MOB MAVEN’S HAVEN: Wiseguy chronicler Frank LaPena shines at Mob Museum
You’ll be absolutely gobsmacked. Or more to the point: Mob-smacked.
“I tell these stories, and people are mesmerized,” says 80-year-old Mob Museum guest services agent — call him a guide, in everyday parlance — Frank LaPena. More than that, he is a master mob storyteller. “People come back because they want to hear more.”
There are the ones about Sinatra — how he got the coveted role of “Maggio” in From Here to Eternity, and how he was asked to carry a mysterious satchel aboard a plane. “People go nuts,” he says, chortling. “’Tell us more about Frank!’”
There are the ones about Tony “The Ant” Spilotro — a churchgoing family man who would get people jobs and help them pay for medical treatment. And murder others (at least 22, as estimated by the FBI).
There are the ones about The Purple Gang — prime suspects in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. “Those guys were so powerful and deadly that Al Capone didn’t want to tangle with them. Law enforcement estimated they did nearly 500 unsolved murders. People go, ‘Wow!’”
More effusive, animated and life-embracing than some folks a quarter of his age, the 54-year Las Vegas resident is, at least unofficially, a kind of Mob historian. And because of his unique style of engaging visitors to The Mob Museum during the past two years, LaPena was named a “Hospitality Hero” by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA, which operates Las Vegas Newswire).
Regularly cited in TripAdvisor and Yelp reviews of the museum, the loquacious and good-natured LaPena frequently draws crowds clamoring to pose with him for photos. Given how compelling his stories are — and how passionately he tells them — he even hosts a formal daily chat called “Frankly Speaking,” turning him into the museum’s mini-celebrity.
“There’s a family from Connecticut that calls here and wants to know when I’m working,” he says (it’s Wednesdays-Sundays). “On (the mom’s) 60th birthday, she wanted to come to the Mob Museum and see Frank. That’s the truth.”
How does he weave all these vivid tales in which names like “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn and George “Bugs” Moran flow so trippingly off his tongue? Because he was associated with other-side-of-the-law types — legally — after arriving in town from California more than a half-century ago, observing them up close and absorbing the history.
“I eventually started working for the Mob, I did special favors for them,” says LaPena, a former paralegal. “I didn’t break the law. They kept me above the law. But I used to pick up the wiseguys, and I always kept quiet. I knew Tony Spilotro. I knew the Gambino family and the Genovese family.”
So steeped in Mob lore is LaPena that he plans on penning a book. “It’s called ‘The Goddess and the Bell Captain,’” he reveals. “It’s the biggest Mob murder mystery coverup in the entire history of the state of Nevada — and it’s real.”
Among his most popular stories: one that predates him, about the murder of McGurn at the hands of Moran, laced with a brutal kind of serendipity and humor. “I show people the photo of Machine Gun Jack McGurn in the bowling alley — he’s lying there, rubbed out,” LaPena explains about McGurn, who infamously coordinated the planning of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 that targeted Moran’s gang.
“Here he is seven years later, not a care in the world, and who walks into the alley but Bugs Moran. He sees McGurn, goes out, gets one of his guys, they rub him out.” Here’s the kicker: McGurn’s killers tossed a Valentine’s Day card on his bloody corpse.
“People go crazy when they hear that story,” LaPena says. “They shake my hand, they clap, their faces light up. I bring these people alive and tell them what they were really like.”
Yet LaPena is also clear-eyed about the subjects of his fascination. “They did what they did — let’s face it,” he says. “They killed each other trying to get power. But they had a code they lived by: no human trafficking, no killing or abductions of women and children. They protected families.”
Therein is the dichotomy that fuels the popularity of The Mob Museum — and of its star storyteller. “People say, ‘You should be the main exhibit,’” he says. “It makes me feel great.”
“Hospitality Heroes” is a program created by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), in conjunction with the U.S. Travel Association’s National Travel and Tourism Week, celebrated annually in May. The LVCVA and its tourism partners honor employees who deliver superior customer service. Since the program began in 2008, more than 500 “Hospitality Heroes” have been recognized in Southern Nevada.