A fitting theme for HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” emerges about four minutes into the series’ first episode, airing at 9 p.m. today on HBO.
The opening scene shows Atlantic County’s treasurer, Nucky Thompson, speaking to the Women’s Temperance League. Nucky regales the ladies with a tale about a boy’s efforts to survive the winter of 1888, after the boy’s alcoholic father deserted the family. The boy, Nucky says, killed a group of wharf rats with a broom handle for food.
The crowd gasps. Nucky reveals that he is the little boy, and the crowd claps. As Nucky (Steve Buscemi) walks outside, his assistant Jimmy (Michael Pitt) questions the story.
“First rule of politics, kiddo,” Nucky responds. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
Might as well be the first rule of big-budget television drama, too. The quote underscores the show’s ménage a trois with fact and fiction, with “Boardwalk Empire” bedfellows with each, unable to stay monogamous with either. Here’s a show about a real time period and a real place, with a mix of truth- and fiction-based plotlines, involving (mostly) real characters — using (mostly) changed names — unless you’re already infamous, and the name stays.
The show’s historical detail is rich, superb. The sets are hyper-authentic but homogenized, a halcyon sort of reality that evokes feelings of a yesterday that didn’t quite happen this way.
The fictionalized drama, based on the nonfiction book “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City” by local historian Nelson Johnson, features Thompson (in real life, the name was Nucky Johnson); Nucky’s mentor, “The Commodore” Kaestner (real name, Kuehnle); his assistant, Eddie Kessler (real name, Louis Kessel); Nucky’s brother, Sheriff Eli Thompson (real name, Alfred Johnson).
Chicago gangsters Al Capone, Johnny Torrio and Big Jim Colosimo appear, as do New York counterparts Arnold Rothstein and Charles “Lucky” Luciano. One historical concession: Luciano earned the “Lucky” nickname by surviving a 1929 stabbing, but you know him best as “Lucky,” so Lucky they call him on “Boardwalk Empire.”
Despite that theme of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story, the show’s producers realized the period piece would have to feel real, so the show pays significant attention to historical detail. That emphasis may be best represented through a 75-second “long take” tracking shot in the series’ pilot that follows Nucky on the Prohibition Eve Boardwalk, the kind of shot that merits film school and history class analysis.
The scene opens to a wide shot of Nucky (followed by tag-along Jimmy) stepping out of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, shaking hands, saying hellos, walking through the mass. As the camera zooms to Nucky, he slows his walk, staring off-screen, and the camera follows his gaze around a corner, to an approaching marching band in blackface.
Following the band is a group of men, carrying a wooden coffin on their shoulders, the coffin holding an oversized replica of a bottle. Written on the bottle’s label: “In Memoriam, John Barleycorn, We’ll miss you, Pal.” John Barleycorn, a popular term during the era, was the personification of liquor, and people held mock funerals on Prohibition Eve to celebrate their fallen friend.
The long shot follows the pallbearers, then finds a young couple amid the well-boozed crowd, the couple pushing a baby stroller filled with liquor bottles, mother holding the crying babe in arm, father pushing the stroller, pausing for a taste.
And here’s Nucky walking again, behind the couple, giving one of those friendly “excuse me” taps on the shoulder to avoid running into them, then past a ransacked vegetable stand and a swarmed liquor storefront, and finally, a rising zoom-out as Nucky enters his destination for the evening: Babette’s Supper Club, a popular Boardwalk destination of yesteryear.
These are Martin Scorsese’s fingerprints on the show. The famed director, the man behind one of the most famous long tracking shots in cinema history — “Goodfellas,” a single, three-minute shot following Henry and Karen through the Copacabana nightclub’s back stairways and kitchen, to front-row accommodations — serves as producer for “Boardwalk Empire” and directed the first episode.
Such scenes have made “Boardwalk Empire” a critical darling, one of the season’s most-hyped new additions.
For students of old-time Atlantic City, the series will be a breath of fresh, salty air — but at times frustrating, a mix of spot-on nostalgia and historical concessions.
The most glaring, obnoxious, maddening inaccuracy, a purposeful slight, but worth noting nonetheless: the Ritz-Carlton did not exist when Prohibition began. And it doesn’t look anything like this.
The hotel opened in June 1921, a year and a half after the HBO series begins. The real Ritz-Carlton, still standing, now known as Ritz Condominiums at Iowa Avenue and the Boardwalk, features a brick, neo-Georgian façade and rectangular features.
You will not see this Ritz-Carlton in the HBO series. In its place, look for the resemblance to the long-demolished Marlborough Blenheim Hotel — built in the early 1900s of reinforced concrete, the façade a Moorish theme featuring domes and chimneys.
In the HBO series, what is essentially the Marlborough Blenheim has that Ritz name slapped across the front, and you’re supposed to believe that this is the Ritz. Maybe that works for unassuming HBO viewers from, say, Duluth, Minn., trying to find a reprieve from cold, gray monotony.
But anyone who’s spent a day working in Atlantic City’s hotel industry will know better.
Ah, but let us remember Nucky Thompson’s first rule of storytelling — not letting the truth get in the way of a good story.
Real dirt in Hammonton
Subsequently, some of the series’ most graphic, intense and Home Box Office-sized moments occur in the woods, along unpaved roads in Hammonton.
Yes, the woods in Hammonton, the Blueberry Capital of the World.
While the plot points in Hammonton aren’t real and seem, at times, absurd — they include a whiskey raid, a shootout, and things that adults do inside parked cars (horrendously, hilariously interrupted) — such a trip through Hammonton is historically accurate.
According to the 1953 book “The Jersey Shore: A Social and Economic History of the Counties of Atlantic, Cape May, Monmouth, and Ocean” by Harold F. Wilson, southern New Jersey was still adapting to life with the automobile in the early 1920s. Horses and trains were preferred over the logistical nightmare of auto travel. The White Horse Pike was the most developed road leading between western New Jersey and Absecon Island — yet into the early 1900s, the road was still a sandy highway through dense Atlantic County forest, as officials rejected opportunities to add gravel.
According to Wilson, the White Horse Pike was designated as a state route in 1917, and became a completed, paved highway by 1922. So by season three, if this series should stretch to a third season, the pike should be a sandy, dirt path no longer.
The greatest “Boardwalk Empire” set achievements involve Atlantic City’s Boardwalk — a 300-foot-long re-creation that captures the spirit and showmanship of a seaside stroll. One highlight is Dr. Martin Couney’s baby incubator exhibit, a staple at Missouri Avenue from 1902 to 1943. Couney and his staff, on the strength of 25-cent donations, nurtured thousands of pre-mature babies to health.
Sixty-seven years later, the premature babies have returned. The series’ first episode shows Nucky stopping outside the shop, staring at the tiny babies. Life. And this is the life he could never have, a life of babies and domestic responsibilities, an existence stolen when his young bride, Mabel, died of tuberculosis in January 1912.
Nucky reflects on his wife’s death in the first episode, during a conversation with his mentor, The Commodore.
“It’s 7 years today … Mabel,” Nucky says. (Note: actually, it would have been 8 years).
“I had just gone to jail,” The Commodore says.
“Not a day goes by, I can tell you that much …“
“Ah, maybe she’s better off.”
Nucky looks at The Commodore, shakes head, sips from glass.
New life for old A.C.
Another true-to-life Boardwalk re-creation is Dittrich’s photography studio, a Boardwalk benchmark that used to be located near the present-day Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort. The palm readers are here, on the re-created Boardwalk. The rolling chairs.
And John Young’s twice-daily fish haul. Young, a showman who made his Million Dollar Pier a world-wide attraction, wowed tourists by capturing fish species in his nets, dumping the critters on his wooden pier, and announcing the species on a speaker.
But Young’s fish haul isn’t known to have netted a human body, as portrayed in tonight’s episode.
The city’s real-life political boss, Nucky Johnson, corrupt as he was, isn’t known to have called a hit on anybody’s life. He was more of the ‘shut down your business, make life difficult until you leave town’ variety of boss.
Nucky’s nephews, Richard, Raymond and Ronald Osbeck, his closest living relatives, wonder whether the series will sully the public’s perception of their uncle. Who knows? Only time will tell.
While the facts of Nucky Johnson’s life are well-documented, his public perception firmly cemented, the tale of Nucky Thompson has just begun. HBO’s series is a new story, one that hasn’t been told before.
And despite all the show’s authenticity, from the sets to the props to the clothing to the speech patterns, the show’s creators are making sure not to let the truth get in the way of their good story.
Sources used in this article
“Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City,” 2002; Nelson Johnson.
“The Boardwalk Empire,” unpublished biography of Nucky Johnson by a Philadelphia newspaper reporter under the name John Stoneburg; c. 1960.
“The Jersey Shore: A Social and Economic History of the Counties of Atlantic, Cape May, Monmouth, and Ocean,” 1953; Harold F. Wilson.
Atlantic City Evening Union, Jan. 17, 1912
Atlantic City Daily Press, Jan. 17, 1920
Atlantic City Daily Press, June 24, 1921
“Boardwalk Ballyhoo: the Magic of Atlantic City,” 1993 documentary film; Vicki Gold Levi
Atlantic City Historical Museum
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
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