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Queen Mary’s Rough Seas : Dispute Arises Over Disney Co.'s Upkeep of the Giant Liner

TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Rubin and two of his friends spent most of a recent Saturday aboard the Queen Mary.

They took a guided tour of the ship. They descended into the vessel’s innards looking for ghosts. And they sauntered nostalgically back and forth along the wooden decks of the majestic luxury liner that once transported the world’s elite across the Atlantic.

Unlike many of the other guests, however, Rubin and his friends, Eric Sander and Chris Hogan, were not much impressed by what they saw.

“I’m appalled,” declared Rubin, a 28-year-old secretary from South Pasadena. “This is very disturbing.”

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Said Sander, 27, a former Queen Mary tour guide who now lives in Rancho Palos Verdes: “It’s a crime.”

They are concerned about what they describe as the deterioration of the famous ship since 1988, when the Walt Disney Co. leased it from the city of Long Beach. They are worried about general neglect and destruction of the vessel’s historical integrity to provide what Disney employees call “the guest experience.”

A spokesman for Disney denied that the ship is being damaged, asserting instead that the company has spent millions of dollars in refurbishing it.

But Rubin, Sander and others felt strongly enough about the matter to create a nonprofit corporation two years ago to encourage the Queen Mary’s preservation and restoration. Called the Queen Mary Foundation, the group--which claims 68 members--aims to pressure the city into enacting legislation to protect what it considers an international treasure. Such action is especially necessary, they argue, in light of Disney’s well-publicized interest in developing a major theme park in Long Beach with the Queen Mary as its centerpiece.

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“She’s a part of history,” Rubin said of the ship. “She’s the product of what men can do in difficult times.”

Said Sander: “She’s the last of her kind. (She represents) a time that is gone and will never come back.”

Indeed, historians say, the Queen Mary is the last major example of the kind of transatlantic luxury liner that once sailed the oceans. Launched in 1936 by the Cunard-White Star Line of England, the ship, which is more than 1,000 feet long and weighs about 81,000 tons, quickly broke the world record for providing the fastest crossing.

During World War II, the Queen Mary operated as a troop transport ship, moving approximately 800,000 Allied troops between Europe and America.

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In 1967, no longer profitable, the vessel was sold to Long Beach for $3.45 million. After spending four years and another $66 million to refurbish it, the city opened it as a hotel in 1971. And in January, 1988, the Disney company leased the ship from Long Beach and began operating it as a tourist attraction.

Queen Mary Foundation members, who say they have no special expertise in historic preservation but simply love ocean liners, said they first became alarmed three years ago when Disney officials ordered the ship’s three smokestacks to be repainted fire engine red instead of their original Cunard orange.

More recently, they were appalled by the removal of 24 tons of docking machinery from the ship’s rear deck and the removal of dozens of original bronze windows from one side of the promenade deck. The items were important characteristics of Depression-era luxury liners and their removal damages the ship’s historical integrity, they said.

In addition, foundation members said they fear that the ship is not being properly maintained. Pieces of furniture sit nailed to the deck subject to mistreatment by the public. Rare original light fixtures have been broken and not replaced. Beautiful Art Deco murals and original wood paneling have been marred by graffiti. And hotel rooms have been restored to a condition that foundation members believe falls short of complete historical accuracy.

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Bill Winberg, the ship’s historian, denies that the Queen Mary’s historical integrity has been seriously impaired. The docking machinery, he said, was removed to make way for an outdoor swimming pool that has since been put on hold. The bronze windows were taken out to create a breeze for visitors strolling the decks. And in general, he said, the Walt Disney Co. has done more than any previous tenant to maintain and refurbish the ship.

“Great strides have been made over the past three years to bring (the ship) back,” said Winberg, who has worked at the Queen Mary since 1979. While every effort is made to maintain the vessel in its historically accurate condition, compromises are made because of a lack of money and qualified craftsmen, he said. “Like any historical structure, there were changes throughout its career . . . and the ship’s purpose continues to change.”

In restoring the Queen Mary’s hotel rooms, Winberg said, old photographs were consulted to maintain as much historical accuracy as possible. The only pieces of furniture nailed to the deck, he said, are reproductions. Light fixtures are repaired as time and resources allow and, as for graffiti, Disney officials said they are searching for an expert to restore the damaged murals and paneling.

“We have tried to keep it very authentic,” said Jennifer Nestegard, a spokeswoman for the ship. “It’s been a continual job, and we’re still working on it.”

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Disney officials said they will decide by the end of the year whether to go ahead with plans to feature the huge ship in a major theme park. Aside from the necessity of moving the vessel 700 feet to the north to improve the view from a proposed hotel, said David Malmuth, a vice president in charge of development, the company cannot say with certainty what the project will entail for the Queen Mary.

Last month, members of the Queen Mary Foundation met with City Councilman Evan Anderson Braude, who agreed to investigate their allegations. “They did bring what appear to be some valid concerns,” said Braude, whose district includes the downtown and harbor area in which the old ship lies.

Braude said he would meet with the Queen Mary’s management to discuss the matter within a few weeks. “I don’t think, from what I’ve seen, that the issues are so gigantic that there can’t be some resolution,” said Braude, adding that it was premature to say whether he would sponsor local legislation to protect the ship.

The foundation, meanwhile, holds regular meetings, is preparing to publish a newsletter and encourages members to make frequent trips to the Queen Mary to monitor what is going on.

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During one recent visit, foundation members shook their heads in dismay as they walked past a row of colorful ticket booths selling general admissions for $17.50 each.

For that price visitors get a general tour of the Queen Mary, a special ghost tour of places in the ship considered “haunted” and entry to the nearby Spruce Goose airplane exhibit.

Tourism is just fine, Sander said, but not the toll he believes it is exacting on what should be considered a major international monument. “It’s like taking the Eiffel Tower and turning it into a parachute jump,” he said. “You just don’t do that.”

QUEEN MARY FACTS First keel plate laid: 1930 Maiden voyage from England: 1936 Owner: Cunard-White Star Line Construction cost: $30 million World War II troop ship: 1940-47 Final voyage to Long Beach: 1967 Disney Co. acquired lease: 1988 Dimensions: 1,019 feet 6 inches long 118 feet wide, 185 feet high Gross weight: 81,237 tons

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