Read an Excerpt
The Boardwalk Empire A-Z
By John Wallace
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2012 John Wallace
All rights reserved.
Greg Antonacci is a multi-talented New Yorker who has been extremely active in the entertainment industry since the 1970s. Acting is only one of the strings to his bow: Antonacci is also an experienced director, writer and producer. He has also been involved in the theatre world. In 1975 he wrote, composed for and starred in the Broadway musical Dance with Me, which ran for almost a year and was nominated for three Tony Awards.
Although his writing and producing keeps him busy, his acting résumé is still impressive. Before playing mob boss Johnny Torrio in Boardwalk Empire, Antonacci was Butch DeConcini in nine episodes of the final season of The Sopranos. During his time on the show he worked with both Terence Winter and Tim Van Patten. His other previous acting credits include the short-lived series Makin' It and playing Vinnie Morabito in the comedy Busting Loose, both of which aired in the 1970s.
With his producer hat on, he has created a variety of television shows as diverse as The Blues Brothers – The Animated Series and the popular Brothers, a comedy that ran for five seasons about a former kicker for the Philadelphia Eagles who opens a restaurant. He has also produced a series created by Eddie Murphy called The Royal Family. The show was initially popular but suffered a crippling blow when one of its lead actors, the comedian Redd Foxx, died midway through production.
When you add to this his numerous writing and directing credits, it is clear that Antonacci is a man of many talents. With a strong performance in The Sopranos and an ongoing role in Boardwalk Empire, he seems to be enjoying a real revival as an actor. He threw himself into the role of Johnny Torrio, researching his character and looking into the realities of life during Prohibition. He presented the Chicago part of HBO's Speakeasy Tour, visiting the site of Torrio's old headquarters, the Four Deuces, as well as the Green Mill, the Green Door Tavern and other drinking dens of the era. Vincent Piazza and Michael Stuhlbarg, who play Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein in the show, present the New York segment of the tour. The 25-minute documentary can be found online and is well worth watching.
Antonacci has been married twice. His first wife was Annie Potts, an actress who has starred in Ghostbusters and voices Bo Peep in the Toy Story movies. His second wife, Lynda Costanzo, is also an actress.
Considering that the real Torrio did not die until he was well into his seventies, we can safely assume that Antonacci is going to remain a firm fixture in Terence Winter's show.
Speaking to ABC, he said that working with Scorsese was a real privilege. 'There are directors who create an atmosphere in which you can do good work; Marty creates an atmosphere in which it is impossible not to do good work,' he said. 'And his energy is incredible ... it's infectious. [...] You'll do a take, it's two in the morning – you've been there from five the morning before – and he'll come over and he'll go: "Cut. Print. Perfect! Perfect! Let's do a few more."'
See also: Four Deuces, Johnny Torrio
Atlantic City stands on Absecon Island, a thin stretch of land on the southern New Jersey shore. Its original inhabitants were the Lenni-Lenape Indians, who would spend the summer months there. They called it Absegami, or 'Little Sea Water'.
The first recorded owner was an Englishman, Thomas Budd, who bought the land in the second half of the 17th century. Although a few permanent structures were built and a small community developed, it did not look set to develop into anything more until a former doctor and politician by the name of Jonathan Pitney decided to create a 'city by the sea'.
Development on any real scale was futile until visitors had a way to actually get to Absecon Island in the first place. Along with railway manager Richard Osborne, Pitney campaigned tirelessly for a line to be built, but convincing the legislators was no easy task. As one of them said: 'Whoever heard of a railway with only one end?' On Independence Day 1854, after years of hard work, the Camden and Atlantic Railroad opened to the public. Finally, there was a link from Philadelphia to the town that Pitney had worked so untiringly to establish. By 1874, just 20 years later, close to half a million people were visiting every year.
The resort's first hotel was owned by the railroad company, but soon lodgings were springing up at a remarkable rate. In Boardwalk Empire, the book that inspired the series, author Nelson Johnson says that Osborne recalls that the developers accepted the suggestion of the name 'Atlantic City' immediately. The first boardwalk was built in 1870, originally as a purely practical measure rather than an attraction, and soon became the defining feature of the town. That same year, a road connecting Atlantic City to the mainland opened officially.
Over the next 30 years the town mushroomed. Ballrooms, exhibition halls, yet more hotels, and the self-billed 'showcase of the nation' – the famous steel pier – had all sprung up by the turn of the century. Its permanent population grew from barely 2,000 to around 30,000. Many of them were blue-collar construction workers and their families. With widespread reports of the 'purifying power' of the sea air, tourists arrived in droves. Then, in turn, came a great number of emancipated African Americans; with so many summer visitors, Atlantic City needed plenty of waiters, bellboys and other unskilled workers.
But soon the city that had been conceived as a wholesome seaside resort – little more than a sanatorium with a view – came to develop a sordid side. In Nelson Johnson's book – a fantastic history of Atlantic City that is well worth a read – he mentions an exposé that was published in the Philadelphia Bulletin in 1890. The newspaper named and shamed 100 brothels that they had discovered in the resort. 'What community would hail, as a blessing, or as an evidence of prosperity, the establishment of a vile brothel in its midst?' the article read. 'There are more than 100 of these dens of infamy in Atlantic City. Just think of it – 100 such places in a city of this size!' And as well as the whorehouses, Atlantic City was not short of gambling dens and bars. As Ed McGinty, a research advisor on the show, put it in an HBO interview: 'Gambling was wide open, prostitution was wide open ... and particularly alcohol was wide open.'
During this period, one of the most prominent and respected citizens was Louis Kuehnle, who became the de facto boss of the city in 1900. He ruled until 1913, when he was sentenced to a year's hard labour. The crown then passed to his protégé, Nucky Johnson.
The 1920s was a golden age for Atlantic City. Under the rule of its benevolent dictator, Nucky Johnson, it made the most of its standing as a wet city in a dry country. Thirsty visitors from all over the East Coast flocked there. Turiya S. A. Raheem, the author of Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City, said: 'Prohibition didn't happen in Atlantic City. Atlantic City ignored the laws, like "That's for the rest of the country".'
The boardwalk became a 'second Broadway', with some of the biggest names in show business appearing on a regular basis. Eddie Cantor, who is a feature of the first season of Boardwalk Empire, was just one of the many big names who played in Atlantic City's theatres. Bob Hope, W. C. Fields, Abbott and Costello, Bing Crosby and Ed Sullivan all played in some of the 20-plus theatres that stood in the city that had become known as 'the world's playground'. To Nucky and his friends, it must have felt like the good times would never end.
Then came Black Tuesday, the devastating Wall Street Crash of October 1929. Tourism declined significantly across America and, as it was the backbone of Atlantic City's economy, the city really suffered. Hot on the heels of the crash (and not entirely coincidentally) came the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. One of the resort's biggest draws disappeared overnight. Still, with an established vice industry in place, Nucky and the city continued to make money during the 1930s.
When Nucky was sent off to prison in 1941 – or 'college' as he called it – the leadership passed to his associate Frank 'Hap' Farley, who continued as the city's leading figure for three decades. Although Atlantic City's fame as a resort declined significantly during his time, this should not be seen as a reflection as his leadership. He was known as a good-natured and decent man who was extremely loyal to his friends. He was nicknamed 'Happy', which was later shortened to 'Hap'.
Farley was born in 1901, the youngest of 10 children to a poor family that lived in the Northside of Atlantic City, near the red light district. He was a keen sportsman, even playing semi-professional baseball for a time, and got involved in politics only when he started to campaign for better facilities for young athletes. He became friends with Herman 'Stumpy' Orman, one of Nucky's key lieutenants, and quickly learned about the unusual political system in Atlantic City.
The period after the Second World War saw the rise of the affordable car. Without being restricted by the railroads, ordinary Americans were suddenly able to holiday anywhere they liked. 'All across the country new vacation centers sprang up, competing for tourists' dollars,' Nelson Johnson writes. 'In contrast, Atlantic City wasn't accustomed to competing for visitors and was anything but modern. [...] As one national news magazine observed, "Today, aside from conventioneers, the typical Atlantic City tourist is either poor, Black, elderly, or all three. [...] the picture which emerges is one of steady physical, economic, and social deterioration."' Nevertheless, Atlantic City remained a hotspot for entertainment, with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis all performing there fairly frequently.
Still, it wasn't enough to revive the struggling resort and, by the end of the 1960s, the situation had deteriorated further. With fewer and fewer visitors, many of the resort's hotels closed, some of them reinventing themselves as nursing homes.
Atlantic City enjoyed a small revival when, in 1976, the citizens of New Jersey voted in favour of casino gambling in the resort. During the 1970s and 80s, the reputation of Las Vegas, the undisputed casino capital of America, was tarnished by organised crime, and this bolstered the numbers willing to try their luck at the tables of Atlantic City. The resort began to flounder again in the early 1990s, partly due to a major redevelopment of Las Vegas. Since then, there have been a number of progressive and ambitious attempts to breathe new life into Nucky's town.
'Jonathan Pitney's beach village remains an experiment in social planning grounded in tourism,' Nelson Johnson observes in his book. Terence Winter, in his foreword to the 2010 edition, says that Atlantic City in the 1920s was 'a place of real Americans, a melting pot of ideas and cultures'.
You can still walk the boardwalk today, just as Nucky did. Atlantic City has changed a lot since his heyday, of course, but you can still see the Ritz Carlton (now converted into flats – have a look at their website: www.ritzac.com) and the Conference Hall, take a ride in the rolling chairs, and try some salt water taffy.
When Boardwalk Empire aired in September 2010, the hotel and casino Caesars in Atlantic City put up a large billboard of the show's logo in its lobby. It marked the beginning of a new interest in the resort, fuelled by the HBO series. In January 2011, CBS News reported that 'Atlantic City is going retro, embracing the Roaring Twenties in a big way'.
'Things were rockin' down here,' said Don Marrandino, eastern regional president of Caesars Entertainment. 'We need to get that back.' Hotels and casinos along the boardwalk are now offering Prohibition-era cocktails and even shaves with a straight razor ... you can't help but feel that Nucky would be right at home.
See also: Atlantic City Conference of 1929, Babette's Supper Club, Walter Edge, Incubators, Beauty Pageants and Midget Boxing, Louis Kuehnle, Enoch 'Nucky' Johnson, Nelson Johnson, Rolling Chairs
The Atlantic City Conference of 1929
This event may well have defined organised crime in the United States; it is also so shrouded in mystery that some historians doubt that it ever took place.
The conference came out of the Seven Group, an association of East Coast gangs that controlled the majority of the illegal liquor business in the area. The group was the brainchild of Lucky Luciano and Mayer Lansky. Needless to say, Nucky Johnson was one of the seven members.
The Seven Group was an instant success and Luciano was keen to expand to create a nationwide network of gangs. He therefore decided to organise a conference to bring all of the major players together. Of course, choosing the right venue was vital – it had to be somewhere where a large group of infamous criminals could visit without drawing too much attention to themselves, somewhere where the local law enforcement would turn a blind eye. The answer was obvious: Atlantic City, Nucky's town.
The conference was held in the second week of May 1929. Among the attendees were Johnny Torrio, Al Capone, Frank Nitti, Dutch Schultz, Mayer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, members of Detroit's Purple Gang, and representatives from other major cities including Boston, New Orleans and Kansas City.
There was an awkward moment early on when the Breakers Hotel in Atlantic City – a 450-room establishment which overlooked the boardwalk – refused to accommodate the delegates. The hotel was strictly for WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) and the staff at the front desk took one look at the gangsters and turned them away. In Nelson Johnson's book he quotes a passage from Luciano's autobiography, The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano, in which the mobster detailed what happened next:
A hurried call to Nucky Johnson, a quick call by him, and then the fleet of limousines pulled out of the Breakers driveway and headed for the President Hotel. Before they arrived, Nucky Johnson, resplendent as usual with a red carnation in his lapel, joined the cavalcade. When Capone spotted him, he brought the parade to a halt in the middle of the street. Nucky and Al had it out right there in the open [...] both of 'em had voices like foghorns. I think you could've heard them in Philadelphia, and there wasn't a decent word passed between them. [...] Capone is screamin' at him that he had made bad arrangements so Nucky picks Al up under one arm and throws him into his car and yells, 'All you fuckers, follow me!'
Despite this rocky start, Capone and Nucky made up and, it is said, had dinner together that night in the Italian neighbourhood of the city.
The conference proved to be a great success, establishing the foundation for the Syndicate that divided the whole of the US into territories and laid down a basic structure within which the gangs could operate.
See also: Atlantic City, Al Capone, Enoch 'Nucky' Johnson, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, Johnny TorrioCHAPTER 2
Babette's Supper Club
This was a hugely popular venue on Atlantic City's boardwalk, and is one of the most lavish of the locations seen in the series. During its heyday, Babette's was one of the most fashionable nightspots in the whole country, attracting visitors from across America.
Although the bar – which was well known for its cocktails – and the club's impressive entertainment line-up were deservedly famous, they were not in fact the most financially successful aspect of the business. 'The owners didn't care if they turned a profit on the nightclubs,' Nelson Johnson points out in his book Boardwalk Empire. 'The reason for having them was to attract business to their gambling casinos.' In Atlantic City: 125 Years of Ocean Madness, Vicki Gold Levi and Lee Eisenberg say that: 'At Babette's [...] horseplayers, cardplayers, and high rollers of every persuasion hobnobbed with the Vanderbilts, the Astors, and political figures.'
The nightclub was originally called the Golden Inn but that changed when the owner, Dan Stebbins, married Blanche Babbitt, a former showgirl. When she became proprietor, she renamed the club, using her old stage name: Babette.
Excerpted from The Boardwalk Empire A-Z by John Wallace. Copyright © 2012 John Wallace. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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