ATLANTIC CITY — Resort historians and residents gathered Sunday night in a Caesars Atlantic City theater to watch the premiere of the new television series “Boardwalk Empire.” They yelped and applauded when the lights dimmed and the familiar HBO static screen came up and sat rapt throughout.
Their real reason to be there, though, was to celebrate their town’s past and root for a brighter future.
Six panelists and an audience of about 1,000 filled the theater to chat about the real-life counterparts to “Nucky Thompson” and the new television series’ other famous characters. The Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority and the Atlantic City Weekly publication organized the event.
None of the panelists, and certainly few in the room, were alive in 1920 when the premiere is set. The eldest, media personality Pinky Kravitz, was a boy when political boss Enoch “Nucky” Johnson lost power and went to prison in 1941.
Kravitz referred to Johnson, his predecessor Louis “Commodore” Kuehnle and his successor Frank “Hap” Farley as “benevolent dictators.”
“They dictated all the jobs, but they also did good things,” Kravitz said.
Kravitz and the other panelists, especially Allen “Boo” Pergament and Ralph Hunter, laid down anecdotes and digressions about the resort’s whole history, not just the Prohibition era.
Hunter, director of the African-American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, quizzed the crowd, asking fill-in-the-blank questions as he talked about the old businesses.
“What about Max’s Sub Shop?” Hunter said. “I got one for you: Dirty Mike’s. Oh, Dirty Mary’s. Which came first?”
Hunter referred to Atlantic Avenue as “the Mason-Dixon line” dividing white and black neighborhoods: “We liked it on our side of the Mason-Dixon line.”
Pergament remembered the days of illegal but prevalent gambling. His parents regularly gave him a scrap of paper with numbers on it to take to the candy store, Pergament recalled with a smile.
“I was aiding and abetting and didn’t know it,” Pergament said.
The angle of debauchery is somewhat overblown in depictions of old Atlantic City, said Israel Posner, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
“We all know that illegal gambling, booze and broads played a big deal in that era,” Posner said. “But I’m going to try to convince you that that is not what built Atlantic City. Fifteen million people came here in the 1920s. Hundreds of thousands of people came to Atlantic City for legitimate business reasons. Why would anybody get on a train and go to Atlantic City if what they were interested in was vice? Look at New York. It’s an easy business to get into.”
Added Vicki Gold Levi, local historian and author: “We have the saying: ‘Ocean, emotion and lots of promotion!’”
The panelists marveled at how little Nucky Johnson’s name appeared in the newspaper in the 1920s, even though, as columnist Jim Waltzer said, “Every family has a Nucky story.” His friend’s father, an elevator operator, paid for dental school on Johnson’s tips.
“Nucky Johnson, to a great extent, institutionalized the system of illegality that fueled this resort,” Waltzer said.
“I think Nucky Johnson was a sort of Robin Hood, gave to the poor, but also kind of like Boss Tweed,” Levi said.
Kravitz bemoaned the changes to his beloved Boardwalk since the time of “Boardwalk Empire,” whose creators spent $5 million on a replica in Brooklyn.
“The Boardwalk was our play place,” he said. “We didn’t hear about pedophiles, we didn’t hear about all these robberies. Yeah, we had pickpockets, but not to any big extent.”
Kravitz pointed out how much tourism television shows attract to locations, like HBO’s New Orleans-based “Treme.”
“We want those people here, but when they come here, we have to have something for them and we have to greet them in a positive way,” Kravitz said.
Galloway Township resident Dorothy Johnson — no relation to Nucky, she lamented — moved to the area a couple years ago and was curious about its past even before the HBO show came along.
“I’m anxious to see the rest of the series,” Johnson said. “I would like to know more of the history.”
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