LAS VEGAS – Sometimes you've just got to pry yourself away from it, the Strip and all the spectacle it engenders.
Too much flash and sizzle. Too much visual and aural stimulation, a sensory overload not easily quelled, especially when mixed with the sinus-singeing smell of casino cleaning solvent and cigarette smoke, as well as sickly rose water, meant as a masking agent, pumped through central air conditioning.
A costumed Bert and Ernie tag teaming you outside the faux New York skyline, as fiberglass Lady Liberty looks down with disapproval? Too much. A low-rent Michael Jackson impersonator busting moves in front of a faux pyramid, as couples clutching "yard-long" margaritas clap and holler yet fork over nary a quarter tip into the guy's fedora? Way too much.
Too many coupon-bearing hands thrust out with come-ons for "totally live nude girls." Too many casinos with paunchy insurance salesmen from Topeka hunched over Texas Hold 'Em tables as for-hire masseuses tenderize their lower lumbar regions. Too many "experiences" – the Eiffel Tower Experience, the CSI Experience, the Grand Canyon Experience – that experienced travelers would be wise to eschew.
Too many humans, not enough humanity. Too much artifice, not enough art.
Just. Too. Much.
Yet, a Las Vegas – fun, engrossing, slightly decadent and thoroughly experiential – does exist for tourists outside the traps of the Strip and its downtown counterpart, the Fremont Street Experience.
There are educational yet anything-but-staid museums that revel in Sin City's vices and quirks – gangsters, neon signs, the sex industry, atomic testing and the military-industial complex.
That's what we will explore this week. Next week's installment: higher art at a new gallery and symphony space, plus a trip to the wild outdoors.
See, you just have to broaden your perspective, look away from all the Strip's shiny lights and the hideous miens of Donnie and Marie towering 200 feet on the facade of the Flamingo.
I know, it's hard. I know that the primary reason 38.9 million people visited Las Vegas in 2012 was for the glitz and the gambling, to the tune of $15.3 billion in revenue on the Strip alone last year, according to Nevada Gaming Control Board figures. I know that lounging at pool cabanas and seeing Cirque du Soleil can be quite pleasant.
But know this, too: Getting off the Strip, if only for a day, can restore one's sanity.
All mobbed up
I am standing in a dimly lit room in the year-old, $42 million Mob Museum in downtown Las Vegas, next to a man identifying himself as Styx, his cowboy hat rakishly askew, rings on every finger and a video camera bouncing off his third-trimester belly.
A black-suited Mafia boss straight from central casting (looking like Danny Aiello mixed with Joe Mantegna) is talking directly to us from an interactive screen, a passel of paisanos looking on from a table in the background. We are about to take a solemn, if virtual, blood oath – an "omerta," they call it – and join the Cosa Nostra, the New York Yankees of American Mafia organizations.
But Styx (real name: Dennis McNeil, from Bruns- wick, Ohio) keeps guffawing whenever the don makes a pronouncement, such as "There's nothing more serious than this. There's no turning back. You enter on your feet. You leave on a slab."
After we touch the screen and agree to never, ever betray our family, but before we offer up our "trigger finger" to be cut with a switchblade, the boss asks us, "Do you want this so bad, are so desperate to have this, that even if your mother was in bed dying you have to leave. Can you do this?"
Styx tells me to hit "Y" for yes on the screen, because "my mom's already gone, so I don't care."
We listen to our final instructions, including the admonition to "stay away from the wives of the other main guys," and then Styx lets out one last chortle.
"That was awesome," he says, and then walks toward one of the other interactive exhibits in the 17,000-square-foot space that shows how the mob helped build Las Vegas and how its influence permeated nearly every aspect of society in the 20th century.
The museum, really, is the shadow story of the American Dream and its immigrant experience, how those of Italian, Irish and Jewish descent built alliances and fortunes and how, ultimately, law enforcement brought them down.
We've all seen the gangster films and read the Mafia books, but the museum is more gut-punch visceral for showing real artifacts, real gory stills, real films, not the stylized Scorsese version.
Las Vegas is well represented, from Bugsy Siegel to Meyer Lanksy, and presented in not a wholly negative light.
The violence on display can be chilling. One example of the cold-blooded nature is the St. Valentine's Day Massacre wing, where newsreel unspools of the infamous 1929 Chicago mob hit ordered by Al Capone that took out George (Bugs) Moran's gang. When the screen disappears, you see the actual brick wall against which several men were executed, pocked with bullet holes.
Only near the end of the three-story tour through gangster lore does law enforcement make an appearance, but it is presented in heroic terms, highlighting undercover officers who used wires and bugged rooms and cultivated informants. FBI "celebrities," such as Joseph D. Pistone (a.k.a. Donnie Brasco), get their due in video interviews.
But in the end, it's gangsters that draw the curious.
"We've watched 'The Sopranos,' 'Godfather,' and 'Boardwalk Empire,' so we were interested in coming here," said Victor Rea of El Dorado Hills. "And, oh God, they were vicious people, brutal."
But, as Styx intoned, "It's a hoot."
Graveyard of glitz
They call it, affectionately, the Boneyard.
It's the open-air Neon Museum, unveiled last fall and located by a freeway in a less-fashionable area of downtown. Strewn – no, lovingly placed – around the crushed sandstone paths are the husks of colorful, once-opulent neon signs from what many call the Golden Age of Vegas, circa the 1950s and '60s.
You can get a mite wistful looking at signs from formerly swanky hotels and casinos, now merely memories. It may not be the Louvre, but the Neon Museum is a tribute to pop art of the era, heaping dollops of Americana. Its visitors center is the former La Concha Motel lobby, shaped like a shell, one of Vegas' best examples of programmatic architecture.
Docent Mitch Cohen, though quick with a quip, is encyclopedic in his knowledge of neon and Vegas history. He stops the group in front of a circular orange-and-white sign from the old Tam O'Shanter motor court, family-owned for 45 years before being razed in 2004 after it was bought by mogul Steve Wynn, who owns the neighboring Venetian. A new $1 billion, 3,000-room hotel tower now looms in the Tam O'Shanter's space.
The Tam O'Shanter sign, missing a few letters, reads "Frien ly Inn" and "pool op," the "p" in "open" listing badly to the right.
"For a while, you had a motor court next to the Venetian, the most expensive hotel in Las Vegas," Cohen says. "The Tam O'Shanter dug in their heels. Finally, they bought them out for $12.4 million."
On and on it goes. The classic El Portal movie theater sign, a fixture on Fremont Street since 1928, is in the boneyard. The building itself now houses an American Indian souvenir store.
"This was the first indoor movie theater in Las Vegas," Cohen says of the El Portal. "It also was the first air- conditioned building in Las Vegas. It was little more than a big ice cube and a fan, but it was better than nothing. They had a sign out front saying, 'Come on in, we've got manufactured weather.' "
Dominating the boneyard is a massive (at least two stories high) '80s-era fiberglass pirate skull from the Treasure Island Hotel.
"This was from Las Vegas' family-friendly era," Cohen says. "Remember, we were gonna be the next Disneyland. Every casino had an arcade, a water theme park. This was just a small part of a huge sign. This all came down down when they decided children just didn't gamble the way adults did."
Cloudy, chance of fallout
You forget that real people, hard-working people, live in Las Vegas.
People like Mike Hiner, who worked for 47 years at the underground nuclear testing site outside of town.
Retired now and donning a white lab coat only to give tours at the National Atomic Testing Museum a few miles from the Strip, Hiner regales visitors with stories about the above-ground testing (from 1951 until the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty) and underground testing (until the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996) of nuclear weapons.
"We used to go in after (the blast site) cratered and gauge the blast and the do tests," he says. "One time we got caught in it. Usually, we'd wait a little to see if it'd crater before going in. This time, we waited three hours and were working there in the desert when all of a sudden we feel the ground start moving. It cratered right then.
"There were these small trailers where the equipment was kept. They literally flew up (before going) down. We did, too. It was a little frightening. It only happened that one time, but I sure remember it."
Hiner said Las Vegans of the 1960s and '70s mostly shrugged at the periodic booming and shaking from desert underground tests.
"It really became part of our culture," he said.
He points to a display case with old-time mementos, such as Kix Atomic cereal, La Bomba Grande wine and the 1953 Las Vegas High School yearbook, the Wildcat Echo, with a mushroom cloud on the cover.
Don't call it kitsch, though. The Atomic Testing Museum is a sober storage facility for Cold War relics. And the exhibits do not shy from the controversies, the effects of nuclear fallout on workers from radiation during the above-ground testing and the protesters who routinely circled the underground testing area.
In addition to captivating visuals of mushroom clouds and dust being blown across the desert with awesome force, the exhibits serve as a time capsule. After watching a re-enactment of a blast at the Ground Zero Theatre, high school students Nathan Frohling and Alyssa Perez, of Placentia, in Southern California, giggle at footage of schoolchildren doing duck-and-cover drills under their school desks.
"That's really gonna help," Perez said wryly.
But to older visitors, it brought back memories.
"I forgot that JCPenney was selling fallout shelters back then," said Gene Rogers of Kansas City, Kan. "That's hilarious. We didn't buy one. In fact, in my family, we didn't do anything. I just figured, 'If they (the Russians) are going to drop the big one, then just drop it right on me. Get it over quick,' you know."
Different kind of flash
There are no subliminal sex messages in Las Vegas. This town lays it out, all id, from the giant bare buttocks of a chorus girl on a Strip billboard to the "gentlemen's clubs," to the city's very marketing slogan: "What happens here, stays here."
So it hardly raises eyebrows to know the city boasts the Erotic Heritage Museum, whose motto is "Sexuality Through the Arts."
Though it may at first seem merely an excuse to ogle porn from many eras, the museum traces the history and artistry of all forms of sexuality, from prostitution to peep shows, onanism to orgies, same-sex and transgender couplings to politicians caught in illicit sex scandals.
The brainchild of the Rev. Ted McIlvenna and pornographer Harry Mohney in 2008, the museum also offers pointed commentary on the First Amendment, displaying landmark cases including the 1896 U.S. v. Rosen case (a conviction for using the U.S. Postal Service to send "obscene, lewd and lascivious" material) and the 1978 FCC v. Pacifica Foundation case (for airing George Carlin's "Dirty Words" monologue).
Below a blown-up text of the First Amendment, a sign reads: "Why is our government so concerned about sex and so little about the welfare and health of the people."
While you're pondering that, check out a history of sex toys, ancient to high-tech. I'm not going to go so far as to say the exhibits are tastefully done, but there is historical context and thought-provoking analysis.
Other highlights include: a "menu" from the original Chicken Ranch brothel in La Grange, Texas; a foot- fetish wing; and video lectures by pornographic actress-turned-sexual educator Nina Hartley.
I stop museumgoers Dawn and Dan Winchell of Federal Way, Wash., outside the peep-show exhibit and ask what drew them here.
"It was recommended in Frommers as a uniquely Las Vegas experience," Dawn says. "My position is, whatever two people or three or 10 want to do sexually as long as everybody's OK with it, fine. Why should the government be telling me what I can and can't do?"
She said she liked much of the art, too.
Me, I'm still trying to process the image of sculptor William Braemer's piece in which he used 100,000 pennies to fashion ginormous male genitalia.
Next week: Las Vegas' higher culture and outdoor wonders.
LAS VEGAS BEYOND THE STRIP
It is possible to enjoy Las Vegas without sticking to casinos, theme restaurants and glitzy shows on the Strip. Here are attractions that take you to different parts of the city, as well as the CBS Television City Research Center, which is on the Strip.
The Mob Museum
300 E. Stewart Ave.
Hours: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. daily
Cost: $19.95 (adult); $15.95 (seniors, 65-plus); $13.95 student/child
770 Las Vegas Blvd. North
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Cost: $18 (adult); $12 (seniors, students, veterans)
National Atomic Testing Museum
755 E. Flamingo Road
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $14 (adults); $11 (seniors, 62-plus, students, military)
Erotic Heritage Museum
3275 Industrial Road
Hours: 11 a.m-4 p.m Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday; noon- 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday; closed Monday
Cost: $15 (adults); $10 (students, seniors, military)
ON THE STRIP BUT OFFBEAT
CBS Television City Research Center
Inside MGM Grand Hotel
3799 S. Las Vegas Blvd. (702) 891-5752
Hours: 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m. daily