Atlantic City Looking to "Boardwalk Empire" for Renaissance

Wednesday, Oct 6, 2010  |  Updated 9:08 PM EDT
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Atlantic City Looking to "Boardwalk Empire" for Renaissance

AP

This Monday, Sept. 20, 2010 photo shows people as they take a ride in a pushcart along the Boardwalk in front of Schiff's Central Pier in Atlantic City. One of the oldest structures remaining in Atlantic City, the pier was constructed in the 1880's and the art deco pavilion in the late 1920's. With critics hailing "Boardwalk Empire," the HBO series set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, as perhaps the best of the fall TV season, the 12-episode series will keep Atlantic City in the nation's consciousness far longer and better than any ad could.

What "The Sopranos" did for a pork store in northern New Jersey and "Sex and the City" did for a Manhattan cupcake shop, Atlantic City is hoping "Boardwalk Empire" does for the seaside gambling resort.

Nothing is too trivial to become a tourist trap as long as it appears in a hit TV show. "Sopranos" fans packed tour buses to visit spots like the pork store and a strip club, and girls-night-out devotees planned trips around watering holes and shoe stores featured in "Sex and the City."

Now, with "Boardwalk Empire," the HBO series set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, the resort is ready for its close-up. And with critics hailing the series as perhaps the best of the fall TV season, the 12-episode series could keep Atlantic City in the nation's consciousness far longer and better than any ad could.

"It's an hour-long commercial for Atlantic City, top-of-the mind awareness," said Don Marrandino, eastern regional president of Harrah's Entertainment Inc., which owns four of Atlantic City's 11 casinos. "People will want to come here and see it for themselves, and we need to take full advantage of that."

The attention comes not a moment too soon for the nation's second-largest gambling resort. Atlantic City is in the fourth straight year of a revenue decline brought on by competition from casinos in neighboring states, as well as a continuing poor economy that has people less willing to risk their cash at the tables and slot machines.

Its revenues, after hitting a high of $5.2 billion in 2006, fell to $3.9 billion by the end of last year and nearly 9,000 casino workers have lost their jobs since then.

Two casinos were sold this year for pennies on the dollar, and a third is widely believed to be in danger of closing, having stopped making mortgage payments more than a year ago.

In this context, the free publicity from a smash hit TV show is a godsend. Jeff Vasser, president of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, says the resort has a golden opportunity to cash in.

"I don't think HBO can do anything more than it already has done to promote this show, so there will be no excuse for us to say, 'If only they had done this or that,' " he said.

The show centers on the exploits of Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, the Steve Buscemi character based on the real-life Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, Atlantic City's political and rackets boss during Prohibition.

For 30 years, until he was finally sent to prison in 1941 for tax evasion, Johnson dominated Atlantic City — then one of the nation's leading resorts. He controlled not only the Republican political machine that had a stranglehold on government, but also made sure illegal liquor, prostitution and gambling operations flourished under the protection of paid-off officials.

The show's first episode, which aired last Sunday, introduces us to Nucky and his network of vice as he cements alliances with organized crime to make sure that Atlantic City stayed wet while the rest of the nation was officially dry. But it also showed his compassionate side, handling out cash to down-and-out families whose political loyalties were then secured for years.

In the spirit of Nucky Johnson, Atlantic City is trying to wring every last dollar out of the show with a slew of 1920s-themed promotions. Nearly 30 restaurants are offering are offering two or three-course meals priced at $19.20. Caesars Atlantic City is offering 1,920 hotel rooms for $19.20 a night. Bars are whipping up whiskey-laced "Boardwalk Empire" cocktails like "The Nucky" (whiskey, grapefruit juice, tonic water and grenadine over ice, topped by an orange wedge), and "The Boardwalk Boss" (whiskey, wet vermouth and apple brandy with a lemon peel garnish). A full list of what's available where is at http://www.atlanticcitynj.com under the heading "take the Empire restaurant tour."

For that same $19.20, Resorts Atlantic City offers hot lather straight-razor shaves just like the one Nucky enjoys in the show.

Harrah's and Canadian Club whiskey (featured in the show) are sending marketing e-mails to their 40-million-member marketing list. Even Bloomingdale's has a mock 115-foot boardwalk promoting the show at its flagship Manhattan store.

The main problem with getting fans of the show to come to Atlantic City is that "Boardwalk Empire" was actually shot on a fabricated set in New York City, with the ocean added in via computer graphics. And aside from Boardwalk Hall and a tiny handful of old hotels, not much from Nucky's era has survived along the real-life Boardwalk.

The Fralinger's salt water taffy sign, a local landmark, was shown in the first episode. Vasser hopes other present-day Atlantic City icons also will be featured, so they can be included into marketing efforts. One idea is a Prohibition Tour of local sites in Atlantic City that figured prominently in the illegal liquor trade of Nucky's day.

Pinky Kravitz, a local radio show host and tireless promoter of Atlantic City, suggests recreating the show's set on the actual Boardwalk.

"That will give people something to visit, where they can have their pictures taken and make them feel connected not only to the show but to Atlantic City," he said.

But because Nucky is no longer handing out fistfuls of $100 bills, someone would have to pay for it.

"Pinky's idea is a good one," Vasser said, "and he wants HBO to pay for it, which makes it a great one."

Tobe Becker, an HBO spokeswoman, said the network "will consider any and all ideas" to promote the show, but said it is too early to say whether Kravitz's suggestion is practical.

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