April 23, 2014

Archivist Puts the History in Historical Drama “Boardwalk Empire”

Archivist Heather Halpin Perez has become something of a celebrity since HBO’s hit show about Prohibition-era Atlantic City, Boardwalk Empire, launched in 2010. But Perez, who manages the Alfred M. Heston Collection at the Atlantic City Free Public Library, says the work she does for the show is just another part of her job.

“I’m not under contract to HBO,” she says. “They were kind to put me in the credits, but I’m not on the payroll.”

HBOs Jim Sutch left and Heather Halpin Perez Archivist Puts the History in Historical Drama “Boardwalk Empire”

HBO’s Jim Sutch, left, and Heather Halpin Perez

Perez is the only full time staffer in the Heston Room, assisted by two part-timers. She also puts in time on the library’s general reference desk. But a few times a month, Perez helps suss out the historical details that make Boardwalk Empire so believable. Atlantic City native Ed McGinty does the historical research for the show’s writers, and he often calls on Perez to help him verify details or supply believable scenery. For example, Perez used materials in the Heston Collection to confirm that there was at least one black business owner on the boardwalk in the 1920s. This lends credibility to the show’s Chalky White character.

But the show is not meant to be one hundred percent accurate, Perez explains. It’s a fictionalized account of what life was like in the 1920s along the boardwalk. “The violence in the show was definitely not here in Atlantic City,” she says.

With shooting about to begin for season four, Perez recently helped to pull together details for the years 1924 and 1925. She answered a lot of questions about the physical make-up of Atlantic City, like the approximate date when the first streetlights were put up near the boardwalk. “We can usually give a good guess even if we can’t give an exact answer,” she says. Perez points out that she doesn’t normally divulge details about the reference questions she receives, but HBO has given her permission to talk about the reference work she does for the show.

Boardwalk Empire has stimulated the public’s interest in Atlantic City history. The number of reference questions Perez receives about the 1920s has gone up dramatically, and traffic is increasing on the library’s local history website, The Atlantic City Experience.

It’s even possible that Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, the historical figure who inspired the show, had a library card, since the Atlantic City Free Public Library has been around since 1905. (Perez looked through old circulation records but wasn’t able to find evidence that Johnson visited the library.)

According to Gary Price, editor of LJ’s INFOdocket.com, Perez isn’t the only tie Boardwalk Empire has to the world of librarianship. The show is based on a book published by librarian news publisher Info Today, and it remains the company’s top-selling title of all time.

Meanwhile, on screen and in the history books are not the only places that Atlantic City has been experiencing dramatic events. Perez and her colleagues are relieved that Hurricane Sandy didn’t damage the library’s collections. “There were a few cracked windows, but no water got in,” said Perez. The library building, which dates to the 1980s, was elevated slightly to avoid storm surge, and the staff is adept at preparing for coastal storms. “We have a great disaster plan in place,” Perez added. The library is putting out a public call for storm photos and oral history accounts of the hurricane and the clean-up efforts.

While the library chronicles today for future historians (and, perhaps, filmmakers), Boardwalk Empire continues undisturbed: the show is filmed on a set in Brooklyn, NY, so the storm’s damage to the current-day Atlantic City boardwalk won’t derail the show’s filming.

Perez is content with her starring role in the archives, and told LJ that she has no ambitions to appear on the show. “I don’t know that I have the face for TV,” she says with a laugh. If the writers add a librarian character at some point, Perez says she hopes they’ll find someone with hair that will look better in a classic librarian bun.

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