How 'Magic City' Brings 1950s Miami Back to Life

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An interview with Mitch Glazer, creator of the new Starz show

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Starz

Last fall, as part of its journey to rebrand itself as a home of serious original programming, Starz touched down in Chicago with Boss. The political show earned Kelsey Grammer a Golden Globe nomination for his performance as Tom Kane, the city's corrupt mayor who's just learned that he has a neurological disease. For summer, starting Friday at 10 pm, Starz is visiting the seasonally appropriate Miami with Magic City, a drama, set in the '50s, that follows Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the founder of the Miramar Playa, one of the most luxurious hotels on Miami Beach, and his extended family as Castro takes Cuba and the civil rights movement comes to Florida.

The show has Starz's usual quantities of sizzle, from the gorgeous sets to the gratuitous sex and nudity. But Magic City also includes a strike that threatens to shut down the Miramar Playa on New Year's Eve, and a lobbying campaign to get state legislators to legalize casino gambling to make up for the industry's collapse in Havana. And it's the first of the 1950s and '60s shows to put a Jewish family—and contemporary anti-Semitism—at the center of the frame. Ike's second wife, Vera, (Olga Kurylenko) contemplates converting as Ike's daughter has her bat mitzvah, and Ike suffers silently as a Tallahassee lawmaker sings the praises of an "Aryan" beauty pageant contestant.

It's a story that's personal for creator Mitch Glazer: He was born in Key Biscayne and grew up in Miami, where his father, Leonard, did the lighting design for the Fontainebleau Hotel and Glazer himself started out as a cabana boy. Along the way, he got his first exposure to the Civil Rights movement, a groundswell that touched Miami before it reached the Madison Avenue skyscrapers of Mad Men. We spoke to Glazer about Magic City's origins, and his hopes for the show.


I understand that this is really personal for you—you grew up in Miami and you worked as a pool boy at the Fontainebleau?

Cabana boy. It's funny, because in their notes they describe Ike's character who started as a cabana boy, as the lowest rung in the hotel business. For me, it was like a promotion. I was thrilled to be a cabana boy. I started out as assistant engineer, which was a janitor. My father got me the job, I was 17, and midway through the summer, this is a dead time there, they upgraded me to cabana boy.

It was cool because we actually shot the pool area scenes for our hotel at the pool where I worked as a cabana boy. They haven't put a dime into it. And it was cool, because we shot a boxing scene, I had seen the Beatles at the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 with my sister, and we shot in the room, the Napoleon Room, where the Beatles played, which hadn't changed. In fact, it smelled the same. They hadn't put a cent into it. But the hotel looked beautiful because it hadn't been renovated out of existence. It still looked, to the credit of the owners, the original Morris Lapidus design was still there so it worked for us, just like it did in '59.

I wonder if that speaks to the foresight of those designers who built the hotels that helped transform Miami into a major city. They saw things that are still resonant now.

One of the storylines that we have for the year is Castro comes in, '58-'59, throws the mob out of Havana, and they come to Miami and decide to do gambling on the beach. And my father, he was an electrical engineer there, he told me that the Fontainebleau lobby was wired for casino gambling. In 48 hours they could jackhammer the marble up, there were conduits he had designed built in the lobby so it could be casino gambling in a weekend. Because the mob assumed how could they say no? But 52 years later, I'm writing the show, we're shooting it in July, and some Malaysian gambling concern buys the Miami Herald lot for $235 million dollars, and spends $1 billion on property around it in the hopes that casino gambling is going to pass this year. It still hasn't, but they're doing the same thing the mob did in '59 on the notion that it's inevitable. There's a resonance spanning the half-century.

The adventurous quality of the CIA in '59 trying to kill Castro is completely analogous to the situation in the Middle East now. Civil Rights, the first marches ever were in Miami in '59. I have a daughter who's 26, and when I tell her that Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald, and Sammy Davis Jr. could play at the Fontainebleau but couldn't stay there in '63, she doesn't believe it. They had to go over the bridge to Overtown. These are all stories that I think resonate, there's still on-going issues with race, and definitely with the CIA, and clearly with casino gambling. It doesn't feel retrospective or retro.

How do you feel the show fits into Starz's rebranding? Both Boss and Magic City are stories about empire-building. Boss is about whether the characters can get this strip of land so they can build this airport. You have this development empire that hooks into a lot of social issues, and that's not necessarily what the network is known for.

I know that Chris [Albrecht, the president of Starz] loves, it seems to me, he loves family stories, and whether it's The Sopranos, or Larry David, the engine of our show is this family in crisis. Ike has his core family, and then there's the hotel family, which is a larger version. There's a little bit of a Trojan horse in it, because my feeling is, through this Sinatra, mob, Rat Pack thing, I can also tell these larger stories, like labor issues and Civil Rights.

It's really down to how good I am, if I can make them organic to this family, bring it through the lobby of this hotel, then the whole series will elevate and be deeper. My parents, I was 7, dragged me to Civil Rights marches in Flagler Street, and we had rotten garbage thrown at us. I remember, because they were very active in what was then a very Southern town. I think the state of Florida went to George Wallace two elections in a row. So once you left the island of Miami Beach, you were in the Deep South. I want to tell all these stories in an authentic, organic way. There's a character who's the general manager of the hotel, named Victor Lazaro. In 1959, there were 30,000 Cubans living in Miami. Six months later, post-Castro, there were 250,000, and then it just exploded. So I want to tell the Cuban-American story, all sides of it, truthfully through this guy and his daughter.

It's where we are today, race in America, you really have to think of it as black, white, and Latino.

Absolutely. Miami was the first place. Most of my friends when I was in sixth grade, the first-wave of Cubans, were the white-collar Cubans who came to America, guys who had been lawyers who became short-order cooks. Those were my best friends' parents. I tried to pass for Cuban for about six months. They just seemed cooler. My high school was 60 percent Jewish, 40 percent Cuban, and Mickey Rourke.

Did you go back to your family for stories? Has it proved to be a chance to do family oral history?

My dad's 89 now. My mom was killed in a car accident five years ago. But she was Teacher of the Year, state of Florida, she was a public high school teacher at my high school, Beach High. I had my father come. We had 200,000 feet of sound stages, and these incredible sets, inspired by this Morris Lapidus style of architecture my father had worked on. And I had him come, he was in a wheelchair, and set in the lobby of our hotel, and he was just overwhelmed. He kept saying "You built a hotel." It's got 45-foot ceilings, and there's this chandelier that was the chandelier from the Eden Roc hotel that they bought, and he inspected it. It was the chandelier in 1956 that he had actually ordered from Cuba.

There's a moment in the show. When I was a kid, my grandfather used to play balalaika, a Russian Jewish instrument, in folding chairs on South Beach, in Loomis Park. And I have it in the show. There's a semi-circle of six or seven Jewish guys, and they're playing...and the sun's setting, and the deco building, and I arranged it to be out of my memories...That whole thing ended with Jeffrey [Dean Morgan] coming over and saying one of the extras want to talk to you. And I go over, and this guy says, "You're Zelda Glazer's son," and I said yes. And he said, "Your mother taught my daughter high school English at Beach High in 1968."

It sounds like they're really investing in making sure everything looks good.

I knew it was going to be expensive, period, locations, stages. I knew that. And I knew that even the peripheral stuff: music. Period music costs a fortune but it's so critical to the feeling of the show. And Chris said that thing that you just don't believe, which is, I bet on talent.

The ultimate dream in this situation is everybody seeing the same thing. Which sounds easy, but it really isn't. So when you have the network or the studio, and the talent, and the cast and crew all buying into the vision of the thing, for good or ill, it's what I wrote, which never happens. Jeff and I talk about it often, because I've never had this experience where the thing on the page became the thing on screen perfectly.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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