ATLANTIC CITY - A few weeks ago, as Boardwalk Empire anticipation reached a froth worthy of the surf that washes up whiskey bottles around Steve Buscemi's feet, an idea was kicked around town.
"We'll have a Nucky tour," said Jeff Vasser, head of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority. He was referring to former Atlantic County treasurer Enoch L. "Nucky" Johnson, renamed Thompson by HBO, who ruled Prohibition A.C. with a red carnation and a fist full of bills.
A little tricky, perhaps, in a place where so many 1920s landmarks have been torn down and where Nucky Johnson himself - imprisoned for tax evasion, known for a compassionate brand of corruption and gangster hospitality - is a beloved but dubious figure.
So far, and it's early, no official Nucky tour has emerged. To help matters along, we offer our own best Nucky Tour, a fanciful trip through the world of Boardwalk Empire as it exists - or no longer exists, or, perhaps, never existed - in current-day Atlantic City.
1. Incubator Babies walk among us. One of the signature pieces of the faux Boardwalk set HBO constructed in Brooklyn is the Incubator Baby store. Nucky Thompson is drawn there in melancholy reverie, a place where for 25 cents you can see actual premature babies in actual, and recently invented, incubators.
Sounds crazy, no?
Well, the beauty of Atlantic City - then and now - is how the weird is intricately woven into the normal. There really were incubator babies. If you start your in-search-of-Nucky-tour in Ventnor, at the law offices of Frank J. Ferry on Atlantic Avenue, you can find one in pink-clad secretary Carol-Anne Heinisch, 68.
She was an incubator baby on the Boardwalk (in the summer of 1942). A preemie, she spent two months inside the storefront across from the Million Dollar Pier (now Caesars) set up by the inventor of the incubators, in part to raise money, in part to show off his invention, and in part to expose the fragile newborns to the healing effects of the salt air. (They kept the windows open.) "It didn't bother me," says Heinisch. "What did I know?"
2. Notes from Nucky. Heinisch's boss, Ferry, almost 80, was an acquaintance of Nucky's and did legal work for him. He's written a biography of Johnson and has an album full of Johnson's scribbled notes. While hard to read, they paint a picture of the real Johnson's mind at work, always dashing off instructions. ("Important that arrangements made for firemen to be relieved on election day . . .")
Ferry, who also has Depression-era scrip signed by Nucky, is not a big fan of the show - Buscemi is too different from the 6-foot-4, deep-voiced Nucky, and the depiction of Atlantic City much more violent. (In particular, Nucky's real brother was mild-mannered - unlike the show's Sheriff Elias Thompson, who rules Atlantic City as if it were 1930s Berlin.)
3. They grew blueberries, didn't they? If there's one surprise town to get a star turn on the show, it's Hammonton. Though the pilot shows Hammonton's "Blueberry Capital of the World" sign, peaches were really Hammonton's cash crop in the '20s. Included as a nod to Hammonton resident Nelson Johnson, author of the nonfiction book that inspired the show, the burg is the scene of some nasty HBO roadside murders. Unfortunately, the town experienced a weird life-imitating-art moment late last month, when a body was found beaten and burned in a car near the White Horse Pike, leading to rampant and paranoid speculation on various gossipy town websites.
4. Speaking of Nelson Johnson. The author of the book is an Atlantic County Superior Court judge and can usually be found in Courtroom 2F in the civil courthouse at 1201 Bacharach Blvd. One day last week, he was reaming out a lawyer: "How do you depose a witness? You don't use a cleaver or a saw, you use a scalpel." Just don't ask Johnson to talk about the HBO series or his book; the state judiciary has muzzled him while deciding if promoting the book violates any judicial code.
5. Putting on the Ritz. While many of the sites on HBO's Boardwalk no longer exist, the centerpiece of it all - the Ritz-Carlton where Nucky and his entourage took up an entire floor - is still there, between Iowa and Belmont Avenues. Luxurious in its day, its square brick and masonry flourishes did not interest HBO, which modeled its Nucky hotel after more fanciful ones like the Marlborough-Blenheim.
"They really jazzed it up," said Brian Smith, manager of what is now the Ritz Condominiums, where a ninth-floor bedroom sports mauve walls, not HBO blue, and lacks HBO's wide ocean views. "But this is the real deal."
City Council this week shot down a proposal to rename the block of Belmont Avenue alongside the Ritz as Nucky's Way. "He didn't actually murder anyone," City Councilman Dennis Mason opined, to no avail. But you can still find a historical marker on the Boardwalk at Iowa Avenue that shows a photo of Nucky walking with two gangsters - a photo Johnson insisted had been doctored. Check the shadows.
Most like the HBO Ritz is the long corridor leading from the Boardwalk, where Nucky Thompson often walks pensively to the elevator. But rather than the chichi French dress shop off the hallway, where the widow Schroeder works her Nucky-arranged job dressing his naked fictional gal (Paz de la Huerta), the real Ritz has a Burger King.
6. Baltic by the what? In episode three, a character refers to living at a flophouse at Baltic Avenue just off the ocean, which is puzzling, since Baltic Avenue runs parallel to the Boardwalk and doesn't reach all the way to the inlet, at least in present-day Atlantic City. Never mind. While rooting around for all those other not-quite-there inlet addresses mentioned on the show (101 Arctic, 315 Adriatic, 90 Baltic), you can ponder the liquor delivered via the inlet and to Brigantine, and you can stop at Tony Baloney's for a Nucky's BBQ White Pie. Rum-running sites can be found off the back bays and inner waterways of Ventnor, particularly 24 N. Cornwall Ave., which Nucky is said to have owned briefly and which may have once been a speakeasy.
7. What's no longer here, what's still here. Babette's Supper Club, an HBO Boardwalk centerpiece, used to be at 2211 Pacific Ave., now a Trump Plaza parking lot (though topless girls, ubiquitous in the show, can be found nearby). If you're looking to eat what HBO Nucky serves at his birthday bash - roast beef, rack of lamb, oysters on the half shell, lobster, and French wine - you'd do better to head for the Knife and Fork, also mentioned on the show, the real deal. Fralinger's, the saltwater taffy shop shown umpteen times on HBO, can be found on the Boardwalk at Tennessee Avenue; it's Steel's Fudge that occupies the storefront at the Ritz.
There are no longer stables in Atlantic City (where Chalky White, the lead African American character, oversees a liquor operation, and the site of a lynching). But Atlantic City's segregated history is well-known: Chicken Bone Beach, between Ohio and Missouri, was an African American beach from 1900 to the 1950s. If the series emerges from the cold of early 1920, perhaps it will show up.
The bustling lit-up entertainment piers are long transformed. The Million Dollar Pier not far from the Ritz is now a financially strapped Pier Shops (and no longer features the famous Capt. Young Fish Haul that seems to have inspired the fish and body scene from the pilot). The ocean - digitized on the show - is as nifty as ever, still bringing in pieces of sea glass if not whole whiskey bottles. Unlike in Nucky's day, the view from the Boardwalk is blocked by man-made sand dunes, which Gov. Christie has vowed to dismantle.
8. True history buffs. You would do well to visit the collections at the Atlantic City Library, the Historical Museum at the Garden Pier or Princeton Antiques on Atlantic Avenue. Or, perhaps, beginning in December, the Resorts Casino, with its new 1920s theme.
9. And in the end . . . Nucky died Dec. 9, 1968, and was buried in Egg Harbor Township, off Zion Road, across from the Zion Methodist Church, in a granite mausoleum with patinaed copper doors. Fittingly, both his wives are alongside: Flossie, the showgirl he married the day before going to jail, and Mabel, whose early death haunts the Buscemi character on HBO. The mausoleum - with the names Johnson-Shimp - also holds the remains of his parents. Inside are dead flowers and an old Styrofoam cross.
It looks as if nobody has visited in years.
See a video of Nucky Johnson's Atlantic City at http://go.philly.com/nucky