April 9, 2005

Queen Mary, long-gone Spruce Goose show Long Beach doesn't get tourists

City's removal of the ship's engines are just one way they undermined fascination in a grand old lady of the sea.

What was that stuff about Queen of the Seas in the 1930s?

Who knows? Let her prattle on about Sir Winston, poor dear.

Which is to say that I am not surprised to hear that the Queen Mary is adrift - or again adrift - in a sea of red ink, on the verge of failure or worse, on the verge of being used as a test target for anti-ship missiles. Either that or being sent to Japan.

Nobody mentioned the latter two, but what does one do with a seagoing vessel that hasn't been to sea in 37 years, a ship that has been out of commission for longer than it was in?

And why not include those whacky Japanese. Back in 1997, a group of them offered $32 million for repairs just to borrow the landlocked 365-cabin hotel for five years, with an annual $5 million sweetener.

Mind you, Cunard's one-time flagship, this deliverer of war-winning GIs, this shop worn art deco masterpiece, needed first to be humiliated with giant floats -- like dear old auntie in Depends -- to survive a 40-day passage to Tokyo.

Joseph Prevratil, who holds the ship's lease until 2015, was all in favor. The City Council was against, saying that a missing Queen would make a large hole in the Long Beach skyline. Of course, they didn't offer much in the way of replacement money and the old dear remains where it came to rest when its boilers went cold for the final time in 1967.

Over the years, the city-owned attraction has seen the arrival and departure of the Spruce Goose (but not its empty dome) and of Disney management and a plan for a dock-side amusement park. The existing ersatz English village never really amounted to much either. Now the ship enters the stormy seas of chapter 11 bankruptcy after the city claimed that Queen's Seaport Development Inc. owed $3.4 million in back rent with the company counter-charging that the work it did toward developing (some developing) 55 boat-side acres qualifies for rent discounts.

Any outcome, which could affect hundreds of employees, will likely be worked out in court when what the problem really needs is a time machine. That way the city could go back to 1967, back to when it decided to relieve the 1,000-foot gem of its massive boilers, and nearly all of its monumental age-of-steel mechanics to make room for the crush of convention business that was surely heading its way.

In a haze of destructive greed, the city fathers managed to sell as scrap the very wonders that might have helped made the Queen a place that people might come to explore more than once.

That's its major problem. Most people, having seen the one remaining engine control room and shopped the tacky souvenir stands, don't return. Over the years, ghost tours, back-stairs tours and all manner of inducements -- including a Russian sub -- failed to make the once great ship a lasting attraction.

I've been in the places where tourists aren't allowed to go. I've been below decks to the empty space where the boilers and engines once stood. I've been in the service passageways and, if you think that the rest of the Queen is long past its sell-by date, you should see the rust and dust accumulated elsewhere.

A ship, even one that doesn't move, is a living thing, an entity in need of constant care and protection from its caustic environment. Not today or next year, but someday the sea will finally destroy that great hull and a hole will indeed open in the Long Beach skyline.

Saving it will take a huge amount of money and will. That, and some way to beat the feeling that overcomes me when I board the Queen, the disappointment that comes with seeing all that forward-leaning tonnage and promise going nowhere forever.



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