No Need to Speakeasy

'Boardwalk Empire,' Repeal Day and the joys of Wild West living during Prohibition

boardwalk empire

Steve Buscemi: Boardwalk Empire’s jolly booze elf. | Illustration by Christopher A. Jones

We’re now a full four seasons through Boardwalk Empire, and it’s still, bafflingly, not cracking the critical circles of Breaking Bad and Mad Men as the Greatest Show Currently on Television (or, you know, until-very-recently on television).

Early on, the show got dinged for a lack of subtlety. It was a fair point in the first couple of seasons, but let’s not all sit around and pretend like The Departed didn’t win an Oscar even with its “The rat symbolizes obviousness!” end scene.

Some will tell you Boardwalk Empire is slow. That’s when I pack up my tent, stick my fingers in my ears and run away yelling, “La, la, la, I can’t hear you,” while wearing a gray suit and red bow tie. It might, at this point, be important to note I’m training to play Pee-wee Herman at the Fremont Street Experience’s “photo with a near-hobo” character gallery.

The show has always had a tremendous body count, and a certain fearlessness about bumping off major characters not rivaled since The Sopranos. That’s unsurprising given the shared DNA with that series through creator Terence Winter. It also has Tommy guns, and it’s a scientific fact: X2/run time=fun quotient, where X=Tommy guns.

Boardwalk might not be quite as successful as Mad Men in teasing out the internal psychological angst of its characters, and it might not have Breaking Bad’s breakneck clockwork plotting, but it twists its way through a delicate middle ground between those two shows. (And also, did I mention the Tommy guns?) The central tension between the need to run a business and the need for that business to drop bodies is what drove Nucky Thompson through the first two seasons, and continues to reverberate out through the show. There was never any shyness about the bloody price of Prohibition. Hell, it’s an era that gave us America’s favorite massacre: St. Valentine’s Day. (Sorry, Boston Massacre and also baseball’s Boston Massacre.)

Ending the reign of exquisitely dressed buttonmen is half the reason that ratification of the 21st Amendment 80 years ago, on December 5, 1933, was the greatest early Christmas gift the country ever received. (It was certainly better than the December 14, 1976, presentation of Bicentennial socks to a nation that could barely feign its gratitude.)

The other half was being able to have actual booze at actual Christmas. Looks like America was extra good that year, and Santa came twice. Also, Santa apparently isn’t going to hold ultra-violent Chicago turf wars against you on the naughty list. Take note, kids.

But before repeal, Las Vegas got maybe the second-best Christmas gift out of that woeful-albeit-jazzy era of violence, greed and fringe-bedecked libertinism. In a December 24, 1930, United Press piece in the Review-Journal, a Page 1 headline read “Xmas Cheer To Flow Freely In Nevada–Brady.”

That’s right. The feds called off the dogs for Christmas. Tidings of comfort and joy. (Is the “Comfort and Joy” a cocktail? It should be. Get on that, city’s legion of bartenders who wish they were born in 19-Aught-9.)

George W. Brady was the Prohibition administrator for Nevada at the time, and said that even though his agents “will go about their work in the customary manner”—raiding speakeasies when they had overwhelming evidence to do so—they wouldn’t engage over the holidays in what the paper dubbed “spectacular dry raids.”

Apparently the prohis working out of California had a habit of crossing state lines to bust up Nevada speaks. They were California’s “flying squadron” and had just recently snuck into Reno to raid the Alpine Club, make an arrest and then hightail it back to the Golden State. The Bureau of Prohibition was a federal affair, organized at the time into 27 districts. California had two, while Utah, Arizona and Nevada all shared one district.

Brady wasn’t down with the way things were handled in the California districts, and told United Press: “Speaking for myself, I do not believe in spectacular raids, which raise a lot of fuss and excitement. The people of Nevada are undoubtedly wet, and this sort of work would only antagonize them and hamper our work. When the agents from my department make a raid and arrest, we have a cinch case against the defendant. We have not lost a case in court for a long time. Most of the men whom we wrest for dry law violations, realize our case is perfect against them and plead guilty.”

That probably explains why by 1931, when it came time to conduct one of the biggest raids in Nevada, Col. George Seavers, assistant Prohibition director for California’s northern district, was tapped to lead the squad of some 50-odd prohis to go shut down every speak they could get their grubby little booze-hating paws on.

Seavers was more adamant about making Las Vegas bend a dry knee, but history is kinder to the guy who backs off on a lousy law when people are in a mood to celebrate. Brady would’ve made a terrible Boardwalk Empire character—occupational apathy makes for lousy drama—but his Christmas gift (“Booze without going to jail? How did you know? It’s just what I wanted!”) is both what and how I’ll be celebrating this holiday season. Repeatedly.

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