by Nancy Mattoon, Contributing Author
Originally posted October 1, 2010 on the blog Booktryst A Nest for Book Lovers http://www.booktryst.com
Gangsters, gambling, graft, guns, booze, broads, burlesque, bootlegging, cops, corruption, crime, casinos... and a librarian?!? That's right. If you're enjoying HBO's new mobster epic set in the Roaring 20's, Boardwalk Empire then raise a glass of bathtub gin to Heather Halpin Perez and the Atlantic City Free Public Library. Without them, the show might not exist.
Perez is the archivist for the Alfred M. Heston Collection of local history materials at the New Jersey library, which has extensive collections of papers, scrapbooks, photographs, postcards, music, memorabilia, maps, and books about Atlantic City. Using these rare materials, she helped legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese (who directed the premiere episode, and is also an executive producer for the series) and his crew of production designers, set designers, property masters, and costume designers, accurately recreate New Jersey's original Sin City, circa 1920. Perez's help with the series even earned her billing as a "historical consultant" in the credits.
Perez and her library were also instrumental in providing resources for Atlantic County Judge Nelson Johnson, author of the book on which the HBO series is based, Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City (2002). He has also written a forthcoming book about the black community in Atlantic City, The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City (November, 2010), with Perez providing much of the necessary research material.
Perez holds a library degree from the University of Maryland College Park, where she specialized in archival work, and landed the job at the Atlantic City Free Public Library fresh out of school in 2006. As a librarian and archivist, Perez laughs that despite her new-found fame, she doesn't "do it for the glamour." Her task is to provide relevant contemporary newspaper articles, images, historical records, and other documents that will assist the series creators in painting as accurately as possible the local scene in its early 20th century glory.
Fully realizing that actual events may at times give way to dramatic license, Perez notes that "It's historical fiction. So they’ve taken some liberties. … They're depicting it much more violently than it was (then)." She fondly recalls the excitement when the crew finally arrived in Atlantic City for some on-location work on the real Boardwalk: "They were really awed. They’d been on the set (on a Brooklyn sound stage) the whole time. It was fun to show them the real end of things."
Boardwalk Empire, which has already been picked up for a second season, is a down and dirty chronicle of the gangster era in Atlantic City. The show opens on January 16, 1920, the exact date the 18th Amendment's Prohibition statutes went into effect. This historical epic centers on Atlantic City boss Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, the "County Treasurer who lives like a Pharaoh," as head of the notoriously corrupt Republican political machine. The character, played by actor Steve Buscemi, is based on the real boss of AC at the time, Enoch "Nucky" Johnson. (His name was changed to free the writers from the sometimes too-tight constraints of history. )
The real Atlantic City, "basically ignored" Prohibition, says Perez, instead reveling in an illegal empire founded on "booze, broads and gambling." Atlantic City, dubbed "The World's Playground" was the perfect location for corruption and graft, and Nucky Johnson knew that he and his associates were almost literally sitting on a goldmine: the huge untapped market in newly illegal hooch. Johnson, like his fictional counterpart, was "as corrupt as the day is long." Perez notes that, for him, bootlegging was nothing more than, "an opportunity to make money. He controlled the city police, so everybody paid him, and he paid the police... The tourists were happy because they were getting what they wanted. It was a seasonal resort town, and people came here to have a good time."
In the fictional Boardwalk Empire, Atlantic City boss Thompson solidifies his power by pandering to the needs of his constituents. In the second episode of the series, Nucky is asked by a local woman he has assisted, financially and otherwise--he had her abusive husband beaten and killed--what she can do to repay him. "I want you to...vote Republican," he tersely replies. As the real-life Nucky said, "We always gave the people what they wanted." (For his career-long "generosity," Johnson, who became boss in 1916, was sentenced to "a dime" in prison for income tax evasion--the same crime that finally did in Al Capone-- in 1941. He served half that time, was paroled in 1945, and pleaded a pauper's oath, to avoid paying his $20,000 fine.)
Just as in real life, in Boardwalk Empire the government is interested in ending Nucky Thompson's reign as Atlantic City's Kingpin. Alarms are immediately raised by Nucky's excessive lifestyle: the chauffeured Rolls, the bespoke suits (always with his trademark red carnation in the lapel), and his unconventional office: the entire eighth-floor of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Thompson is ostensibly a simple county public servant, but even the Prohibition Agents can see that he's "a bigger fish" than out-and-out gangster Arnold Rothstein.
In conjunction with the series, the Atlantic City Free Public Library presented a screening of Boss of the Boardwalk, a documentary on the real Nucky Johnson, created by local reporter Dan Good (Perez was among those interviewed.) This film can now be viewed on the Press of Atlantic City's Boardwalk Empire blog. Heather Halpin Perez says that the popularity of the series can be gauged by the fact that "My phone rings nonstop." She beams with justifiable pride at her key contributions to the show and says, "It was a chance to let Atlantic City shine, and that’s really what my job is about."