ATLANTIC CITY — Professionally, it was a moment I’d been anticipating for a year. Personally, I’d been waiting for it my entire life, but owing to the laws of physics — which says time travel is impossible — I never thought it could happen.
On Aug. 18, I stepped onto the set of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire to tape two installments of Curtain Call, the weekly entertainment series I host on Atlantic City’s WMGM-TV NBC40. As I walked up the wooden steps leading onto the Boardwalk, I stepped back 90 years into my family history.
HBO had invited us to the set on the East River in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, N.Y., where we interviewed cast members Michael Kenneth Williams and Anthony Laciura along with series creator and executive producer Terence Winter.
But from the moment Curtain Call producer Jake Glassey Jr., associate producer Tom Morgenweck Jr. and I arrived at the 300-foot-long recreation of the 1920-era Boardwalk, we realized that the biggest star of Boardwalk Empire is one that doesn’t have a single line in the show, yet speaks volumes every time it’s on the TV screen.
Even Winter acknowledged that the Boardwalk set — said to be the biggest movie or television set every constructed in New York City — is as much a star as series regulars Steve Buscemi (Nucky Thompson), Kelly Macdonald (Margaret Schroeder) and Michael Pitt (Jimmy Darmody).
We took a fast tour of the Boardwalk, stashed our gear in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel (the only part of the set with a functional interior) and developed a game plan to shoot the shows.
Our conversation with Laciura, who plays Nucky’s beleaguered assistant Eddie Kessler, began as we strolled out the front doors of the hotel lobby, walked slowly down the Boardwalk and sat down on a green bench so authentic that — even though it was newly constructed — it had just the right amount of distressed and splintered wood to make it look like it had been there for years.
For Williams, who plays Chalky White, Nucky’s bootlegger and the de facto mayor of Atlantic City’s black community, our stroll began between Silver’s Bath House and Abe Klein’s deli, two long-time fixtures on the Boardwalk during the early 20th Century.
Our chat with Winter took place on a bench just outside the entrance to one of Atlantic City’s piers. It’s basically an amalgamation of Steel Pier, Million Dollar and Steeplechase piers, although the posters near the box office give it more of a Steel Pier feel.
Winter said the meticulous attention to detail was important as much to the cast as to the viewers. In fact, some elements added to the set are so small the cameras will never see them, but were included to motivate the actors into believing they really were on the 1920s Atlantic City Boardwalk.
I tried to pay attention to every word that was spoken while we were rolling tape on the interviews, but
I couldn’t stop my mind from wandering.
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“[Empire’s] helped remind people of what a colorful history we’ve had as a city, and helped bring these things back into focus for some people. And I think the fact that the series is very well regarded only helps.”
“The three eras that attracted me where the 1920s, the ‘50s and the ‘70s. And really HBO’s mandate was [so broad that] I literally had a huge canvass to work from.”
"I wasn’t the only critic that wrote that there is nothing new on broadcast TV that’s as good as Boardwalk Empire. It used to be that cable wouldn’t counter-program against broadcast TV, but in the last few years they’ve gotten stronger and tougher and more arrogant."
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