is, that’s how the story begins. When people go through the chronological exhibits that we have, we talk about the emigration of Italians and Eastern European Jews, and Irish people, in particular, in the late 1800s, early 1900s. And how they could only get the worst jobs. They were moved into the worst ghettos in the big cities of America.
And, you know, they’re good people. The overwhelming percentage of those individuals worked hard and they kept their noses clean. They just hoped that the next generation would do better, and they often did. But there was a percentage of them who, you know, took a shortcut, right? They said, you know what, we can make a lot more money, a lot faster, if we do something criminal. Then they tended to discover that the best way to do that was in a group, in a team. And so that’s the rise of organized crime in America, through this ethnic struggle.”
Right, and you see that in nature, most animals run in packs like wolves. That’d be my last question. Do you think the mob is just a natural part of society and humanity? It is a natural thing that some people are going to want to take that shortcut and team up? Or is it something we as a society can maybe do something to mitigate?
“My sense is that with human nature there’s going to be a certain small percentage of people who are going to want to take that shortcut. Those who are looking for easy ways out, or do not have the sort of moral fiber to resist the temptations of crime. I think there’s a smaller percentage of that group that recognizes the value. If they want to do crime on an ongoing basis, the best way to do it was some kind of organized enterprise and, you know, that’s sort of the nature of it. I think we’re always going to have organized crime in the world. I think we’ll always have crime in the world. All we can hope to do is reduce it by creating the best conditions, improving the conditions for people as they come up.”
Thank you to Geoff Schumacher for sharing his time and wisdom!
For more on the Mobbin’ with MMH Series: NBA Summer Travel Guide