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Photo by James BunoanNobody even asks anymore how a British luxury liner and World War II troop transport can logically represent a gritty Pacific Rim seaport. People finally accept the Queen Mary for what and where she is. After 36 years tied up and whored out in Long Beach Harbor—five years more than she navigated the North Atlantic Ocean—the grand dame of Great Britain is as LBC as Snoop Dee-Oh-Double-Gee.
"What the Eiffel Tower is to Paris and the Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco, the Queen Mary is to Long Beach," declares Joseph F. Prevratil, 65, a man of pudgy panache in fine suits and an elegantly diminishing gray hairline who has played both wet nurse and pimp to the tired old ship for most of the past two decades. "The Queen Mary has become Long Beach's preeminent icon. No question."
That works for Prevratil. He leases the Queen Mary from the city of Long Beach and for the past 10 years has manipulated affection for the publicly owned ship to build a personal financial empire.
It doesn't work quite so well for the city. Long Beach has been pumping money into the Queen Mary since she pulled into port in 1967—paying $3.45 million to save the ship from the scrap yard, spending another $100 million over the next 25 years to trick her out to tourists, and authorizing a series of nonstop subsidies to this day. Along the way, corporations from Diners Club to the Walt Disney Co. tried and failed to make their investments in the ship pay off, too.
Today, the relationships between the ship, the city and Prevratil are so complicated that it's no longer clear who owns the Queen Mary. To take just one example: deeply in debt, Prevratil has used his lease on the city's ship as collateral in loan deals with a Nevada financier. One false move, it seems, and the Queen Mary could end up a floating casino in a lagoon on the Strip.
Exactly what the Queen Mary symbolizes to Long Beach doesn't seem to matter anymore. But what it has cost to keep the ship tethered along Pier J constitutes perhaps the best measurement—in dollars and senselessness—of a civic inferiority complex that reaches back more than 100 years.
Long Beach's leaders have always longed for a larger-than-life image. Evidence of their desperate search for a definitive waterfront attraction goes back at least to 1897, when a few locals spotted a 63-foot finback whale that had strayed into shallow surf. They killed it, picked its carcass clean and displayed the skeleton downtown at Lincoln Park. They nicknamed their trophy "Minnie the Whale," and the editor of a local paper proclaimed that "Long Beach is now in possession of the wonder of the world." For most of the time since, Minnie's bones have been in the Los Angeles Natural History Museum storage facility in Vernon.
The same brand of reckless boosterism has driven Long Beach's relationship with the Queen Mary—and it has driven the city leaders into a corner.
Achieving legitimacy for the ship in Long Beach has come at great cost—and that cost has multiplied the ship's historical weight and political significance. The Queen Mary isn't merely an immense, elegant artifact from a bygone Mother England, anymore. She isn't only the laughingstock legacy of the Britannia Hillbillies who used their Tidelands oil money to buy Long Beach a right-fine piece o' tea-and-crumpets culture. She isn't just the most minor of Southern California's major vacation destinations. Now the Queen Mary means something to the people of Long Beach—no matter how obtusely, no matter how unprofitably. That's heavy. And to the Long Beach politicos responsible for her, that's scary.
"City Hall is terribly frightened of the Queen Mary," says Dr. Robert Gumbiner, the physician who founded the Fountain Valley-based medical-insurance company FHP International—and whose $2 million check in 1993 launched the nonprofit RMS Foundation that enabled Prevratil to get back aboard the ship. "Whatever mayor, city council or city manager is in office at the time, they are frightened that the Queen Mary will somehow turn into a rotting hulk on their watch. As long as they can avoid that, they will do anything."
That's how Joe Prevratil has been able to finagle the five-year lease he signed in 1993 into a contract that gives him beyond-his-lifetime control—through the year 2064—not only of the Queen Mary, but also of approximately 50 acres of valuable, city-owned waterfront real estate that fans out from the ship. That's why the folks down at City Hall so commonly—and so comfortably—refer to Long Beach's most famous symbol and most expensive piece of public property as "Joe's Boat."
This is Prevratil's second go with the Queen Mary. He ran the ship from 1982 to 1988 as president of the Wrather Corp.
"In 1993, the city asked me if I would take the Queen Mary back again," Prevratil recounts. "I said, 'Yes, we'll give it a shot.'"
The "we" was the team of Prevratil and Gumbiner. But Gumbiner says the men had a falling out after Prevratil almost immediately began ignoring the terms of the five-year lease they had signed. Prevratil says that's not true. A January 1995 review by the city auditor reported "substantial noncompliance."