As a Boardwalk native and the author of one of A.C.’s definitive history books, curiosity should have long since replaced emotion for Vicki Gold Levi.
Yet the author of Atlantic City: 125 Year of Ocean Madness (1979, Ten Speed Press) couldn’t help becoming overwhelmed when she strolled the familiar herringbone planks where she first learned to walk.
Except something was different. Levi wasn’t walking on today’s Atlantic City Boardwalk. She was standing on 300 feet of 1920s-era Boardwalk constructed on the banks of the East River in Brooklyn, where HBO reportedly spent $5 million to construct an exterior set for Boardwalk Empire, the new drama series which premiers Sunday. Sept. 19, on the subscription television channel.
The series is loosely based on local author Nelson Johnson’s book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City (2002, Plexus Publishing).
“I got so emotional when I saw it that I started to cry,” says Levi, who served as a historical consultant to the series. “There were so many storefronts and ideas that came out of my book, so it was great to actually see the book in 3-D.”
Although she never met with legendary filmmaker Martin Scorcese, who directed Sunday’s debut episode, she did spend time with Terence Winter, who wrote the Boardwalk Empire scripts and whose writing and producing credits include the HBO series The Sopranos.
Winter told her that Scorcese is a stickler for getting the smallest details historically accurate, which is why viewers of the series will likely be amazed at how HBO and Scorcese have authentically captured the look of A.C. during the Art Deco period. HBO reportedly spent nearly $20 million to produce Sunday’s pilot episode for the 12-show series, which is expected to run for at least several years or more.
The exterior and lobby of the old Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the baby incubator attraction, the post card store, Fralinger’s salt water taffy — all storefronts have been painstakingly re-created, often using images from Levi’s book to guide the set designers.
Although Levi was born long after Prohibition ended, she saw the “old” Atlantic City through the camera lenses of her father, the late Al Gold, who for years served as the city’s official photographer and had a studio and darkroom in what’s now Boardwalk Hall.
“I walked on the [Boardwalk Empire] set three times, and I got emotional all three times,” Levi says. “Every time, I would remember my dad, and I could hear my mom reminding me to put on a skirt before I [went on the Boardwalk.]”
While Levi doesn’t believe it’s the role of the show to teach A.C. history 101, she thinks people will be amazed when they learn some details about the town’s past.
“One thing they will learn is that Atlantic City was Las Vegas before ‘Vegas was ‘Vegas,” she says, referring to the speakeasies and illegal gambling dens that flourished here during that period. “Atlantic City was the original sin city.”
Levi turned down the chance to see previews of the series — she says she wants to have an element of surprise on Sunday — but she said the A.C. depicted in the series reminded her of Havana, Cuba before Fidel Castro came to power in the 1950s. For several years, Levi has been doing historical research and consulting on a project about America’s closest communist neighbor.
“Before Castro took over, Cuba was a place that thrived on ‘liquid tourism,’ just like Atlantic City did,” she says.
Working with HBO on the series, Levi feels her life has come full circle. “I no longer feel I’m building a career. Boardwalk Empire is the cherry on the top of the sundae,” says Levi, who will celebrate her 68th birthday by attending the invitation-only A.C. premier of Boardwalk Empire at Caesars Sept. 16. On Sunday, she’ll be at Caesars again, this time as a panelist on the “Conversations & Storytelling” event at 7pm, which will be followed by a viewing party of the Boardwalk Empire debut.
Literally growing up on the Boardwalk has had a lasting impression on Levi. While she’s lived in Manhattan for decades, the former page for Miss America 1945 Bess Myerson maintains an almost spiritual connection with her hometown and has been a champion for its success.
“Atlantic City was like a giant, endless midway to me,” she says wistfully during a conversation last week. “It was a fascinating place to grow up. I got to go with my father to see presidents speak and to see Jonas Salk announce that he’d discovered a vaccine for polio. Atlantic City was a magical place for me. It still is.”
Click here to find out about the free and open-to-the-public event scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 19, at Caesars Atlantic City. The event "Conversations & Storytelling" will include Vicki Gold-Levi as well as other Atlantic City historians, and will be followed by a viewing party of the first episode of HBO's Boardwalk Empire.
Casual conversations with the stars. Watch the Emmy-winning Curtain Call with David Spatz, Saturdays at 6pm on WMGM-TV NBC40.
Many new programs have been put in place by the ACFPL since assuming management of the museum, the next of which is entitled “The Atlantic City Experience: The Night Clubs and the Northside.”
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