When “Boardwalk Empire” debuts at 9 tonight on HBO, many southern New Jersey residents with premium cable subscriptions will be watching because of the show’s Atlantic City roots. Rich Black, however, will be watching particularly closely.
Black’s grandfather, Dick Black, was a close friend of Atlantic City political boss Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, whose name was changed to Nucky Thompson for the series. Black was a member of the elite “Owl Squad,” a group of Atlantic City policemen who performed vice-squad duties, such as rum-running raids.
Black, 50, of the West Atlantic City section of Egg Harbor Township, said his grandfather was a Vaudeville performer who returned to his hometown of Atlantic City after his act was unsuccessful. Dick Black’s cousin was former Atlantic City Mayor Howard Bacharach, who hired him as a police officer.
“My grandfather’s original name was Bacharach, but to avoid nepotism, he kept his Vaudeville name, Dick Black,” Rich Black said. “It was all about politics and who you knew. It was just easier to change his name.”
The Owl Squad was known as the toughest group in the Police Department. Black remembers his grandfather saying that the squad was so tough, people were afraid to commit crimes.
“My grandfather — who was one tough guy in his day — would tell me amazing stories,” Black said. “At that time, he had made a lot of friends in Vaudeville, and they all ended up coming here, of course. He was very close with legendary singer Rudy Vallee and Broadway producer George White.”
The most interesting stories were about the rum-running raids. Black’s grandfather used to tell him that the Owl Squad would take high-speed boats in the middle of the night and raid waterfront homes that had boat slips underneath them.
“The houses would have hatches right above where the boats would pull in and dock,” Black said. “They would lift the liquor right into the house.”
Black’s grandfather left him some memorabilia, including historic photos. His most prized possession is a pewter beer pitcher given to his grandfather by Chicago gangster and Al Capone nemesis Buggs Moran, inscribed “To Dick, Let us drink when we meet and meet when we drink. From Buggs.”
“There was a big mob convention in the city, and Buggs sent it to my grandfather for helping to keep the peace,” Black said. “My grandfather ran the vice squad during the convention. I was offered $10,000 for it, but I will never sell it.”
As for Nucky, Black said he and his grandfather, as well as his late father, Al Black, were friends.
“I know there was a lot of corruption back then, but I don’t think my grandfather was like that,” Black said. “I just know my grandfather liked him a lot. He used to tell me that Atlantic City was the greatest place on earth at the time. There was nothing like it.”