Posted October 4, 2013

Temple University's star turn on 'Boardwalk Empire'

Photo by Macall B Polay, courtesy of HBO
In the show, Willie Thompson (the nephew of main character Nucky Thompson) is a sophomore at Temple, trying to further his education while at the same time taking an interest in the family business.

One of the most appealing elements of the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" is the show’s star-studded cast. This season, however, a new cast member popped up almost unexpectedly, and has become a major figure in one of the show’s developing storylines – Temple's main campus, circa 1924.

In the show, Willie Thompson (the nephew of main character Nucky Thompson) is a sophomore at Temple, trying to further his education while at the same time taking an interest in the family business of bootlegging.

In the season opener on Sept. 9, Willie regales his family with the Temple fight song over dinner. In an episode that aired Sept. 21 – titled “Acres of Diamonds”- Willie and his friends listen to a recording of Russell Conwell’s most famous speech. Willie then tries to impress a girl by fueling a student party with ill-gotten liquor – culminating in a gruesome turn of events which Nucky must clean up.

“Because of Atlantic City's proximity to Philadelphia, I thought it made sense for Nucky's nephew to attend Temple, which would enable him to come home to visit as frequently as he wanted, and more important, as frequently as our story required,” said Terence Winter, creator and executive producer of "Boardwalk Empire."

Just how accurate is this portrayal of student behavior back in the days of Prohibition? According to James Hilty, professor emeritus of history and author of Temple University: 125 Years of Service to Philadelphia, the Nation, and the World, it was indeed a heady time.

“The 1920s and early 1930s, deservedly or not, were reputedly the wildest,” he said, in an interview with the Temple University Press. “When the first dean of women was appointed in 1930, she was aghast at the conduct of young coeds who publicly necked with their dates on the dormitory steps. Fraternities stationed volunteers near the fish tank in the library to deter pranksters from ‘gulping’ the goldfish – a college fad (along with bath tub gin and raccoon coats) in the 1920s.”

Even though the many of the show’s characters have been fictionalized, Winter has said that he has striven to make other elements as accurate as possible.  That accuracy is thanks in part to alumnus Edward McGinty, FOX ’89, whom Winter hired as a research consultant for the show. McGinty grew up in Atlantic City; his grandfather worked as head bellman at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, where the real-life Nucky lived.

As for the Sept. 21 episode that was named after and included snippets of Conwell’s iconic speech? “I discovered [it] last year and was so taken with it, I decided to feature it and even name an episode after it,” Winter explained.

This isn’t the first time Temple has been featured in a popular TV show. In a 2010 episode of The Office, the character Toby Flenderson proudly displayed his social work degree from Temple.  In 2011, Temple played the fictitious Braemore College in an episode of the drama Friday Night Lights.

"BoardWalk Empire" airs Sundays at 9:00 p.m. ET.

Posted In: Arts & Culture