Jews navigate ‘Magic City’ of midcentury Miami

Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who plays the Miami Jewish hotel mogul Isaac “Ike” Evans in STARZ’s “Magic City,” set in 1959, recalled scenes in which his character encounters genteel and not-so-genteel anti-Semitism. One takes place at a club that does not normally admit Jews, where his former sister-in-law has insisted they meet on her “turf.” “It’s very white and upper class, and the waiter won’t even acknowledge me,” Morgan (“Grey’s Anatomy”) said in an interview not long before the show’s April 6 premiere.  “And I ask her when the ‘Jew hunt’ will begin.”

Then there’s the sequence in which Ike is attempting to woo a state senator, who is busy ogling the blondes in a beauty pageant that will take place at Ike’s luxurious Miramar Playa hotel. Miss Iceland, in particular, catches his eye as a “Nordic goddess” who will improve the gene pool. “Then he starts in on this ‘You people’ s—-,” Morgan said, “and my own instinct was to jump across the table and put his head through it. But as Ike Evans, I had to be smarter than that. Even though Miami then was very Jewish, Ike’s grown up at a time where at every corner there were people making these kinds of cracks.  So he’ll take care of business first, and get even later.”

Jewish dynamics play a significant role in “Magic City,” a sprawling drama with vast period sets that has already garnered so much buzz that STARZ has picked it up for a second season even before airing the pilot. Spotlighting the charming, self-made Ike and his complexly Jewish family, the plot also involves Cuban refugees fleeing Fidel Castro, the CIA buildup in Miami, Jewish gangsters, Weeki Watchee mermaids, call girls, bubbes, Frank Sinatra and the black entertainers who are allowed to perform at the resorts but not stay in them.

Inspired by the childhood memories of Mitch Glazer, the show’s creator, “Magic City” also highlights Ike’s struggle to keep his family and empire safe while at odds with his dangerous financier, mobster Ben “The Butcher” Diamond (Danny Huston, whose childhood in a Dickensian Orthodox orphanage has helped create a monster).

Ike’s father is the Russian Jew Arthur Evans, a communist and former union organizer who refuses to set foot in a synagogue, even for his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. Meanwhile, Ike’s second wife, Vera (former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko), a refugee who lost all her Romany relatives in the Holocaust, desperately wants to feel connected to her new family by converting to Judaism. “I went to bed with Rita Hayworth, and woke up with Golda Meir,” says Ike, who is puzzled and a bit uncomfortable with her preoccupation.

“Ike is Jewish to the bone, but in a social, cultural way, and in the kind of human way he relates to the world — the mensch in him,” Glazer, 59, said recently, while eating a bagel and cream cheese in his Hollywood office, with Sinatra playing on the radio and books and postcards of old Miami gracing the room. “Being Jewish doesn’t absolutely define him, until the outside world — the Miami WASP establishment — reminds him.”

Glazer’s show is the latest series to focus on the glamorous Rat Pack era of the late 1950s and ’60s, including the “Playboy Club” and “Pan Am,” as well as AMC’s critically acclaimed “Mad Men.” While the comparison to the Emmy-winning “Mad Men” has been inevitable, Glazer says the similarities lie mainly in their aesthetic. He points out that he sold the pilot to CBS seven years ago, though the show went nowhere at the time: “I’ve been collecting stories about Miami almost all my life, because they’ve always seemed so powerful and cinematic,” he said. “Doing something about this place and time has always been a part of me.

“My father, Len, was the electric engineer who worked with the great Miami modern architect Morris Lapidus — Uncle Morrie in my house,” Glazer continued. “My dad designed the lighting for all the great hotels of the day — the Fontainebleau, the Eden Roc and the Deauville — and my memories of those hotels is profound. I almost grew up in them. Their function was to astound — to blow people’s minds. There was just acres of marble and terrazzo, and in the show I’ve tried to capture my 7-year-old’s amazement at that world.”

Many of the show’s anecdotes come from Glazer’s childhood recollections, his work as a cabana boy at the Deauville or stories he’s heard from old timers. Like the fictional Arthur, Glazer’s grandfather was an atheist who refused to set foot in a synagogue, and the young Mitch, like Ike, did not become a bar mitzvah. He did, however, march in civil rights demonstrations with his liberal parents; concentration camp survivors elbowed him out of the way at Thrifty’s grocery; and mobster Meyer Lansky glowered into his brisket at Wolfie’s deli, where the waitresses told Glazer and his friends to keep it down lest they disturb the elderly gangster. The hotel lobbies were kept freezing so the women could wear their furs, and, once, Glazer discovered a friend’s brother hastily packing his bags after unwittingly picking up a woman at one of the hotels who turned out to be the wife of a gangster named “Trigger Mike.”

Glazer set the show in 1959 because it was a powder-keg year for Miami: Cuban refugees, CIA operatives and gun molls mingled with tourists in lounges with names like the Boom Boom Room. “It was like ‘Casablanca’ on the Atlantic,” he said.

During his copious research, Glazer not only read everything he could on the era, but also interviewed hoteliers and even a Miami rabbi who advised him on how Vera’s conversion might unfold.

One major conflict in the Evans family involves the bat mitzvah of Ike’s daughter, Lauren. Arthur virulently opposes it, while Vera proclaims Ike “the worst Jew in the world” for considering serving treif at the reception. His tongue-in-cheek reply is that, actually, his father is the worst Jew in the world.

Some months ago, Glazer brought his own elderly father, then in a wheelchair, to the Miramar Playa set in Florida and showed him the grand chandelier in the fictional hotel’s lobby. “I wheeled him right under it and said, ‘Do you remember that?’ and his eyes welled up,” Glazer recalled. Coincidentally, the set designers had bought the same fixture that the elder Glazer had assembled in Cuba and installed in the Eden Roc in the 1950s. 

“Now, more than 50 years later, it’s hanging in the Miramar Playa,” Glazer said. “And my father looked at me and said, ‘Mitch, you’ve built a hotel.’ ”

“Magic City” premieres on STARZ April 6 at 10 p.m.