Magic City Brings Mad Men Era Mob Drama to STARZ
BY TOM AUSTIN
Walking through the set of Magic City, the new STARZ network drama set in 1958 Miami debuting April 6, is like taking a stroll through a terminally glamorous slice of local history. Midcentury Miami Beach was the aesthetic forerunner of Las Vegas, where heavy hitters wore white dinner jackets and escorted mink-draped showgirls to Frank Sinatra’s midnight show, when the underworld met the elite, and high and low mixed with a certain glossy style. The 340,000-square-foot production studio, built near the Miami International Airport, provides a skinny-dip into that 1950s fantasyland, centered around the fictional Miramar Playa Hotel, which serves as the show’s equivalent of the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc hotels, both designed by the late Morris Lapidus. The Fontainebleau, in particular, was the epicenter of the Miami Beach elite and Mafia society, both using the ornate lobby as glorified catwalks to flaunt their prominence and clout. The portico of the Magic City set is made for the arrival of big-finned, gas-guzzling pink Cadillacs, and the lobby has another over-the-top prop, a massive chandelier that used to hang in the Eden Roc.
Magic City was created by Mitch Glazer, a hometown boy who went to Miami Beach Senior High School with Mickey Rourke, Roy Firestone, and Desmond Child. Glazer—also responsible for writing Scrooged, starring Bill Murray, and The Recruit, with Colin Farrell—grew up on Miami Beach’s Hibiscus Island. His father was an electrical engineer who worked for Lapidus, Ben Novack, and then the owner of the Fontainebleau. For Glazer, who hasn’t lived in Miami since high school, Magic City provided a chance to bring back the time of his youth: “The set of the Miramar Playa is a composite of all my fantasies, all the hotels my dad worked on,” he says. “Miami Beach was a small town then. My grandfather used to play the balalaika with his friends, other Russian Jews, at Lummus Park, and we re-created that time in Magic City. As a kid, I went to Hoffman’s Cafeteria, where Jerry’s Famous Deli is now, on Española Way and Collins. We set a scene at Jerry’s, too, which looks just like Hoffman’s.”
Magic City represents everything the old Beach was—and more. It’s an intoxicating mix of gangsters, sex, intrigue, brand-new money, and pure just-for-the-hell-of-it glitz. On the set, a graceful staircase is flanked by shimmering tiles, echoing the Fontainebleau’s famed “staircase to nowhere.” The fictional hotel’s Sea Breeze Lingerie Shop is equipped with a bookie operation behind the back door. Autographed photos of Zsa Zsa Gabor and boxer Floyd Patterson adorn the owner’s office. The Atlantis Lounge has a vintage jukebox, gold columns, and portholes that look into a swimming pool.
In Magic City, the Miramar Playa is ruled by Ike Evans, a family man who has been forced to make a deal with the Mob to stay afloat. He’s played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who also starred in Watchmen and enjoyed a stint on Grey’s Anatomy. In the first episode, Ike is throwing an epic New Year’s Eve party featuring a Frank Sinatra concert and guests that include John Kennedy and Kim Novak. To thwart a union leader who’s threatening to lead a strike and shut the hotel down, he reluctantly calls on his not-so-silent partner, mobster Ben “The Butcher” Diamond. In the series, Glazer has created a Miami Beach that blends high style with all the darkness of that era.
To Morgan, however, both the past and present Miami Beach are entirely new worlds. “I’d never been to Miami before this show,” he says, “and hanging out here has been interesting, especially the characters we met.” Yul Vazquez, who plays Victor Lazaro, the Cuban general manager of the Miramar Playa, “is a brilliant actor and also has great insights on Miami,” says Morgan. (Vazquez spent time here as a child and keeps an apartment on South Beach.) “And Mitch is amazing. We’ve done scenes at the Deauville Beach Resort, which he says is like it was when he worked there as a cabana boy.”
As for Ike Evans’s plight, Morgan looks to Miami history. “My character has a bit of Ben Novack from the Fontainebleau,” he says. “The real history is incredible, with hookers, bookies working out of the hotel, and Meyer Lansky trying to bring casino gambling to Miami after Batista fell in Cuba. CIA agents actually met in the hotel’s Boom Boom Room to talk about hits on Castro. It was so open and free, a no-holds-barred kind of place. Novack, when he found out his wife was having an affair, went in and shot up the Fontainebleau in a crazy Wild, Wild West moment.”
But then, reality often beats fiction in Miami. The 2009 murders of Ben Novack Jr. and his mother, Bernice Novack, are complete with kinky sex and plenty of intrigue. Narcy Novack, an ex-stripper and Ben’s widow, and her brother have been charged with masterminding both crimes in a case that would defy the imagination of any screenwriter.
Morgan has learned to appreciate the absurdity of our town. “Miami is pretty wild now—one day while doing a scene, I looked through the portholes at the Atlantis Lounge and saw little strips of fake hair floating into the drain. We hired extras to swim nude in the pool, but they all had perfect silicone breasts and shaved private parts. To get extras that were au naturel with real breasts and pubic hair, like women in the ’50s, was impossible in Miami.”
The mobster Ben “The Butcher” Diamond is played by Danny Huston, son of film director John Huston and half-brother of Anjelica Huston. To Huston, playing Diamond entailed a bit of Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo, “and a few other stereotypes I cheerfully embraced,” he says. “There’s nothing redeeming about Diamond. He just wants more of everything. In the end, there’s something kind of likable about him—the fact that he’s so unrepentant. Ike makes a deal with the devil when he does business with Diamond, but they’re actually both pretty bad; Ben is just not afraid of the ugly side of their business.”
All this is rich terrain for an actor, says Huston. “For men of that period, that was the last moment in history to behave with pure machismo. All that unapologetic smoking, drinking, and chasing women; it’s terribly seductive, and they all have a wonderful kind of ignorance about the consequences of their behavior.” Today’s Miami certainly has evolved, but Huston notes a certain louche tone to our tropical city. “Those balmy nights in Miami, the music wafting in and out, still give people a certain carefree quality and ample opportunities to discover their darker sides.”
Everything about Magic City is beautiful and lush, from the settings to the cars to the clothes. The wardrobe department is a source of drop-dead glamour, well suited to the character Judi Silver, played by actress Elena Satine, who originally hails from Georgia, in Eastern Europe. In the show, Silver is a platinum-blonde escort at the Atlantis Lounge who does favors for her protectors Ike and his son Stevie, who runs the lounge. Her seduction of certain clientele just might prove the old adage about orgasm being akin to a kind of death.
To Satine, it was a treat to immerse herself in another era. “We built a whole city for this show— it’s such a decadent lifestyle. We spent months coming up with a distinctive style for Judi. She’s a pro, a working girl, but also ahead of the curve for that time: The hemlines are shorter, the dresses more low-cut. In one scene, she wears a black corset straight out of Bettie Page.”
For Glazer, the production of Magic City is a chance to come to terms with his hometown. “Even as a kid, I knew that Miami Beach was the coolest place on earth. It was beautiful and glamorous, like one big Bobby Darin song come to life, with all the high-rollers at the Fontainebleau and the women in furs. But you knew it was something that had to end, and when it did, it would never come back. Magic City brings some of my memories back to life, and modern Miami is still an amazing place. In our show, the Mob is trying to bring casinos to Miami, and now that issue is happening all over again. In the end, Miami never really changes all that much.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANDRES HERNANDEZ; Styling by The Cannon Media Group; Hair and makeup by Emilio Uribe, Sherilyn Segal for Artists by Timothy Priano, Lisa Trunda with Ford Artists Miami for Dior Beauty, Karen Panoch with Ford Artists Miami for Dior Beauty; Styling assistance by Jorge Rubalcava, Erin McSherry; Location courtesy of Shelborne South Beach