Mitch Glazer and half a dozen of his buddies were sitting in a booth at Wolfie’s Restaurant in Miami Beach one afternoon in the late 1960s, chattering and laughing and generally being teenage loudmouths, when a waitress walked over to ask them to keep it down. They did, for a moment, but soon the volume dialed back up. The waitress returned. Nodding to a white-haired man a few tables away, she amended her request: “Mr. Lansky would appreciate it if you could be a little quieter.”
“Man, you could hear a pin drop,” recalls Glazer, laughing now as he certainly did not then at the mention of Miami Beach’s resident Mafia don, Meyer Lansky. “But that was just part of the air we breathed in those days.”
Now it’s part of the air executive producer Glazer breathes into Magic City, his loving and fearful television ode to the gangsters, grifters, spies and hookers among whom he grew up on the Beach. Returning Friday for a second season in its 9 p.m. time slot on the cable channel Starz, Magic City is as darkly delightful as ever.
Ike Evans, the beleaguered owner of the Miramar Playa hotel, is trying to rid himself of not-silent-enough partner Ben Diamond, a psychopathic gangster. Evans’ top choice for a new business associate: Fidel Castro, the new Cuban leader who’s trying to figure out how to make money off all the hotels and casinos left behind by fleeing mobsters.
Also on hand to complicate everything: a nascent army of Cuban exiles plotting to overthrow Castro. Their CIA helpers. A clean-up-Miami prosecutor corrupted by his own ambition. And a generous dollop of ethnic tension and sexual treachery.
“The first season was about a basically good man, Ike Evans, who having made this deal with the devil, was now trying to control the uncontrollable Ben Diamond,” Glazer says. “It’s like the oft-quoted saying, what does a man gain who has won the world and lost his soul?
“The second season is Ike realizing there is no way to coexist with Ben Diamond. People are dying around him, and he’s in jail [on a murder charge brought by a corrupt prosecutor who is unknowingly framing a guilty man], and all because of this deal he’s made. And now he’s trying to get out of it, only to find that once you’re in business with the Mob, you’re partners for life, until they’re done with you.
“The seriousness of Ike’s position is shown by the fact that he’s trying to put himself between Ben Diamond and Fidel Castro. That’s not a choice most people would willingly make.”
That seemingly unlikely scenario is more plausible than it sounds. This season of Magic City starts in spring 1959, when Castro had been in power only a few months and was still denying he was a Communist. He visited the United States, touring college campuses and appearing on television shows in search of political and economic support. Magic City even includes some old TV footage of Castro being interviewed on Meet the Press, scoffing — in startlingly good English — at the idea he’s a Marxist.
“I wish I could tell you that I performed some incredibly arcane feat of research, but the truth is that I found it on YouTube,” Glazer says. “I knew he had done Meet the Press, even seen some clips, but I didn’t remember what year it was. Like, would the real-life date cooperate with the show’s timeline? When I discovered that the dates match up perfectly — Castro was on Meet the Press the Sunday before Passover in 1959, the same date we were going to use on the show — it seemed too good to be true. It was like a sign.
“There was this brief period of history, from New Year’s Day 1959 to about October, when Fidel was open for business. He had inherited a country that was in turmoil and he was trying to resuscitate and revive the economy. And some Americans were interested. I even found an old Life magazine story about some entrepreneur who was getting into the business of harvesting bat guano out of Cuban caves. By the fall of 1959, Castro was pushed to — or moved to, depending on how you see it — [Soviet premier Nikita] Khrushchev, and then it was game over.
“But Meet the Press is from that short little period before. Castro, we’ve all seen him thundering from the podium for five hours. But in this little clip, he’s kind of quiet and sweet, he was really pitching himself: ‘I don’t like Communists, I like the American people.’ It’s a fascinating moment. You can sense his desperation.”
It’s difficult to imagine another show on television that would use Castro as a character, much less take the trouble to illuminate his political evolution. But Magic City is very much a distillation of the lore and legend of its South Florida setting — perhaps even more so than the iconic Miami Vice, which created as much Miami fashion as it borrowed.
Among the pivotal plot points in the new season are mobster Santo Trafficante’s purchase of a warehouse in Hialeah and the construction of an ornate Middle Eastern-styled whorehouse in Opa-locka. (The latter was inspired by the real-life Madame Sherry, mistress of a legendary Miami Beach brothel known as the Moorish Castle and its Hialeah successor, the Rancho Lido. When she published her memoirs in 1961, they were so scandalous that their sale was banned within Miami city limits.) There are constant references to the political and cultural clashes between Miami Beach’s WASP old guard and its Jewish newcomers. And derisive cracks about the sloth and gullibility of Miami Herald reporters — yeah, people loved to dump on the lamestream media even before the Internet.
City as character
“Miami is definitely a character in the show,” says Glazer, a 1970 Miami Beach High grad whose father was an electrician at the hotels like the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc that inspired Magic City’s Miramar Playa. “It’s almost like a driving force. I take inspiration from the town, both now and then.
“A character like Madame Sherry, she’s soooo Miami, how are you not going to make use of that? It gives something unshakeable to the fiction of the story, grounds it in something so incredibly real. There are some incredibly operatic things happening this year, but almost all of them are inspired by real Miami events.”
Which take place in Miami locales. Every single scene in Magic City is shot in Miami, either on the show’s massive hotel-interior sets in the old Bertram Yacht building near the airport, or on the streets. The Deauville doubles for the Miramar’s swimming pool and beach, side-by-side mansions on Indian Creek have roles as the opulent homes of various characters, and East Flagler even gets a heavily disguised cameo as Havana.
“The original idea was that we’d shoot two-thirds of each episode on our sets and one-third outside, but we went out a ton this season,” says Glazer. “I can’t be totally irresponsible — the show is expensive as it is, and the cost starts to climb immensely the minute you go out the door. But we’re in Miami. I love to see Ben Diamond out on Indian Creek, or Ike Evans driving his Cadillac down Collins.”
Not that Glazer is above, once in a while, sticking it to the place he grew up. He takes his revenge on his old buzzkilling nemesis Lansky with a malignant Jewish mobster character named Sy Berman, played by James Caan. “He was, well, suggested by Lansky,” Glazer says. “But Lansky liked to present this image as a modest, calm, businessman-accountant type of guy. Sy is much more, let’s say, muscular.”