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Classic sailing, hold the sea

Times Staff Writer

STANDING in Mark B. Perry’s living room, with the lights of Los Angeles sparkling in the background and jazz softly lilting, you find yourself looking at your shoes -- not in a Did-I-wipe-them-on-the-mat? kind of way, but rather, as if to ask yourself, Why didn’t I dress up?

Perry’s elegant 1938 Streamline Moderne house makes you crave a time when people dressed for dinner. It’s a sense of sophistication that Perry calls “Nautical Deco”: a mixture of Art Deco and a collection of nautical ephemera so vast, it is incorporated into every room of the 3,800-square-foot home. Furniture, china, matchboxes, swizzle sticks, ashtrays, salt and pepper shakers -- you name it, all from classic cruise ships -- furnish Perry’s stunning ocean liner of a house, dry-docked in the hills of Los Feliz.

A television writer on the current series “What About Brian” and formerly a producer for “The Wonder Years,” “Picket Fences” and “Party of Five,” Perry has assembled his maritime look with the precision of a seasoned art director. Signs salvaged from various ocean liners lie scattered throughout the house, offering directions like brass maps: “To Sports Deck,” “To Swimming Pool,” and over the mantel in the living room, “Ballroom Lounge.”

The collection includes dining room chairs from the SS United States, the largest passenger liner ever built in the U.S. when it premiered in 1952. Matched with original china and a lamp from the ship, the pieces evoke a glamorous dinner aboard a transatlantic crossing. Guest bedrooms decorated with vintage blankets and other furnishings re-create staterooms aboard the United States and the Queen Mary.

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Navigation equipment, photographs, brochures and large-scale ship models originally crafted for travel agencies are scattered throughout the house in display cases. Sharing space in the den with an Emmy statuette for “Picket Fences” is a compass case called a binnacle that hails from the Normandie, the French vessel that set the world record for cruise ship size and speed in the 1930s.

Perry’s latest passion? Amateur movies shot by passengers and crew aboard ships from the 1920s through ‘60s. Perry likes to edit the footage and screen the movies at parties.

“I have color home movies of turtle races,” he deadpans in describing a more innocent era.

Many of the pieces were picked up through EBay, Christie’s auctions or dealers of nautical antiques. He says the collection is about creating a home that feels contemporary yet nostalgic. For Perry, a self-described “ship geek,” the trick is celebrating his love of classic ships without descending into kitsch.

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Nowhere is the refined ambience of an old-time ocean liner more evident than in the living room.

“I wanted it to feel like a grand salon,” Perry says. Graced with high ceilings and abundant natural light, the living room is arranged around a 1930s Art Deco couch and chairs. A trio of lights resembling portholes suggest a deck above. A circular stairwell leads to a bar and screening room below.

Behind the salon’s grand piano, two chairs face a bank of graceful curving windows overlooking the Los Angeles Basin. The result is what Perry calls his “observation lounge.”

Asked to describe the ambience of the room, he thinks for a second and says simply, “Fred Astaire.”

PERRY, 48, first became enamored with ocean liners when he saw the 1960 film “The Last Voyage” as a boy.

“There was something about the ship that captured my imagination,” he says of the Ile de France’s seductive Art Deco interiors, which were used in the film. “I loved the paneling, the style. I didn’t care about the story. I was looking past the actors so I could see the details.”

He didn’t start collecting in earnest until 14 years ago, when he stumbled upon a section of carpeting from the Queen Mary at an Art Deco store in Sherman Oaks. That find triggered what he jokingly calls OLOCD -- Ocean Liner Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. “I just got swept up into a hysteria,” he says with a laugh.

These days, he approaches his passion with a healthy dose of self-deprecation. When Perry retires, he says he hopes to hand out business cards that simply read, “Mark Perry: Bon Vivant & Raconteur.”

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Spend enough time with him at the house, and you find that he is a natural storyteller. He recounts details of the United States’ maiden voyage in ’52, when it smashed the transatlantic speed record (“It was like the moon landing!”), relays tales of the home’s original owner (“Legend has it, Dr. Emery saw George Gershwin’s brain”) and reveals how he tripped and broke a bottle of Champagne on the front steps the night he closed escrow (“I christened the house just like a ship!”).

Perry even used his talents as a writer in his efforts to buy the property.

“I wrote a letter to the owners and told them of my love of ships,” he says. “It already felt like a ship. My things have just added to it.”

Today, the ocean liner motif extends beyond the house. When Perry moved in seven years ago, the backyard was “a disaster.” Plagued with overgrown trees and skunks, Perry enlisted the help of Architecture + Gardens’ John Davis and Sarah Munster. The pair added curved decks in keeping with the home’s Streamline design, a steep ship-like staircase that allowed access to the second floor, a pool and spa, and gardens filled with native and tropical plants. For Davis, the yard was an opportunity to frame the property’s amazing views.

“The view talks of the sinews of L.A.,” he says. “You see the river, the freeways, the railroad tracks. To me, that is what L.A. is all about.”

Perry, who admits that his OLOCD is “a peculiar hobby,” says he’s done adding to his collection. He has turned his attention to the SS United States Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the ship’s restoration, where he is in charge of a project to archive still images and films related to the ship, its crew and its passengers. He is also spearheading an hourlong documentary about the ship.

“It’s an important piece of Americana that has been largely forgotten,” he says. “It was the greatest, safest, fastest ship.”

Though he’s speaking about the SS United States, Perry could be describing his own collection.

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“It’s a connection with an era that we just don’t have anymore.”

lisa.boone@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Maritime musings

Mark B. Perry on his vast collection of cruise-related ephemera:

What would you carry out of a burning building?

Besides my dog Blanche? I’d try to grab the movies. They are one-of-a kind, irreplaceable. When I have a party, nonship people gravitate to them.

Those amateur movies shot by passengers and crew decades ago? What, no “Titanic”?

I’m interested in the story of the Titanic but not the ship. I don’t think it’s a pretty ship. I prefer ships that actually did what they were designed to do -- stay afloat.

What items do ship geeks flock to when they visit your collection?

They always want to see the latest films I have. They are quaint and bring the ships to life in a way that documentary films don’t. They see the ships as they were experienced by everyday people.

Where do you get this stuff?

EBay, Christie’s. There are dealers who specialize in this kind of thing: Richard Faber in New York, Don Leavitt of www.nautiques.net, www.cabinclass.com, www.sskenschultz.com, Mitchell Mart in Miami. They sometimes call me, and I tell them I’m going to change my phone number.

How do you choose a piece?

It’s a gut reaction. First and foremost, it has to do with one of my top 15 ships. It depends on what ship it comes from.

Where do the pieces go from here?

My biggest regret about dying is that I won’t be able to attend my own estate sale.

-- Lisa Boone


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