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Along with the likes of Al Capone and Tony Spilotro, The Mob Museum has immortalized David Schwartz and Claytee White. Their faces flash across film clips about this slice of American history. Their caricatures spin on the virtual reels of the museum’s interactive slot machine.
Fortunately, these two didn’t rise to prominence for illegal and violent activities. They’ve become local celebrities for their historical insights.
The museum, formally known as the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, opened in a historic downtown Las Vegas building in 2012. It chronicles the history of the syndicated crime and its impact on Las Vegas and the world. Curators began piecing together well-researched exhibits by drawing upon UNLV Libraries extensive archive of photographs, newspaper clippings, documents, and oral histories.
“Going back to when The Mob Museum was just an idea, the initial group of city representatives went to UNLV right away,” said Kathie Barrie, content developer and curator for the museum. “They had pulled letters and photos just to give people a taste of what could be in the museum.” And that taste sold them on the idea that the museum could be much more than a tourist attraction.
To add context to the documents, they tapped Schwartz, director of the UNLV Center for Gaming Research, and White, director of the Oral History Research Center. Both centers are housed in UNLV Libraries.
“It’s so important (for UNLV) to be involved in things that are going to impact the bigger community,” Schwartz said. “Putting your work and yourself out there is the best way to make the case to Southern Nevada and the rest of the world that what’s happening here at UNLV is important and relevant. Being part of The Mob Museum is an extension of that.”
Having grown up in Atlantic City, N.J., Schwartz was practically raised in casinos. He worked a few jobs in casinos, quickly learning the ins and outs of the operations. The more he learned, the more he wanted to know. “I had questions about why casinos were the way that they were that no one could answer, so I started looking for the answers myself.”
Schwartz went back to school, eventually earning his doctorate from UCLA. His dissertation focused on the historical development of casinos in the United States. “That’s really where it all started,” Schwartz said.
Since coming to UNLV in 2001, Schwartz has written three books on the history of casinos and gambling (including a recent new edition of Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling), has co-edited a collection of essays about gaming, and become the gaming and hospitality editor of Vegas Seven magazine.
“David knows more about the history of gambling and gaming in Las Vegas than anyone, anywhere,” Barrie said. “He brings not only that perspective throughout time but also throughout the world.”
White came to Las Vegas in 1992. Her life’s path wasn't exactly clear, so she started her master’s degree in history at UNLV. She happened upon an oral history class and fell in love with that approach to chronicling history. “It’s the people side of history,” she said.
The UNLV Oral History Research Center, officially established in 2003, grew out of one of White’s first projects on the Las Vegas Rotary Club. She was already known for her collaboration on Women in Gaming and Entertainment oral history project, undertaken by fellow students and led by women’s history professor Joanne Goodwin. Topics included the histories of female owners and managers, showgirls and performers. White collected interviews of African American women who worked “back-of-the-house” as maids.
The center since has done projects on Early Las Vegas, Jazz musicians, African Americans in Las Vegas, the history of early health care, and the history of UNLV.
“Claytee has this oral history expertise and knows all these marvelous little stories, many of which don't make it into a history book but are just so interesting,” Barrie said. “She opened the door for us to talk to so many other people who she knew had insight into the mob in Las Vegas and could talk about the early days in the city.”
While both Schwartz and White were flattered to be part of The Mob Museum and understand the importance of UNLV’s involvement in the community, Barrie and the rest of the research team couldn’t have been more appreciative to them and UNLV in general.
“We do projects in a variety of places, and it’s always interesting to see what local resources there are and aren’t,” Barrie said. “UNLV had a marvelous collection and amazing experts for us to tap into. I don’t know where we would have been without them.”
UNLV Libraries is the only research library in Southern Nevada and is open to the public. Its Special Collections department houses unique, rare, and specialized research material that documents the history, culture and physical environment of the city of Las Vegas, the Southern Nevada region, the gaming industry, and the University of Nevada Las Vegas. The collections include books, pamphlets, posters, serials and periodicals, scrapbooks, archives and manuscripts, maps, architectural drawings, photographs, video and audio tapes.