Q&A: Boardwalk Empire's Atlantic City Consultant
To fans of Boardwalk Empire, Nucky Thompson is the morally complex protagonist they’ve come to love and hate in equal parts since the show, created by Terence Winter and executive produced by Martin Scorsese and Mark Wahlberg, debuted on HBO in 2010. For Atlantic City native Vicki Gold Levi, he’s a fictional version of Nucky Johnson, the city’s very real former political boss whom she had occasion to meet as a youngster. She has hung with Meyer Lansky and Frank Sinatra, too.
Call it one of the perks of being the daughter of Al Gold, Atlantic City’s official photographer for 25 years beginning in 1939, who instilled a love of the city in Levi that only true locals can understand. It’s this same passion for her hometown’s golden age that led Levi to co-author Atlantic City: 125 Years of Ocean Madness and to become one of Hollywood’s go-to resources for re-creating America’s Favorite Playground. Which is how she landed a consultant gig on Boardwalk Empire, where she works with research adviser Edward McGinty to ensure that every detail of her beloved Boardwalk is exactly as she remembers it.
How did you come to get involved with Boardwalk Empire?
I co-founded the Atlantic City Historical Museum, which is on the Boardwalk at Garden Pier, over 30 years ago. But it all started when I co-authored a book with [former Esquire Editor-in-Chief] Lee Eisenberg called Atlantic City: 125 Years of Ocean Madness in 1979, which is still in print. That was kind of the bible of Atlantic City history, but a more popular version of it. It’s a photo book and it’s written from a fun and glamorous perspective. And then I also did a documentary for the museum called Boardwalk Ballyhoo. Since I did all of that, I have been one of the go-to people for [projects related to] Atlantic City. I worked on Disney’s BoardWalk [attraction], I worked on the Broadway show Steel Pier, and I worked on Louis Malle’s movie Atlantic City. I’ve been sort of in the thick of things down there and so I was a logical person for them to explore.
What are some of the projects or episodes you’ve helped with?
Let me tell you how it works: I have a person there, Ed McGinty, who’s the head researcher at the show. He’s from Atlantic City and has been working on the show since the beginning and he’s kind of my go-to person on the show.
There are three ways that I have evolved in working on the show: I’m a consultant, so I don’t really see the scripts, because they keep all of that very private—sometimes even the actors don’t see the whole script because the surprise element is so important. So I am either asked a specific, historical question, which might be something like “What was the name of King Neptune in 1923 in the Miss America Pageant?” That’s one thing that happens. Another thing is that sometimes I feel there’s something they should know about, so I make up a portfolio of things that I think are important in that year... So I might say, 'Well this is the year the Miss America Pageant started' or 'This year they built this hotel' or blah, blah, blah. I funnel all of that info to Ed McGinty, and then he gives it to the writers. So sometimes I see things that I know I sent in, but I can’t be 100 percent sure that I’m the only person who sent it in. But I know I’m on the right page.
For example, [the character of] Jimmy Darmody: When they shot him—which was a big thing and they’re still talking about it—they shot him in front of the All-War Memorial monument on Albany Avenue that was just going up. Now I don’t think someone in Dubuque, Iowa knew what it was, but I knew what it was. (Laughs) And although it may have come from other places, too, I sent a portfolio in on that monument being opened that year.
The other thing I started to do, which I’m going to start doing again in January, is to come in once a year and talk to the writers. That way, if I have some very specific things I want to tell the writers directly, I can do that. I can tell them, ‘This is really a great visual’ or ‘This is a really great historical idea,’ and then it’s up to them. The show has expanded. It’s now in Chicago, it’s in Philadelphia and New York and now it’s in Tampa, which is kind of creeping down to Cuba. If the show goes long enough that Meyer Lansky actually does go to Cuba, I can offer a lot.
Did you ever meet any of the characters portrayed on the show?
I actually met Meyer Lansky in New York when I was very young. Of course, I had no idea who he was; he looked just like Lee Strasberg in The Godfather. I knew his daughter and at one point there was a fire in the building where I lived in New York and I got smoked out. Meyer’s daughter had a big apartment on West End Avenue, so she invited me to stay there until the smoke was cleared from my apartment. And her father would come to visit his grandchildren. He was an old man and was perfectly nice, but it is kind of funny.
And of course I met Nucky Johnson, but I was very young. Because he was the former political boss of Atlantic City and my father was a city employee, everybody knew him. I remember meeting him as a little girl. I didn’t know him intimately, but I always remembered his wife. He married a showgirl, Flossie Osbeck, before his trial so that she couldn’t testify against him. But she had these long, red, dragon lady nails that as a young girl I was very impressed by and I still remember them.
Have you spent any time on the renovated boardwalk set in Brooklyn?
Much of the set comes from the pages of my book. It was extremely exciting to see incubator babies, Abe Klein’s restaurant, Fralinger’s Salt Water Taffy, and all that stuff just sprung from the pages of my book in 3-D. They did such a brilliant job, I was actually in tears. I was so moved by the re-creation and the colors and the arches and the signage and even the Boardwalk. Ed McGinty and I even talked about this when they were building that boardwalk they have in Brooklyn: the Atlantic City Boardwalk is unique in a couple of ways. One is that along the railings it has knuckles. In Coney Island, it’s just straight railing with up and down, but in Atlantic City the up and down have knuckles on them. I remember when I was a consultant on the movie Beaches, which was filmed in Brooklyn, I was adamant that ‘You have to make these knuckles,’ and they made it out of some polymer. In this one, the railings have those knuckles.
Also, the Boardwalk in Boardwalk Empire isn’t straight boards; it’s got a herringbone pattern. And that’s very Atlantic City; not many boardwalks have that. So the whole thing was so authentic, even when you walked into the stores, it just told me from day one that this was going to be a production of perfection. And it’s been that on every level—the writing, the action, the clothing, the re-creations.
In the book that you co-wrote, the photo book, did you use your father’s photos?
I have some, but I also have my own major collection. A lot of my father’s pictures were destroyed, unfortunately, in hurricanes and stuff at the Convention Hall. People think I have a ton of my father’s pictures, when really I don’t have enough. I have some, but I’ve been collecting Atlantic City pictures for years, so I have my own collection. And most of my memorabilia collection formed the Atlantic City Historical Museum. But I haven’t donated my photos because it allows me to have my own reference department right here in my house. And I have a big Atlantic City library—every book that ever mentioned Atlantic City. And sometimes I get old phone books and things like that.
You’ve been living in New York City since the 1960s. What keeps your ties to Atlantic City so strong?
That’s an interesting question. A lot of my best friends are still from Atlantic City; some live there and some live here. We have a saying in Atlantic City: “sand in your shoes.” There is something about growing up in Atlantic City that really ties you to it, at least in the era that I grew up. Because it’s a big town little town. In the winter time, it’s a little town and if you have a sorority dance you can have it at the biggest hotel in town, because business is slow. And in the summer you’ve got Frank Sinatra and all the other big stars there and everyone’s got a summer job and you’re all mixed up in the ballyhoo and the hoopla of the town. And I also was a child actress down there; I was a disc jockey at the age of five. I had my own radio show.
At five years old?
Yeah, I had a show called “Views by Vicki.” And when Bess Myerson was crowned Miss America, I was her page every night, carrying her big red velvet train down the runway. And I was Miss Hydrangea. I had this little child actress celebrity life in Atlantic City, so I had an unusual childhood down there. I was always on the floats for Miss America and things like that. We were very big Atlantic City Boosters...
It’s not like any other place in New Jersey. It really isn’t. It’s not the Jersey Shore, it’s not Snooki. Atlantic City was once considered for the United Nations, it had one of the first air-cooled theaters, it had one of the earliest postcards, it had a Ferris Wheel before the Ferris Wheel… There’s so much history and it really was a place where everyone went. There’s so much history to tell and it’s a place that really grabs you and we all remember it fondly.
Your father was clearly a big influence on your love of Atlantic City, and dedication to keeping its history alive. What do you think he’d say about Boardwalk Empire?
He was born in 1902, so I don’t know how he would feel about the nudity, but he would be thrilled about this national TV show. He was an Atlantic City booster. He would be telling Nucky stories—the real Nucky stories—because he knew him well… He would be telling you the inside scoop on different characters on the show that are local. They’d want him as the consultant instead of me!
People look at Atlantic City today and they think: Gambling! Do you think that people’s interest in the history of Atlantic City from an historical and cultural perspective has changed as a result of the show?
Oh, yeah. People are really interested in the show, everywhere I go. I was in Cuba and people said to me, “Oh, you know Nucky?” They were referring to Steve Buscemi, of course, but people are watching the show down in Cuba. This show has a real grip on the people who are fans of it. I myself cannot wait for Sundays to see the show.
What is it that draws you to the show, separate from working on it?
I can work on something and not love it; I could do that and just do my job. But I’m a big fan of the show. The acting is so good and the clothes and the authenticity. Nucky often drives in a blue Rolls-Royce like the real Nucky did. Nucky Thompson is not Nucky Johnson; it’s a prototype. It’s historical fiction, and that’s really important to establish. That doesn’t mean that they don’t say that the right person was in office. Edward Bader was Mayor of Atlantic City at that time—they’re accurate to that. But a lot of people ask me, “Oh, was Nucky Johnson a murderer?” Not to my personal knowledge. But Nucky Thompson is. So it’s historical fiction based on the prototype. It’s not the actual story of Nucky Johnson and it’s important to delineate that. I think people understand that by now, this is its fourth season… I can’t say enough about the show and the experience. There are enough references to let you know that there’s been research done.
Yes, you can tell that what you’re watching is authentic and meticulously researched rather than just thrown together based on someone’s idea of what a particular time and place looked and/or felt like.
When I hear them mention Rendezvous Park, that’s just so “inside.” You might hear of Miss America, but you’re not going to hear of Rendezvous Park unless you’re paying attention to the research. And of course Rendezvous Park was the site of the Convention Hall—I know that history. So I can see that they’re putting their ducks in a row.