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Boardwalk Empire's Atlantic City Consultant

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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.

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#TBT
Man-Eating Space Lizards: When V Was a TV Smash
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Warner Home Video

American broadcast television in the 1980s didn’t leave a lot of room for subtlety. Shows like Hill Street Blues were outliers, crowded off the schedule by head-hammering episodic series featuring mercenaries (The A-Team), car chases (The Dukes of Hazzard), or soapy melodrama (Dynasty).

On its surface, V appeared to be no different. A two-part miniseries airing on consecutive evenings in May 1983, it told the story of the “Visitors,” gregarious aliens who arrive on Earth in three-mile-long spaceships and greet humans with a bargain: Let the Visitors harvest a chemical needed for their continued survival and receive advanced medical knowledge in return.

As the humanoid aliens reveal themselves to be malevolent lizard-like creatures who prefer to dine on humans rather than prolong their lives, V took on the look and feel of a pulpy sci-fi epic—the kind of thing that could be easily summarized in one Amazing Stories cover image from the 1940s. But writer Kenneth Johnson had something far more subversive in mind. The Visitors were stand-ins for fascists, and V was a cautionary tale about the perils of complacency.

Jason Bernard and Robert Englund star in the NBC miniseries 'V' (1983).
Warner Home Video

A Carnegie Mellon graduate, Johnson had broken into television with a writing stint on The Six Million Dollar Man, for which he conceived a female counterpart in the form of Jamie Sommers (Lindsay Wagner). Sommers got her own series, The Bionic Woman, which Johnson produced until he was tasked with adapting The Incredible Hulk as a live-action drama.

It was around this time that Johnson became fascinated with a 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here, about a fascist group that rises to power in the United States. Johnson reworked the concept into Storm Warnings, a feature-length screenplay; that work landed on the desk of NBC president Brandon Tartikoff, who encouraged Johnson to adapt it into a television miniseries by casting Soviets or the Chinese as the antagonists.

Tartikoff’s request made sense. The miniseries format, which took off in the 1970s with Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man, was drawing record numbers of viewers. The Thorn Birds, about a priest who is tempted to break his vow of celibacy by a younger woman, was a hit; so was Shogun, about a 17th century man who shipwrecks in Japan and becomes a pawn in a war between samurai. (Both starred Richard Chamberlain.) Storm Warnings had an appropriately sprawling narrative with multiple characters, a feat of creative engineering Johnson was encouraged to use after reading War and Peace.

But the writer was less enthused about casting a foreign superpower as a rival. Tartikoff then suggested aliens, the allegorical turf of Rod Serling that had fueled many a socially-conscious episode of The Twilight Zone. Johnson later told Starlog he “ran screaming from the room” at the suggestion, but eventually warmed to it. Storm Warnings became V: NBC committed $13 million to produce the four-hour drama.

A scene from the NBC miniseries 'V' (1983).
Warner Home Video

While a generous budget for television, the scope of Johnson’s idea taxed every available dollar. A 60-foot-long model of one of the Visitor ships was built; a giant hangar intended to depict the inside was made to scale, albeit cut in half; matte effects, with the ships laid over a background painting, depicted their unsettling arrival over Earth’s major cities. A feature with those same ambitions might take months of pre-production planning: Johnson got three weeks.

Whatever was lacking in the special effects and costumes—Johnson opted for a regal, military-inspired garb for his aliens that hasn’t aged well—never diluted the real attraction of V. Following a television cameraman (Marc Singer) and a botanist (Faye Grant) as they grow suspicious of the true intentions of the Visitors, the series quickly turns into an examination of what happens when a population is seduced by the promise of a helping hand. Celebrities and world leaders endorse the Visitors; scientists questioning their motives are corralled and delivered to ships for “re-education.” By the time their foot soldier Diana (Jane Badler) is seen devouring a guinea pig, Singer and his cohorts have decided to form a resistance to push back against being turned into alien kibble. For viewers who didn’t care for the subtext, there was still the birth of a lizard baby to talk about with coworkers and friends the next morning.

In a departure from conventional advertising, NBC decided to take a conservative approach with V. Posters in subway stations and bus stops depicted illustrations of the Visitors in propaganda-style posters; later, a “V” would be spray-painted over the ads. There was never any mention of the series.

The premiere of V drew a 40 share, which meant 40 percent of all households watching television at that hour were watching the lizard people establish their dominance on Earth. Tartikoff even granted Johnson the ability to run 15 minutes past the allotted two-hour time slot, cutting into local newscasts. On night two, V maintained much of that audience.

What might have turned out to be a lucrative franchise for NBC quickly lost its way. Tartikoff wanted Johnson to oversee a weekly drama continuing the story of the resistance while ramping up their licensing efforts; Johnson argued that the premise would be too expensive for the format and suggested a two-hour movie air every month or two instead.

A licensed action figure from the 'V' miniseries
Amazon

In the end, neither quite got their wish. Another miniseries, V: The Final Battle, aired in 1984, but Johnson disowned it after extensive rewrites. V: The Series followed, but lasted just one season. Johnson lamented that the network had taken his cautionary tale and turned it into a spectacle, with gunfights and lizard people eating small animals taking the place of the allegory.

V was revived by ABC in 2009, but low ratings led to a quick demise after two seasons. Other shows and movies like 1996’s Independence Day had borrowed heavily from Johnson, wearing out the premise. In 2007, Johnson published V: The Second Generation, a novel based on one of his follow-up scripts.

The miniseries format would continue throughout the 1980s and 1990s before serialized dramas with shortened seasons edged them off television schedules. Like The Thorn Birds, V remains one of the most well-remembered entries in the medium, due in no small part to Johnson’s nods to levity. When the aliens arrive, a high school band plays the Star Wars theme.

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Pop Culture
The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before he was called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior, in 1980, to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their original poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and said that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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