• the Queen Mary: decaying elegance

    May 26th, 2008mr meanerurban living

    On occasion, I spend the night on the Queen Mary in Long Beach. It is the only ‘thing’ in the USA that actually truly evokes Great Britain. Yeah, there are edifices like London Bridge in Lake Havasu and fake English Pubs in every city but Queen Mary is the only thing built in Great Britain, storied with direct history from Great Britain (Winston Churchill, Laurel and Hardy, several monarchs, movie stars etc.), and sold to the oil-rich Long Beach Americans by Britain in 1969. Hell, it’s even had 75 people croak on it since it was launched back in 1933.

    In 2003, the ship had actually spent more time crippled and mummified in Long Beach harbor than it did sailing to and fro across the Atlantic for decades before. One of the most special places on the ship is the Observation Bar on the promenade deck, which is surprisingly well preserved from the original 1920s construction, and is one of the very few parts of the ship which retains its original function intact, as well as most of its interior fixtures and fittings.

    The Observation Bar, 1934

    Sitting at one of the tables, it’s possible to imagine the bar just as it would have been 40, 50 or even 60 years ago with tuxedoed barmen (always men in those days) polishing silver Martini olive spoons (500 gallons of gin were loaded up before each transatlantic sailing), before serving the perfectly shaken and stirred cocktails to the elite of America and Europe as they travelled on this five-day long party.

    The Observation Bar, 2008

    You can see from the pictures above just how well the physical presentation of the bar has survived through nearly 3/4 of a century, but the clientele have changed somewhat over the last 70 years…. 

    Gone is the tinkling piano with Noel Coward-type singer. Gone are the silk evening gowns covering sequined dresses, gone are royalty, film stars and some of the world’s wealthiest people – to be replaced with a heavily obese white reggae singer (complete with synth steel drums), and us backpack-laden, Levis-wearing, Bud Lite-drinking 21st century dwellers, agog at how quaint everything is.

    Above is a picture of the Observation Bar around 4pm on a typical present day — you can see the original wood panelling and metal alloy balustrade along with the commanding torchieres shining concealed light on to the ceiling just above. You can even see the synth steel drums under the 50″ plasma screen on the ‘piano stage’. Thankfully this was too early for the singer to be there, and somebody needs to tell him that Rio by Duran Duran was NEVER meant to be sung in B flat, accompanied steel drums. UGH.

    The service is inconsistent, the chairs are uncomfortable and the martinis are small and watery compared with the way they were poured in the 40s, but there’s something indefinable about sitting in/on something so old, so special and which was built with so much care so long ago.

    Without a doubt, the Queen Mary is not only the only really British thing in America, but it also has a completely unique utility where some things can only be experienced on it — and nowhere else in the world. Remembering that the Queen Mary carried hundreds of thousands of passengers for nearly half the last century, its manifest reads like a who’s who for the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s.

    The Queen Mary is the ONLY public place on EARTH where you can drink in the same bar that you know for a fact Bob Hope, Lana Turner, Stan Laurel, King Edward VII, Winston Churchill and a zillion other people who entertained us, ruled us or were just envied by us drank.

    Yeah, some pubs in London have stories about Oscar Wilde drinking in them on a regular basis, but only on the Queen Mary can you actually trace the steps of the rich and famous. One good example is my childhood heroes: Laurel and Hardy, both regulars to the Queen Mary and the Observation Bar over many years:

    The above picture shows Stan and Ollie just outside the Observation Bar, on the Promenade Deck in front of W H Smith and Son stationer’s shop, which is now a most excellent souvenir store called “Trans-Oceanic”. Just to the left of Ollie’s ear you can see the WH Smith portcullis logo, and immediately under Stan’s chin is a shiny aluminum handrail, both very much still there, and touchable today. Even a slight imperfection on the mounting bracket (clearly visible on the original photograph) is just as it was in the 1950s when this picture was taken.

    For sure, the Queen Mary is a hollow reminder of its former self, but at least it’s still THERE, and despite 40 years of ill-advised ownership (even Walt Disney Corp owned the ship at one time: thank God they sold it after leaving it to rot for a few years, otherwise the Observation Bar would probably be a pizza parlor called Mickey’s Mini Pizza Parlor or something equally as tasteless), it provides a remarkably well preserved window into the past, and has more stories to tell than we’ll ever know.

    Nowhere are those stories more apparent that the Observation Bar. It all went down here, I can just feel it.

    The above picture clearly shows a torchiere and location of the table the 4pm picture above taken from about 70 years later. Note the comfortable chairs (long since replaced with vinyl ‘replicas’), wine glasses and ashtray just waiting to be sat on, drunk out of and smoked on.

    Above is a nice wide shot of the bar in its heyday, complete with classy curtains and ample concealed lighting in true art-deco style. Interestingly, the wooden bar top was made as one continuos countertop with no lift-gate, so the barmen had to pole-vault over in order to get behind the bar to do their work.

    Above is a close-up of the frieze above the bar, also relatively untouched since it was painted, showing a jubilee party for King George III.

    The final picture, above, shows the bar as it was in the late 50s clearly showing its red theme and shiny accents. This is probably just how it looked when Stan and Ollie visited it after a quick stroll on the promenade deck, stopping in at WH Smith to buy some paper and ink to write some down some funny stuff.

    Oh, I love the Queen Mary!


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  • Thanks for this wonderfully evocative bit of nostalgia. The photos and commentary are terrific. I can vouch for the historical vibe of the ship. Thirty years ago, I worked for a week as an extra on a “movie-of-the-week” aboard the Queen Mary. Years later, I attended a wonderful wedding and reception there. Many of the guests wore evening clothes from the 30s and 40s. There was a live swing band. The bride and groom did a tango. Every deck and corridor of that ship plunges you into the past. It’s something of a revelation to see all that historical craftsmanship sitting in the midst of our disposable culture. Thanks for including this on your blog.

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