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OPINION: In a city with chronic amnesia, former Mayor Goodman remembers his Las Vegas

John L. Smith
John L. Smith

Thinking about the recent closure of Tropicana Las Vegas and the passage of time, I parked outside Carolyn and Oscar Goodman’s house in Scotch 80s with its old-growth mesquite and cottonwood trees that still manage to stand despite the many years.

The place has been the home of the current Las Vegas mayor and her predecessor since the days he was known as a mob lawyer and she was busy raising four children and running The Meadows School. Team Goodman has been married nearly 62 years, a quarter century of that time leading their own parade at city hall.

On the phone he had warned me that he’d taken a fall at home and his familiar face might surprise me. I reminded him that I’d once worked an undercard corner with legendary boxing cut man and trainer Johnny Tocco. But Goodman was right. Standing in the doorway, he smiled despite a bad case of raccoon eyes. 

We traded allusions to Carmen Basilio and “You should see the other guy” one-liners, then fell into a discussion of the characters he’d represented — a veritable encyclopedia of nicknames and crime families — his city hall tenure and his post-political life as the happiest mayor of Oscar’s Steakhouse at downtown’s Plaza Hotel & Casino.

Goodman, 84, was mayor of Las Vegas throughout the first decade of the 21st century, a time that saw substantial change and plenty of downtown redevelopment highlights — the creation of The Mob Museum clearly his favorite. It was also a decade marked by insufficient social services and problems that plague the human condition.

Las Vegas has never been good at aging. It buries its true story and implodes buildings that elsewhere would receive historic designation. The endless boomtown mentality sends an existential reminder that nothing lasts, but Oscar Goodman still remembers his Las Vegas.

In the early 1960s, he arrived with a law degree but no license and spent months waiting for the annual Bar exam. It’s the Rat Pack era, and the newlyweds do the town on a budget and meet the community’s leading lights and its Runyonesque rogues’ gallery. Some, such as Sheriff Ralph Lamb, would become life-long friends and occasional adversaries.

“When we got here, we didn’t know a soul. So, it was easy, you start with zero,” he says. “Carolyn and I had two cents between us. We’d go to the Thunderbird, sit in the lounge and watch Sarah Vaughn and Frankie Lane, big names in those days, and they’d buy the drinks. It was a much better town. I don’t know any other way to put it. We were new to town, and we met everybody. That wouldn’t happen today.”

The times only got faster after he began practicing criminal defense after a brief stint in the Clark County District Attorney’s Office then led by Ted Marshall. For the next 35 years he gained a reputation for fierce advocacy of some of the most notorious characters in organized crime. Pick a client, and there’s not only nickname and a colorful story, but the defense that went with it.

“I never had a bad day during those days,” Goodman says. “I think about it every day. I have the type of memory, and I don’t know if it’s inborn, but I think it’s called an eidetic memory. Around the office, they used to call me the great citator, because after I read the case I could tell you the page, I would tell you the paragraphs. I couldn’t even remember what Carolyn asked me to bring home for dinner that night, but those things that were important to my professional life, I don’t forget. I remember every single day.”

His decision to run for mayor and three terms in office have been well-chronicled, and perhaps being a defense attorney prepared him to represent a city forever in need of defending. He admits he had little idea what he was getting into.

“I’d never been to city hall. I didn’t know what a mayor was supposed to do. I thought I was supposed to be Boss Tweed or old man (Richard J.) Daley. So, I went on my merry way. It was very much like being a criminal defense lawyer representing the clients that I did. You carry a baseball bat with you [metaphorically speaking] and knock people out of the way, but you do it in a way that they think it’s funny until you realize that you’re a dangerous person. I have all the love that I’ll ever need, and I’ve always had that with my parents, my sisters, and Carolyn of course and my children. I’ve had all the love a human being could ever desire. After I had the love, it didn’t matter to me whether people liked me or not. Maybe that’s hard to believe, but I didn’t really care. As long as they respected me and feared me, and if I did anything it was with that mindset.”

As Mayor Carolyn prepares to depart the office after 13 years and leaves her own public legacy, Team Goodman wraps up a 25-year run in the city they still love despite its growth and its many problems.

For his part, Oscar Goodman learned a valuable lesson just weeks into his high-profile tenure as mayor.

“When I was elected, I used to meet with (then City Manager) Virginia Valentine before we did our little TV show,” he says. “We’d have a drink at Main Street Station. I drive up one day and say to the car parker, a well-presented young lady, ‘Ma’am, could you park my car up front?’”

The attendant replies, “Who are you?”

“Well, since you asked, I’m the newly elected mayor.”

The attendant looks Goodman up and down and says, “I don’t give a shit.”

“What did I do?” Goodman asks.

“It doesn’t matter what you did,” she replies. “I don’t care whether you’re the mayor or who you are. I’m just trying to make a buck here.”

It serves as a reminder of what Las Vegas was and remains, a factory town full of working people just trying to earn a living without taking too much crap from big shots.

In retirement, Goodman holds court regularly at Oscar’s Steakhouse and every few weeks gives a speech to locals and visitors on the Las Vegas he remembers. The audience fills up with old friends and complete strangers, and occasionally celebrities such as Raiders owner Mark Davis and ZZ Top front man Billy Gibbons. He calls one of his speeches, “The Kid from West Philly and the Cowboy Sheriff” and is regularly reminded that many in the crowd don’t know the identity of the late legendary lawman, Lamb. Not even Goodman’s dentist knew.

“I assume certain things as given,” he says. “And one of them is that we have an institutional memory, but there is none in this community. People have come in, and unless you’ve lived here 40 or 50 years you don’t know anything about where we came from. This guy didn’t know who Ralph Lamb was. It’s hard to imagine, but it’s true. People don’t know the history.”

So, he’s decided to entertain himself and the crowd by telling history from his perspective. It’s one riddled with anti-federal -law-enforcement sentiment and a pantheon of players who have come and gone. It’s one in which the Black Book members get their due, and the big shots get reminded of the line from that salty parking attendant.

Goodman admits that some days it feels like “I’m the last man standing around here.”

While he’s still standing, Oscar Goodman will keep telling the story of the Las Vegas he remembers.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR.


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