After three years of research—including trips west to interview aging Las Vegas pit bosses about their Kentucky roots—American Legacy Tours cofounder Jerry Gels has brought Northern Kentucky’s Godfather-esque history into focus. Murder? Mayhem? Gels’s documentary, Newport: Gangsters, Gamblers, and Girls, which got its first screening late last fall, has it all. Or as much of “it” as old timers were willing to reveal.
Was making a documentary something you always wanted to do, or did the idea come as you worked on your tours?
I’ve always loved the story of Newport gangsters. There’s enough for Martin Scorsese to be making Boardwalk Empire into the story of Newport. To be honest with you, that’s one of the challenges of the film. It’s, “OK, what exact piece of the story do we want to tell?”
What were some of the challenges you faced?
Some of the stories that you know are really cool, people don’t necessarily want to share. [Talking about Newport to people in Las Vegas] was a big frustration. We had a lot of people say, “Hey, we’d like to see you guys, we want to tell you these stories.” Then you get there and they said, “Well, it’s probably better I don’t talk about it.”
Were there any big surprises during this process—anything you learned by interviewing people that the conventional research didn’t uncover?
I will say that the wildest stuff was, when you talk about mob takeovers and mob hits, that’s all in Newport. When you watch stories on the news—like in The Godfather, when they take out other people to take their territory—that’s in Newport. When people say Newport could have been like Las Vegas, they’re not kidding around. It should have been Las Vegas. This whole area in Northern Kentucky would have been a boomtown for gambling and would have changed how we perceive this neighborhood and how we go about our daily business. Because it was already set up here, it just wasn’t legal. Once airplane travel becomes inexpensive, where would you rather go in the winter? Newport, Kentucky, or Las Vegas?
In the title, there’s the mention of girls. I assume that includes prostitution?
Some of the people we interviewed in their late 90s would talk about the prostitutes that were around in the 1920s. For major conventions [in Cincinnati], they would bring in prostitutes from Louisville and Lexington. Apparently you could literally put them on school buses and drive them. During major conventions, you had 900 prostitutes in Newport. If you do the math, something like one out of every three women between the ages of 16 and 40 were prostitutes during major conventions. But the people who were raised around that would tell you it wasn’t in your face. When the gambling left, the adult entertainment industry kind of took over. And that’s when it became really in your face.
You work in Dayton Schools. Aren’t you worried that some people who see it will think it’s idealizing the mob, making bad guys heroes?
It’s hard to tell. We’ve already pissed them off. I mean, you got headlines [like] “Teacher starts gangster tour.” You should have seen the people drilling us for glorifying the gangster lifestyle. The people who lived in Newport—all of them loved it.
With something like this, there is a fine line between history and glorification.
Right. We’ve flirted around with the word gangster. It’s nice and sensationalized. We can call it “gambling history,” but that doesn’t sound as cool. I think the other thing, too, is we met so many people who worked for these organizations, and they all seem to be pretty decent people. It’s telling that story.