Author and Publisher on the Set of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire

Filed under: Top Stories — John B. Bryans @ 6:27 pm

On Friday, December 11, Boardwalk Empire author Nelson Johnson and his wife, Johanna, along with several of us from Plexus, were guests of HBO on the set of Boardwalk Empire. Departing from HBO’s offices on 6th Avenue, our hosts transported us to an amazing set in Brooklyn.

Terence Winter and Nelson Johnson (L - R)

Terence Winter and Nelson Johnson (L - R)

While we aren’t able to post our photos, my impression is that only an expert will be able to tell this set from Atlantic City’s actual 1920s boardwalk. (With one exception–more on that later.)

The set was larger and more complex than I had expected. Starting at the Canton Tea Parlor and Chop Suey house, we walked past Dittrich Studios offering “your foto on a post card,” then tarried for a minute at the palm reader’s lair before arriving at Fralinger’s Original Salt Water Taffy Shop.

We stopped at the baby incubator attraction where 25¢ buys a look at “Living Infants” weighing less than 3 pounds, and peered in the window at La Belle Femme–the dress shop where, we are told, Kelly Macdonald‘s character is employed.

Atlantic City’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel was home for many years to the real-life Nucky Johnson (Nucky “Thompson” as played by Steve Buscemi). Opening the doors to its facsimile, Nelson and I gazed into a lobby featuring cafe tables, Doric columns, and a huge, ornate chandelier. Further back, beyond an arched entryway, we could see three period elevators–one with its doors open, its textured walls and handrail glowing like burnished brass.

Further down, we encountered Babette’s Supper Club, where I can easily picture Nucky holding court. Just beyond the restaurant, at the far end of the boardwalk, sits a grand amusement arcade whose marquee promises “The Human Cannonball,” “Sea Elephant Dancing,” “Circus Acts,” and other exciting attractions of the day.

From wind-lashed signage to the alignment of the boards beneath our feet, an obsession with historic detail brought a smile to our faces. And while the producers couldn’t physically move the Empire State Building (which rises prominently above the set) they’ll apparently have no trouble erasing it digitally when the time comes.

On our tour, we particularly enjoyed the insights offered by Ed McGinty, a production consultant on the series who really knows (and cares about) his Atlantic City history. Ed, whose grandfather was a bellman at the Ritz-Carlton, pointed out the “rust stains” on the building walls, and the “knuckles” on the boardwalk railing which he described as unique to Atlantic City–just two examples of the painstaking effort being made to ensure authenticity in the set design.

The benches lining the boardwalk’s ocean side were of special interest, as we’d heard that Martin Scorsese wanted them facing the ocean (an enormous row of stacked steel containers blanketed in blue, for now) rather than the shops on the inland side, as in real life. While 1920s merchants probably wouldn’t have cared for this rearrangement, I’m sure audiences will.

It was extremely cold that day, and the wind whipping off the East River didn’t encourage a lengthy stay on the “boardwalk.” Our friends at HBO drove us up to Harlem, where a scene from the 4th episode was being filmed in an historic church. The place was hopping–crammed to the rafters with actors, extras, production crew, and security personnel.

Plexus Gang with Terence Winter

L - R: John Bryans, Vicki Gold Levi, Terence Winter, Nelson Johnson, Tom Hogan Jr.

In a back room set up for an interrogation scene came the highlight of my day as we were introduced to Executive Producer and screenwriter Terence Winter. Terry told us about his first meeting with Scorsese to discuss the project: Marty wanted Terry to pitch him; Terry thought he was there to hear Marty’s ideas. Terry had brought wine for “dinner,” but Marty had just undergone dental surgery and eating was not on the agenda. (So now, Terry figures, Marty must think he brings a bottle of wine to all his concept meetings.)

Terry enthusiastically shared his passion for the 1920s and his approach to the HBO project. We took a few photos, which Terry said we might post here–including one with the two scribes, Winter and Johnson. (Thanks to Johanna Johnson for the former, and to Rob Colding for the group shot.)

And then it was back to Penn Station for the train ride home to South Jersey, and the wind-down of a remarkable day. Perhaps I’m a little biased, but after this experience I can easily understand why there is so much excitement brewing over this series.

It’s going to be a corker!