Long Beach Queen

Re-created end of British Empire

If you ever look at one of those cartoon maps of America, the kind that feature cute little icons for all the major cities, you will almost certainly find a doodle of the Queen Mary equidistant between the doodle of the Hollywood sign and the doodle of Sleeping Beauty Castle. In the world's eyes, the Queen Mary is Long Beach, which is what the city had in mind when it bought the big boat from a British cruise-ship line in 1967.

But that means it was 32 years ago this month that the Queen Mary cruised into the Port of Long Beach to conclude her final voyage—and that's one year longer than her entire seagoing career, which began in 1936.

Unquestionably, the ship is a landmark of almost unparalleled classiness and heroism, with a history that ranges from grand luxury cruises during its good years to massive transport of troops, prisoners of war and refugees during World War II. She is nine stories of sheer elegance, ingenious engineering and inspiring Art Deco styling. During the past three decades, the Queen Mary has become Long Beach's own Tower of Pisa, its Mona Lisa. Also, for better and for worse, its Mickey Mouse—because when you take the ship's symbolism a little deeper, you find it gets a lot shallower.

After all these years, Long Beach still doesn't know what to do with the Queen Mary, mostly because the city still doesn't fully realize who she is. Flush with its share of tidelands oil money, Long Beach bought the Queen Mary for $3.45 million, thinking it was an easy way to get culture—much the same as the Beverly Hillbillies bought that mansion when they struck black gold. Sadly, Long Beach has spent the past 30 years trying to figure out the place, and it's still mistaking the pool table for elegant dining furniture and using the pool cues as pot passers.

The Queen Mary has been strapped to the side of Pier J, hysterectomized, transformed into a hotel and trumpeted as a tourist attraction. But the investment, which has continued to drain millions of dollars from city coffers—surpassing $100 million in the early 1990s, and no one's even bothered calculating recently—has never paid off, either in dollars or in a sense of satisfaction.

Mostly, this is because the Queenhas rarely been treated with the dignity she's due. Yeah, the Titanicgets all the press, but what did that leaky tub ever do, really? It crashed into an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sank like a stone, that's what. The Queen Mary kicks the Titanic's sorry stern every which way. The Queen Mary is longer than the Titanic(1,019.5 feet to 882.9 feet). The Queen Mary is heavier than the Titanic (81,237 gross tons to 46,329 gross tons). The Queen Maryhas 12 decks, compared with the Titanic's eight. And while the Titanichas been eulogized in one horrible movie after another, the Queen Mary is the boat with real character and history, a history that has included more than 1,000 transatlantic crossings—and not a single iceberg.

Well, not until she ran into Long Beach, which can't seem to comprehend that this is a ship of refined grandeur, a place to enjoy a fine dinner, to dance in a stately hotel ballroom, to enjoy a leisurely stroll along the decks at sunset. The Queen Mary is not Disneyland, nor was she meant to be, a fact that seems to have eluded most of the men who've been managing her fortunes. They've allowed her hotel rooms to be decorated in a style that would be too shabby for the Scranton Holiday Inn. They've charged theme-park rates for the very privilege of boarding her, rates guaranteed to make visitors feel cheated and pissed-off once they get onboard and realize that, for all her timeless glamour, the Queen Mary is, really, just a big boat. (Many of the Queen Mary's more unscrupulous visitors have gotten around these rates by entering through the hotel elevator rather than going through the main entrance. Pass it on.) Her handlers have tried to glitz her up with tedious jewel exhibits, silly Halloween spook-tacular ghost shows, and Christ only knows what else. They parked the Spruce Goose next to her for a while, and when that failed to bring in the yokels, they carted the plane off again.

A few years ago, the Queen's handlers turned sulky—and almost spiteful. There was talk of converting her into a casino (horrors!), selling her off to the Japanese, or hauling her out to the middle of the ocean and sinking her.

But the Queen Mary is not going anywhere—again, for better and for worse. Now, more than ever, Long Beach needs her. This is a town that is still adrift, still lost in the lack of self-esteem that lies just beneath its recent redevelopment face-lift. A reconfigured downtown, an expanded convention center and a new aquarium—even the rip-roaring Grand Prix auto race—don't change the fact that the Queen Mary, an old boat the British didn't want anymore, is what people think of when they think of Long Beach. Otherwise, they might never think of the city at all.

 
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