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An unsinkable legend

The StarShip invites guests to indulge in the luxuries of the Titanic to mark the 91st anniversary of the ship's lone voyage.

[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
Lowell Lytle, left, of Pinellas Park plays Titanic Capt. Edward John Smith while Tony Hobbs of St. Petersburg assumes the role of Quartermaster Tom Hitchens.

By KEVIN GRAHAM
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003


photo
Lowell Lytle keeps a photo of Titanic Capt. Edward John Smith tucked inside his hat.
ABOARD THE STARSHIP -- Bostonian Victoria VanderSmelt insists all men boarding the Titanic kiss her hand upon greeting her.

"Mother will be delighted to see you," she tells them.

To her left, fellow passenger Hugh Walner of London chats with the gents coming onto the ship.

"You must join us later for brandy and cards in the parlor," he says.

The women, naturally, aren't invited. They have other diversions after dinner. Perhaps they'll retire to the salon for poetry readings.

Scenes like this took place aboard the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic when the ship set sail from Southampton, England, for its maiden voyage on April 10, 1912.

Today the StarShip yacht docked at Channelside re-creates that experience during 2 1/2-hour dinner cruises, which run through the weekend.

More than 75 passengers boarded the yacht in downtown Tampa on Monday, the eve of the 91st anniversary of the Titanic's sinking on April 15, 1912.
photo
Dinner featured food that passengers on the real Titanic ate, including lamb, rice pilaf and carrots.
Passengers sampled the same six-course menu served on that fateful night, including oysters a la russe, poached salmon, Waldorf salad, rack of lamb and chicken lyonnaise. For dessert, they had chocolate-covered cream puffs and plum pudding.

Actors Janet Stanley and Eddie Webber who portrayed VanderSmelt and Walner, respectively, stayed in character and costume all evening. They commented on the selection of iceberg lettuce and wondered aloud why anyone would bother taking the swimming lessons the crew members were offering.

Some of the guests came in period clothing.

Sue Nunez of Town 'N Country wore a wide-brimmed, burgundy hat with a piece of white lace that draped down her back. Her husband, Jim, donned a top hat, ducktails and pinstriped pants.
Passengers Sue and Jim Nunez, who rented period clothing for the event, dine at the captain's table during their Monday voyage on the StarShip.

"It was a fascinating ship and a very fascinating era," he said. "It was man's greatest achievement."

After dinner, passengers retired to the third deck, where Capt. Edward John Smith, played by Lowell Lytle of Pinellas Park, spoke solemnly about the features of the Titanic and talked about the final moments of the crew and passengers.

Guests shuddered at his uncanny resemblance to the real Capt. Smith.

"I scare people," Lytle said later. "They think they've seen a ghost."
Dancers Sam Zeoli and Dee Brooks of St. Petersburg twirl to traditional Irish music on the dinner cruise.

Lytle has played Smith at more than a dozen openings of Titanic exhibits. A few years ago, Lytle visited the wreckage of the Titanic in the depths of the north Atlantic Ocean.

"As an actor, I'm usually in control of my emotions, and I was emotionally fine until I saw somebody's shoe and watch," he said.

Lytle said it's easy to see the significance of the Titanic. He said only two subjects in the world have been written about more than the Titanic: the Civil War and Jesus Christ.

"It's a story that builds legends," he said. "You couldn't write this story. The richest people in the world and some of the poorest people were on the Titanic. Everybody can relate to somebody on that ship."

While on the dive, Lytle said he and the crew members found an 18-inch wrench, a hot water heater used to make tea and the telegraph machine used to send warnings about the icebergs.

Lytle said he constantly reads stories about the Titanic and the captain. With each one he discovers an interesting detail, like the fact that Smith's nickname was "Teddy."

"When you're dressed up in this outfit, people expect you to know about everything," Lytle said.

Marbeth Bingman of Seminole sat at the captain's table during dinner and was impressed by his knowledge.

"You ask him any kind of question about the Titanic, and he had an answer," she said.

After Lytle finished his "captain's speech," the crew and passengers paused for a moment of silence for the lives lost during the Titanic tragedy. Two flares bolted into the sky from the top of the ship.

"I remember thinking, 'Thank God there are no icebergs,' " said Kathy Mattson, of Land O'Lakes, overlooking the water.

The band played Danny Boy and couples danced as the boat slowly made its way back to shore. Chivalrous men gave their coats to women to ward off the chill.

Bingman counted her blessings.

She was glad the ship decided to re-create the dinner and the dancing, and not the sinking.

-- Kevin Graham can be reached at 226-3375 or kgraham@sptimes.com.

If you go

Tribute to the Titanic dinner cruises continue through Sunday aboard the StarShip. Tickets are $59.95 on Friday and Saturday and $49.95 on Sunday. For information call 223-7999.

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