Titanic Fever

March 23, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPOKESMAN: Are you ready to go back to “Titanic?”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Viewers are going back, some again and again, to see the blockbuster film that opened last December. “Titanic” has remained the top draw at the box office for a record 14 straight weeks. Costing more than $200 million to make, it is the first movie to gross over $1 billion worldwide. Tonight, “Titanic” takes center stage at the Academy Awards, with a record-tying 14 nominations, including “Best Picture.” The film’s music is the fastest selling soundtrack album in history and one of the top selling albums of the year so far.

And on Broadway “Titanic,” the musical, is riding the wave too, performing its version of the tragic voyage to sell-out crowds every night. The Arts & Entertainment Network’s documentary “Titanic” is the Number 1 selling home video and a documentary which aired last spring on the disaster was the Discovery Channel’s highest-rated program ever, with more than 3 million people tuning in. Publishers are also on board.

The book James Cameron’s “Titanic” about the making of the movie is on the New York Time’s bestseller list and so is “A Night to Remember,” by Walter Lord, which was first published in 1955. Consumers can get “Titanic” hats, T-shirts, and for the really hooked an inflatable replica of the ship and iceberg at FAO Schwartz.

SPOKESMAN: If the past could be changed, what then?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There’s a new CD-rom computer game, and on the Internet an opportunity to go to 27,000 sites, ranging from facts about the ship itself, to information about a new play about the “Titanic” in Australia. The interest even reaches into bars. This bartender, whose grandfather survived the sinking, has created a popular new drink, the Iceberg.

ANTHONY BELLMAN, Bartender: A lot of my regulars, they come and sit at the bar and they just love to hear the story actually right from the beginning. One of my friends, she told me I should come up with a drink. Just about four months ago I came up with the right formula and everybody loved it, and I call it “Titanic Iceberg.” It’s a big hit.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In fact, there’s nothing new about fascination with the “Titanic.”

ACTRESS: (“The Titanic” 1953) You need a top coat, Richard; it’s grown cold.

ACTOR: Yes, it has.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Hollywood first recreated the voyage in 1953, with the “Titanic,” starring Clifton Webb, then in 1958, came “A Night to Remember.” In 1985, the discovery of the sunken wreckage gave an added boost to the public’s interest. The discovery also boosted knowledge about the ship–who was on board and what happened as it went down. In addition, a large amount of historical artifacts, pictures, and jewels have been recovered and auctioned off around the world. But James Cameron’s extravaganza, with its use of film of the actual wreckage and with its high wattage stars, seems to have taken the past interest to new levels.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For more on the “Titanic” phenomenon, we are joined by Maury Eston, the composer/lyricist of the Broadway musical, “Titanic;” Daniel Allen Butler, author of “Unsinkable: The Full Story of ‘RMS Titanic';” and Claudia Pennington, director of the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, where an exhibit on the “Titanic” will be on display until September. Thank you all for being with us. Mr. Eston, how do you explain this long-term fascination with the “Titanic?”

MAURY ESTON, Composer/Lyricist, “Titanic:” Oh, I think it’s something that’s occurred ever since the “Titanic” first went down. It’s a story that endlessly fascinates us, I think probably because it combines elements of almost Greek tragedy, with actual history filled with the ironies of the small details, without which it may never have happened, and I think most recently, I think this whole “Titanic” mania began in the mid 1980’s with the discovery of the wreck.

Certainly, those people who are involved in the arts sensitive to those kinds of events, and, you know, September of ’85 the wreck was discovered, and in January of ’86, the space shuttle disaster in many ways recapitulated the tragic overconfidence in technology. And I think those two events, combined with a kind of millennial thinking, kind of sense of the last hundred years, let to people’s coming to understand when that ship went down, an age passed and a new one began.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Claudia Pennington, how do you explain the fascination? What are you hearing at your exhibit about it?

CLAUDIA PENNINGTON, Mariners’ Museum: Well, our exhibit really takes the museum visitor on board the “Titanic.” You walk on, and you see it as if it were 1912. We have actual objects from passengers, everything from John Jacob Aster’s pocket watch, which was found when his body was discovered, to the beautiful little Egyptian talisman that Molly Brown carried off. And we put the visitor right there, and they listened to the music; they see these objects.

They see photographs of people, and they begin to feel for the individuals. And I think that’s a lot about the “Titanic” story, the people, not just the ship, but who is there, where were they from, what happened to them after this iceberg collision.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Daniel Allen Butler, how do you see it? How do you explain this phenomenon?

DANIEL ALLEN BUTLER, Author, “Unsinkable:” I would have to say that one of the fascinating–one of the things that runs through the whole “Titanic” story is it would seem to be almost incredible. How could this happen? How could this be true? But, nonetheless, it is true. If you took the “Titanic” story and tried to present it as fiction, didn’t change the events, just simply changed the names, and tried to sell it as a piece of fiction, people wouldn’t buy it. But, nonetheless, it did happen. It’s almost beyond belief, but yet it’s true.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Let’s go back over some of these points now. Mr. Eston, how important is this matter of technology, of the great belief in technology at the beginning of the century, and then the “Titanic” goes down. Is that a big part in our fascination, do you think?

MAURY ESTON: Oh, I think it’s terribly important. I think it’s a light motif of our society since the scientific revolution began. The “Titanic,” after all, was the apex of the dream of 19th century technology.

It was the great combination of steel and steam and coal and everything that in combination those three elements could create to dominate nature. And the state of mind that had that kind of confidence in that technology will never again be in the world after the ship went down. It’s the supreme irony, of course, that in the very first crossing it hit an iceberg. It was a great positive dream and a great embodiment of our striving to greater things technologically.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Butler, how important do you think this interest in myth about technology being successful up against the reality of the “Titanic” or in the fascination?

DANIEL ALLEN BUTLER: I think it’s a bit part of it. One of the fundamental underpinnings of the Edwardian world when the “Titanic” existed was confidence. The Edwardians thought that they were going to find the answers to every problem. There was no such thing as an unsolvable problem for them. And they built this ship, which was supposed to be the supreme technological achievement of their era, and it was shone to be deadly fragile and fatally flawed on its very first voyage.

We’ve confronted technology in our own times, everything from living for the past 50 years with the specter of a nuclear holocaust, or at least the possibility of it, to everyday things, to the mundane things in our life we seem to take for granted that don’t work right. So this flawed technology we can relate to in the sense that this is something that our own confidence in technology is challenged every day.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Claudia Pennington, how about class? The people in your exhibit get to have a ticket, and they are somebody, right? Do they want to be in a certain class? Are they interested in that?

CLAUDIA PENNINGTON: Well, there is a fascination with being a first class passenger. And every visitor who comes in is allowed to take a ticket that has an actual name of one of the passengers. And every now and then we’ll have someone say, “I want to be first class. I got to be first class.”

But what they find out is getting a first class ticket doesn’t guarantee you a seat in the lifeboat. So you go through the exhibition; you take your chance; you know that you’ll have to make this decision, are you going to say goodbye to your husband, do you get in the boat, what are your chances of surviving, and it’s not until they get to the very end of the exhibition, and they go through the entire list, that they find out if the person whose name is on their ticket was saved or was lost.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Eston, that’s a big part of the interest, isn’t it? I mean, for you in the musical how big a part did class play?

MAURY ESTON: Oh, it’s terribly important. It’s the very center of it, and I think Ms. Pennington is right. It’s the people who you come to care about. And I think the reason audiences are so gratified by the musical that we’re presenting is that they come to care about and love the people very much who have the added advantage of being actually historically real.

And I think that the whole theme of the class distinction aboard the “Titanic” is really–becomes a central metaphor for now. Indeed, that age passed with a certain rigidity and inflexibility amongst the class structures. But we still do have class structures today, and there’s–it still is very difficult to cross some of the lines. And I think that’s what makes the story so contemporary.

I was thinking, interestingly enough, even such great musicals as “My Fair Lady” actually, if you look deep down under it, it’s a story about class, isn’t it, about those two being able to bridge the gap between them. And it’s a particularly American fascination and an English fascination, so it becomes a great Anglo-American myth, I think.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. Butler, don’t people wonder, what would I have done, and they want to know what happens, for example, to some of the higher class people who manage to get a seat on the boat? What happened to some of those people, the owner of the ship, for example?

DANIEL ALLEN BUTLER: Well, the owner of the ship was J. Bruce Ismay. He was the chairman of the White Star line, and he managed to get a seat in one of the last lifeboats to get away, a collapsible seat. In a lot of ways it would have been better for him if he had just gone down with the ship.

Within a year he was forced out of the White Star line. He was forced to resign from the board of International Mercantile Marine. He became a social outcast, almost a pariah. His friends cut him mercilessly. He spent the next quarter of a century almost living as a recluse in Southern Ireland.

And it was because the social stigma attached to him. One of the beliefs that was fundamental to the Edwardians was that it was better to die than to live and be perceived as a coward. That’s what happened to Bruce Ismay. It would have been much better had he just simply stayed on board the ship.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Claudia Pennington, what about the esthetics here, this beautiful ship with all these beautiful things on it and the gorgeous china and silver, how important is that to people coming to your exhibit?

CLAUDIA PENNINGTON: Well, we were very fortunate to get some of the replicas that James Cameron had made for the movie. We have an entire set-up of the first class dining room, and the music is playing, and we have the same flowers on the table that are described by survivors of “Titanic.” And they look at these replicas, and then in the case right in front of them from our own museum collection we have some of the actual china from the White Star line. And it’s more than just the china and the silver and the glassware.

They had White Star cigarettes and White Star mustard containers. I mean, everything about the ship was the latest in elegance. And the beauty of this and the way people enjoyed it was something that our visitors really like. They see themselves in that setting, and they wonder what that last dinner on “Titanic” was like.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Maury Eston, somebody watching this might say, this is just a fad fed by commercialism and by advertising for the film and you’re all making way too much of this. How do you answer that?

MAURY ESTON: Oh, I don’t think so. First of all, our musical opened up seven months before the film even appeared and won all of the Tony’s that it was nominated for, including “Best Musical.” And we’ve been sold out and have broken the box office record of the Lunt Fontaine 11 times–11 times in a row. It’s not a fad at all; it’s a continuing fascination that our culture has for this story.

And it’s also–it’s also an extremely inspiring and beautiful one. You know, what’s extraordinary about what you’re able to do in the theater is that in the same way that James Cameron can literalize this magnificent ship full steam ahead on the open sea, we need to do that with music in the theater. We need to harpoon the imagination of the audience and allow music of a symphonic and choral nature to swell up inside of you, to summon up the feeling that it must–that one must have had to be aboard that ship.

And that, in conjunction with certain wonderful hints from our gifted book writer, Peter Stone, who provides the historical character elements of it, give a unique experience in the theater, which is quite complimentary to the movie and, in fact, to reading matter that you have. It really is a very valid esthetic experience and far more than a fad.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Daniel Allen Butler, what about the viewer that says, we shouldn’t be so interested or so excited in this terrible thing that happened, that making a huge commercial success of the death of all these people is a terrible thing?

DANIEL ALLEN BUTLER: I don’t think it’s a terrible thing at all. I think it does–it does an honor to their memory. You see, if a ship the size of the “Titanic” sinks, that’s a disaster, but if a ship like the “Titanic” sinks and takes 1500 people to the bottom of the ocean with her, that’s a tragedy.

And anything that will strike a chord with people in terms of bringing this tragedy to them, making it accessible to them, making them understand what was going on on the decks of that ship as she was going down I think does a service, does an honor to those people.

The world of 1912 was very, very different in many, many ways from our own in 1998, but people are still people, and that’s what I believe attracts so many people’s interest to the ship and gets them enthralled not just with the ship itself but with the personalities, the people on board, and ultimately breaks their heart because not all of them lived.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you all very much for being with us.