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.

Pop Culture
Mister Rogers Is Now a Funko Pop! and It’s Such a Good Feeling, a Very Good Feeling

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood for fans of Mister Rogers, as Funko has announced that, just in time for the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the kindest soul to ever grace a television screen will be honored with a series of Funko toys, some of them limited-edition versions.

The news broke at the New York Toy Fair, where the pop culture-loving toy company revealed a new Pop Funko! in Fred Rogers’s likeness—he’ll be holding onto the Neighborhood Trolley—plus a Mister Rogers Pop! keychain and a SuperCute Plush.

In addition to the standard Pop! figurine, there will also be a Funko Shop exclusive version, in which everyone’s favorite neighbor will be wearing a special blue sweater. Barnes & Noble will also carry its own special edition, which will see Fred wearing a red cardigan and holding a King Friday puppet instead of the Neighborhood Trolley.


Barnes & Noble's special edition Mister Rogers Funko Pop!

Mister Rogers’s seemingly endless supply of colored cardigans was an integral part of the show, and a sweet tribute to his mom (who knitted all of them). But don’t go running out to snatch up the whole collection just yet; Funko won’t release these sure-to-sell-out items until June 1, but you can pre-order your Pop! on Amazon right now.

job secrets
14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Food Stylists

Hollywood food stylists are little short of magicians—only instead of pulling rabbits out of hats, they’re turning piles of mashed potatoes into ice cream sundaes. Indeed, making food (or food-like products) appear photogenic and appetizing onscreen is a job for a true illusionist. Mental Floss spoke to a few food stylists working in TV, film, and commercials—from Game of Thrones to Taco Bell—to bring you the tricks of their magical trade.


While food stylists are well-versed in the old-school swap tricks—using a pint of white glue to impersonate a glass of milk, for example—those are being phased out. Now, directors want actors to interact with their food, and high-definition camera lenses have made the fake stuff much more obvious. Plastic food props only appear in the background of scenes today, where they're less visible and susceptible to scrutiny.

“I only deal with real food,” says Chris Oliver, who has styled food for movies including Gone Girl (2014) and TV shows such as Seinfeld and Big Little Lies. “You also have to think about how a character would cook something or put a plate together. Realistic food is not all beautiful and perfect. I make ugly food and burnt food, too.”

There’s a trend in commercial food styling to present dishes that are less-than-perfect, too. Shellie Anderson, who styles food ads for clients including Burger King and Ragù, says it’s the consumers who are demanding food look more realistic and therefore more approachable.

“People are tired of seeing something in a TV commercial and then ordering it in a restaurant and it doesn't look the same,” she says. “You don’t want it to look staged anymore. You want a burger to look like the cheese naturally dripped off and landed on the plate.”


Bowl of strawberry ice cream

If a food stylist needs one sprig of parsley for a shoot, they’ll often order 10 bunches. They never know what the condition of the parsley is going to be when it arrives from the produce vendor, or if the shoot is going to require more than they originally planned for. Carving a turkey in a scene? That may require two dozen birds if an actor keeps flubbing his line.

“It really depends on how much of a story point the food is and how important the scene is for the director,” Oliver says.

Food stylists usually have relationships with produce vendors, who can look for products with the specific size, shape, and color that stylists need. No bruises or dents, and no frozen lettuce! But stylists can hide those things if they have to.

Ice cream is infamously hard to keep intact because it melts so quickly. Food stylists have been known to replace the scoops with dollops of meringue, which don’t melt, or butter rolled in sugar. Oliver makes her sundaes the day before and sticks them in the freezer, spoons and straws and all. If they freeze rock hard overnight, they can last a few hours on set the next day before being replaced with another sundae lined up in the deep-freeze. Anderson sprays her ice cream with cold spray, an aerosol can of super-chilled gas used for cooling electronics.


On film and TV shoots, there are rarely leftovers. In fact, good food stylists often compete with the caterers: Actors usually have to eat the food during their scenes, and the crew finishes off the scraps. While shooting a Chinese New Year scene for the show Fresh Off the Boat recently, actress Lucille Soong told Oliver, who was styling that episode, that she was going to skip lunch because she wanted to enjoy eating her food on camera. “That was pretty freaking flattering!” Oliver says.

Because Oliver works on multiple TV shows in a single day, if an item doesn’t get used on set and never comes out of her cooler, she can just take it back to her shop and recycle it for use on another show. If something can’t be used again, she’ll take it home and make salsa or jam. “When it gets really old, I'll just stick it in vodka,” she says.

Commercial shoots tend to have more unused food. Anderson says anything that’s still edible will be given to a food pantry. “I once donated an entire swordfish when we did a commercial for a fish restaurant,” she says. “We never even used it. So I kept it on ice and took it to a men's homeless shelter. They were thrilled to have it.”


Another reason food stylists swap out on-camera food so much is because of safety concerns—hot and cold foods need to be kept at certain temperatures that may not be practical on-set. Sushi-grade tuna may be replaced with watermelon, for example, because the fish spoils so easily.

Oliver requires all of her employees to have a food handler’s license. She also only works out of commercial kitchens (including the one on her fully-equipped food styling truck). But not every food styling team does; some prepare food in their homes. “The reason that I get so much work is that everybody knows I'm a chef and I have a real kitchen,” Oliver says. “People trust my food. I’ve done a bunch of movies with Reese [Witherspoon] because she knows that if I’m on set, the food is safe to eat.”


woman styling food

While there are a few well-known male food stylists, for the most part the key food stylists in the U.S. are women. (Both of Anderson’s daughters are food stylists, too.) The reason for this dates back decades.

Before food styling became its own career in the 1990s, it was up to network employees with home economics degrees (almost always women) to cook on-camera food. Then props departments became responsible. “But props guys can’t even make spaghetti,” Oliver says, laughing. So according to her, these guys would go home and ask their girlfriends or wives to make whatever food was required for the next day’s scene. “Eventually they would just hire their girlfriends or wives to do it; keep the money in the family,” she says. “I know five food stylists who at one time were in relationships with prop masters.”

Also in the 1990s, networks began making more multi-camera TV shows. A lot more food began appearing on screen, and actors openly discussed their dietary restrictions. They were vegan, sugar-free, and low-carb all of a sudden. Oliver trained at the Culinary Institute of America and had worked in restaurants and catering jobs before stumbling into this career. “Because I was a chef, and I understood how food works, I knew how to feed people and make food last on set,” she says. “And I could charge anything I wanted to.”

To get a job as a food stylist today, it helps to know someone already in the industry and have a culinary background. Everyone starts as an intern, and then may be able to work their way up to being an assistant and then a stylist. “Not everybody can be a food stylist,” Anderson says. “You have to be able to cook, but you still have to be creative. And you have to be able to work fast and under pressure.”


Now that movies and TV shows are frequently filmed all over the world, instead of just on sets in Los Angeles, food stylists can be based anywhere. There is a concentration of stylists who live in Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, because that's where many shows are now filmed. Labor laws also often require production crews to hire locally, so residing outside of L.A. can be a real advantage.

Some commercial food stylists, like Anderson, are flown in for shoots. “Food stylists can make or break a commercial,” she says. “And if you have trouble and you don't know what you're doing, it can be a real problem for production.” This is especially true on out-of-the-country shoots, when stylists don't have the resources that they’re used to. So clients who know her and her skill level, such as Taco Bell, will fly her to wherever they're filming.


hand styling pancakes

Food stylists use a mix of back-of-the-house kitchen lingo and film jargon. Some examples: The “hero” is the food that is written into the script, is being shot, and must appear in front of the actor. “Bite and smile” is when an actor takes a bite of food and pretends to like it. “All day” is the total number of items needed; if they needed five turkeys on a set, they would say “five all day.”


Food stylists usually specialize in different media: film, TV, commercials, or print editorial. Stylists often prefer one over the other. Print editorial is shot in a controlled studio and tends to have more leeway for creativity. Commercials are tied to a brand’s specifications. Film and TV shoots on location are in unpredictable settings and can be physically demanding. But everyone tends to work long, 12- to 14-hour days. For commercials, it can often take three days to shoot one 30-second spot.

When working on a movie or TV show, the actors’ demands usually take precedence over the food needs. After working on one film, Anderson had had enough and dedicated herself to commercial work. “When I do commercials, the food is the star,” she says. “So [the directors] want to make sure I have everything I need. On a movie, they could care less about you.”


Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal

Sometimes food stylists are expected to create sci-fi props—what would a person eat in the year 3000?—or fantasy items that they have no experience with. While working on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Oliver made gooey, edible slime from her imagination. “I also had to roll with the [actors’] different dietary needs,” she says. “I had to be able to make vegan slime, sugar-free slime, gluten-free slime, gelatin-free slime … Slime, any way you want it.”

Oliver also has to make items that you don’t really want to put in your mouth. While filming the TV show Big Little Lies, she made green-colored vomit for actress Reese Witherspoon of cucumbers and parsley. She says it was tasty, like green gazpacho. For a war film, she had to make 400 pounds of “dirt” for a group of prisoners of war to eat. She got Pakistani soil shipped to California so she could match it exactly. (Her recipe: ground-up Oreos and graham crackers, mixed with brown sugar and white sugar.)

Janice Poon, the food stylist behind the cannibal-centric TV show Hannibal, had a more challenging obstacle: how to make dishes that resembled human flesh. She refused to do research on cannibalism websites, she told, but she studied a lot of anatomy books. “I’m just like Dr. Frankenstein,” Poon said. “I’m always stitching things, exchanging, putting one kind of meat on a different bone, patching stuff together. ... The key is to let the viewer’s imagination do more of your work.” She transformed veal shanks into human legs, and used prosciutto slices to mimic slivers of a human arm.


When shooting, stylists need to be prepared for anything. They carry tools including tweezers, scissors, paint brushes, knives, offset spatulas, wet wipes, syringes, rulers, Q-tips, and spritz bottles.

“Think about your kitchen: all of your mixing bowls and utensils … I have that times 10 in my kit,” Anderson says. She also has a torch on hand for quick-cooking burgers and cold spray for extending the life of ice cream. Other stylists may have glycerin for adding shine or Kitchen Bouquet sauce for adding color. Poon often uses a white ceramic knife so she can see what she's doing on dark sets and work more quietly, so as not to disturb the acting process.

Food stylists sometimes work in erratic environments. Oliver brings her own 17-foot, cab-over truck to shoots. “It has a lift gate and everything's on wheels, so I can take everything out and have a kitchen in the middle of the desert, if I want,” she says. Inside, she has a full commercial kitchen: a six-burner stove, refrigerator, microwave, grill, freezer, prep tables, storage, TV, and a generator.


When production starts, the prop team sends memos to actors or their reps asking about food allergies and dietary restrictions. As trained chefs, most food stylists are happy to accommodate such limitations, cooking convincing swap-outs. “I find out what they will eat and make it happen,” Oliver says.

For example, Poon once made a convincing vegan “raw meat” on Hannibal using only grains. “I made lamb tongues out of bulgur and water,” Poon told “It’s like making a Lebanese kibbeh. You mix cracked wheat with water and it makes a kind of mush that holds together. The texture is a little 'nubbly,' so I added a pink food coloring, made little tongues out of kibbeh dough, steamed them up, and they were my little lambs’ tongues.”

Sometimes a director changes his or her mind at the last minute, and what was supposed to be a spaghetti dinner, for example, is now a breakfast spread. So the food stylist will squish down the meatballs and turn them into sausage patties. In an interview with NPR, food stylist Melissa McSorley recalled a time when a movie director suddenly decided to cut open a birthday cake she had made. The problem: It wasn’t real.

“So we had to cut the cake that was made out of Styrofoam, and I had to use a saw in order to do it because none of my knives could get through it,” McSorley said. “And then we had to layer in cake so it did look like it was real and then we had to send people scurrying to many markets to find white layer cake so it looked like people in the background could be actually be eating the cake.”


Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, David Bradley in Game of Thrones

Professional actors will often pick at the food in front of them, but not eat it because they know their scenes are going to require a lot of takes; they could be eating birthday cake for eight hours straight. Others dive right in. For a scene in The Guilt Trip (2012), actress Barbra Streisand had to pretend she was in a steak-eating contest. Oliver says they went through more than 300 pounds of meat for that scene’s three-day shoot and Streisand was totally game.

“But there’s a part towards the end where she has to eat really quickly and do a line without, you know, choking and dying,” Oliver says. “So I switched out the steak with seared watermelon. She took one bite and it sort of dissolved in her mouth, so she could do her line. If you watch it, and you really listen, you can hear the crunch of the watermelon.”

Sometimes, though, the spit bucket is the only option. In season one of Game of Thrones, the character Daenerys Targaryen had to eat a whole horse heart. But the actress who plays her, Emilia Clarke, actually had to eat 28. They were made of solidified jam, which tasted like “bleach and raw pasta,” she told The Mirror. “It was very helpful to be given something so truly disgusting to eat, so there wasn’t much acting required. Fortunately, they gave me a spit bucket because I was vomiting in it quite often.”


Food stylists who work on multiple projects at a time, like Oliver, can’t always stick around to see how their food will be used. They may later find out that a gorgeous spread was relegated to the background, or worse. For a scene in Seinfeld, Oliver was once asked to prepare a perfect, glistening turkey. “Later I was home watching the episode and they had put the turkey on Kramer!” she says. “I was literally crying I was laughing so hard. Never in a million years did I think my turkey was going to end up with a guy’s head.”


Food stylist preparing vegetables

You’d think that being around food all day would make food stylists tired of making things look nice. But most food stylists love to cook, and on the days they aren’t working, they love to throw parties. “People always expect to have beautiful food,” Anderson says. “And I don't disappoint.”


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