Boardwalk Empire’s Librarian

October 11, 2010

When Boardwalk Empire, the new series about Prohibition-era Atlantic City, debuted September 19, it had plenty of factors in its favor: an acclaimed director (Martin Scorsese), writer (Terence Winter), and network (HBO). But it also had a powerhouse researcher in its corner: Atlantic City Free Public Library’s Heather Halpin Perez.

“I was one of the historical consultants who was working at providing details about some of the sets and costumes,” Perez, archivist for the library’s Alfred M. Heston Collection of materials related to Atlantic City History, told American Libraries.

The show's head researcher, Atlantic City-born Ed McGinty (who portrays Boss Boyd on the show), discovered the library while doing other research for the show, when one of his sources recommended the archives. “We made an appointment and met up, and he loved the materials we have,” Perez said. That relationship has continued, she added, noting that McGinty still calls with questions.

The show is based on the book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson. And while the show blends fiction with fact, producers utilized the library to ensure accuracy in historic details. The newspaper that the character Nucky Thompson reads the day of Prohibition’s enactment, for example, is a replica of the actual January 16, 1920, issue of the Atlantic City Daily Press from the library’s archives. The library also helped producers closely replicate Dr. Martin Couney’s baby incubator exhibit, a popular boardwalk attraction of the era that was featured in the pilot episode.

The novelty of those baby incubators have made them a frequent subject of reference questions at the Heston Collection since the show’s premiere. Other topics that have seen an uptick in reference questions include the real-life figures the show’s characters are based on and buildings from the set. “People are seeing the show and remembering when they were younger and visited Atlantic City,” Perez said. Overall, reference questions at the Heston Collection have doubled in the past month to about 65.

The library has offered a number of programs to capitalize on public interest in the show, including author talks, a visit by McGinty to talk to the library’s film society about researching for television and about getting a television show made, a flapper-dance demonstration and class, and a screening of Boss of the Boardwalk, a documentary produced by the Press of Atlantic City about the real-life Nucky Johnson, in which Perez appears. Planned programs include a jazz concert, photo exhibit, and website.


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