By John M. Glionna
The first time Richard Greeno came to Sin City, it was with a wiseguy. The year was 1967, and a Chicago mobster named Jim owned a furniture store in Frankfort, Ind., where Greeno worked as a salesman. Once in Vegas, Jim had to attend to business, so he handed Greeno an envelope full of $100 bills and told him to scram.
Whatever Greeno needed, Jim assured him _ meals, women, you name it _ just tell their bellhop at the Fremont Hotel.
Their relationship didn't last long: A couple of years later, Jim skipped out of Frankfort in the middle of the night, abandoning the furniture business. Greeno eventually owned it for more than four decades.
His fascination with Vegas would last even longer.
Greeno has returned every year since the 1970s to buttress his collection of everyday artifacts from his adopted favorite city: casino chips, ashtrays, shoehorns, napkins and cigarette holders from such old-school casinos as the Desert Inn and El Rancho Vegas _ even a coat worn by Bob Stupak, the casino magnate who built the Stratosphere.
He also acquired something decidedly edgier: tools of the trade that mobsters like Jim wielded to enforce their violent rule of Vegas. There are ice picks, razor blades, meat cleavers, a blackjack and a set of brass knuckles. There's a 1930s-era Tommy gun with a violin carrying case _ better known as a "Chicago typewriter."
"The guy walked in, assembled his gun, did his business, put the weapon back in the case and walked out _ with nobody the wiser," Greeno said. This one is a replica, he said, a movie prop. He also acquired a replica of the rifle used to kill Bugsy Siegel, a butcher knife with three handle notches to signify kills, and a .32-caliber handgun with its hammer filed down to make it easier to draw from the pants pocket of a double-breasted suit.
"That was the gun for hit men," said Greeno, 75. "The hammer is filed right down so the weapon could be quickly pulled from a pocket without the thumb getting caught."
Greeno has donated his 4,000-item collection to the Nevada State Museum, which is cataloging the pieces for later display.
"These are ephemeral little souvenirs, rare and unusual things that were hard to come by, from what Mr. Greeno calls his baker's dozen of the original 13 casinos on the Strip," museum director Dennis McBride said. But McBride, like Greeno, is drawn to the mob collection. The other day, with the sheer joy of a boy admiring his slingshots, he set out some of the 100 weapons on the floor of his office. "Mob toys," he calls them. He picked up a long-handled ax: "This is my favorite. You can chop someone at arm's length and not get the blood spatter all over your nice suit."
On one rifle, he perched a Mr. Bill doll, a visitor from the early days of TV's "Saturday Night Live." "When it comes to cataloging systematic murder, you have to keep a little bit of whimsy," McBride said.
He called Greeno's weapons a grass-roots version of the collection tourists flock to see at the city's better-known Mob Museum.
"Weapons are only a small part of the subculture; the mob also built the casinos that are the foundation of modern Las Vegas," McBride said. "But it's a reminder that foundations sometimes have bodies buried beneath them."
Although some of Greeno's mob toys are replicas, others are the real deal: the hit man's revolver, for instance, and the wallet and rosary once carried by mob boss Joe Bonanno.
He found some items in antique shops and flea markets, and procured others from fellow collectors who knew his bent and obliged him with an occasional discovery.
Even after Greeno and his wife, Nancy, began raising a family in Indiana, they came to Vegas for a few weeks each year. An amateur magician, Greeno sometimes worked a few small rooms around town, he said.
But his real aim was to collect. For years, he kept his collection above his furniture business, inviting friends and the curious up to see. When he sold the business, he decided his Vegas collection had to go back where it belongs.
Heck, now that Greeno and Nancy are no longer working, they may move to Sin City full time. He knows it won't be anything like that trip he made with Jim the mobster decades ago, though.
"That era's gone," Greeno said. "My collection is pieces of a Las Vegas that no longer exists."
(c)2015 Los Angeles Times