The documentary filmmaker tackles a different kind of ‘Civil War.’
All those bottles of booze bobbing in the tide that flings each new episode of Boardwalk Empire ashore present the perfect imagery for 1920s Atlantic City. Indeed, the waterways of Absecon Island provided an ideal route for illegal alcoholic beverages to reach the resort, as rumrunners out-dueled the Coast Guard to keep local speakeasies well stocked.
Flouting the law and the ill-advised federal Volstead Act that created the era of Prohibition was hardly confined to the seashore. The nationwide battle between bootleggers and G-men played as a dramatic struggle for America’s soul in the wake of World War I. But the soul-stylers never really had a chance. Too many Americans liked to drink and didn’t like to be told how to live their lives. A new breed of “businessman” kept the spigots flowing: the modern mobster — colorful, irresistible, lethal.
Matchless documentarian Ken Burns captures this volatile, surreal scene in his new miniseries Prohibition, which premieres Oct. 2, 3 and 4 at 8pm on PBS. The three-part, five-and-a-half-hour film explores both the forces that produced the U.S. Constitution’s 18th Amendment (which outlawed booze, precipitating enforcement standards set by the January 1920 Congressional act sponsored by Minnesota representative Andrew Volstead), and those that led to its undoing. Along the way, we meet a gallery of rogues, redeemers, and reactionaries.
“People’s idea of Prohibition is rain-slicked Chicago streets with Model Ts careening around the corner with machine guns blasting, and that is part of our story,” says filmmaker Burns, whose epic Civil War series changed the artistic landscape for documentaries. “But the story we’ve chosen to tell is much bigger than that, and begins a hundred years before Prohibition went into effect.”
Part One of the new series examines that “century-long effort” that saw concerned women (typically with husbands prone to drop a week’s wages at the saloon) “join forces with the clergy . . . to push through this amendment to the Constitution,” says Burns. “They wanted it enshrined [in the Constitution] like the abolition of slavery. Everyone knew that no amendment had ever been repealed.”
Not so, this time. Prohibition’s run lasted for 13 years before being watered down by Congress in March 1933; the 18th Amendment spiraled down the drain altogether late that year. America had the Depression on its mind, and needed a stiff drink.
Hindsight tells us that the well-intended, if fanatical, bid to rid the country of alcohol abuse flew in the face of a post-WWI explosion of hot jazz and rising hemlines, as well as the American birthright of self-determination. It was, in the words of one commentator on the Prohibition series, “a preposterous idea.”
For Nucky Johnson and his minions, however, it turned out to be a capital idea. The boss man, treasurer of Atlantic County and king of Atlantic City, enriched his personal treasury with “enormous” sums of bootleg income, state and federal investigators substantiated years after the fact, when the bill finally came due for Nucky, who had made law enforcement and ordinary citizens complicit in his operation. When the game was on, Federal Revenue Agents didn’t have a chance.
As the nation’s wettest locale, Atlantic City lay claim to being its premier convention site. What better way to loosen wallets than by loosening inhibitions? Meanwhile other towns, too, made hay with the lawmakers’ shortsightedness, spawning a new order of crime kingpins such as New York’s Arnold Rothstein, “Lucky” Luciano and Meyer Lanksy. Chicago had a guy named Capone.
A public discussion entitled “The Atlantic City Experience: The Roaring ’20s” will be hosted by the Atlantic City Free Public Library on Saturday, Oct. 13, in the Atlantic City Historical Museum
By the summer of 1912, Atlantic City had established itself as a premier vacation resort. Its sun, surf and Boardwalk, along with adult offerings of alcohol, gambling and prostitution, could satisfy a variety of appetites.
"You know what's great about drama? You can make shit up."
This murder-mystery performance deals with the question of what guided Enoch "Nucky" Johnson's — depicted in Boardwalk Empire as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson's — "flotilla of booze" into Atlantic City's safe harbor at Rum Runner's Point during the Prohibition era.
Plus Drew Toonz, the Album of the Week (Tom Waits), and local ghost tours.
Esteemed filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick explore America’s greatest social experiment in their latest documentary, Prohibition, set to debut Oct. 2-4 at 8pm on PBS. The three-part miniseries follows the rise and fall of the 18th amendment and the era that encompassed its rule.
They never could enforce it, not really. In Atlantic City, the ban was a boon. The Amendment went out with the next tide.
'Everything we do as a society is based on love. I want to welcome everyone. Our arms are open to all aspects of our culture.'
An authentic, Prohibition-era atmosphere will be replicated Saturday night, reminiscent of the time when Nucky Johnson ruled Atlantic City and Al Capone’s reign over the underworld was in its infancy. Those in attendance are encouraged to dress the part ....
With Sunday’s debut of Boardwalk Empire fast approaching, let’s look back on the period during which the series takes place, specifically the year 1920, the dawn of the Prohibition era.
The LP Debuted in Atlantic City
O.C.’s Four-Hour Horror
When Teddy Came to Town