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The Unsinkable Mary Strauss

Celebration marking 100th anniversary of maiden voyage of Titanic is brainchild of Central West End resident

Central West End resident Mary Strauss with a 1912 fashion poster from L. Patois of Paris featuring evening wear from the era of the Titanic. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
March 27, 2012
When the legendary Mary Strauss has an idea, the sky tends to be the limit. And should she ever need to, she'd likely elevate the clouds.

For what Strauss predicts could be the international-headline-grabbing topper to a fantastic weekend, she's planned to mark the centennial of the Titanic's maiden voyage in 1912 with a whopper of a gastronomic re-creation.

In her $500-per-plate version, which she personally dubs "Titanic on the Mississippi," each guest arriving at the Fox Theatre the evening of April 14 will receive a boarding pass and envelope with the name and biography of an actual first-class passenger who departed from Southampton, England, on what was to have been an eight-day cruise to New York City.

Among real-life notables on ship were the "Unsinkable" Molly Brown, the socialite originally from Hannibal, Mo.; wealthy businessmen John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim; Captain Edward John Smith; and Lady Duff Gordon, better known as Lucile, the fashion designer who lowered necklines, loosened corsets and championed beguiling lingerie.

After cocktails, hors d'oeuvres and Edwardian-era musical selections in the Grand Lobby of the Fox on April 14, "passengers" here will proceed onstage for the identical 11-course, nine-different-wines menu served to first-class passengers on their fifth and final night onboard.

(click for larger version)
Under the supervision of Fox Chef Stephen Proctor, L'Ecole Culinaire and Thom Johnson, the events and food and beverage director at Fox Associates, dinner highlights will include filet mignons lili, roast duckling, roast squab, Waldorf pudding and peaches in chartreuse jelly.

"Everything will be made from scratch. It is amazing. It really is," enthused Central West End resident Strauss, herself no stranger to gargantuan undertakings.

In 1981, she and her late husband, Leon, a prominent real-estate developer who died in 1999, navigated with flashlights through the then-shuttered, dilapidated, leaky-ceilinged Fox Theatre, which was built in 1929.

"Don't you ever let anything happen to this theater," Mary was quoted as telling Leon.

Within a year, she restored the theater, tracking down even the original elephant-head pattern to be woven into thousands of yards of brick-red carpeting.

With the Fox's reopening serving as her public launch pad, Strauss emerged as an indefatigable promoter of the arts, whether co-producing Broadway musicals that won Tony awards or putting talented area-wide teens onstage at the Fox in a Broadway-type show with potential payoffs in scholarships, prizes and performing opportunities.

For Strauss, the genesis of St. Louis' three-day Titanic commemoration was the trip she and three girlfriends took to Kentucky in 1998, the year after the release of director James Cameron's "Titanic," an epic romance and disaster movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. The film will be re-released in 3-D on April 6.

That year the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville was among venues hosting a "Last Dinner on the Titanic," its rendition with just eight courses.

"Oh my God, it was so much fun," Strauss recalled. "I said, 'I've gotta do it on the stage of the Fox some time.'"

Numerous theatrical events intervened, along with the "Centennial Celebration of Josephine Baker" exhibit in 2006, which Strauss helped spearhead. The exhibit premiered at the Sheldon Art Galleries here and moved to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

However, marking the 100th year of the seemingly unsinkable Titanic, second only to Noah's Ark among famous seagoing crafts, proved irresistible. Strauss approached Kitty Ratcliffe, president of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, as well as officials at the Missouri History Museum and Tower Grove Park. St. Louis County resident Joan Quicksilver agreed to co-chair.

Reportedly at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg that towered some 60 feet above the water. Within two-and one-half hours, the ship was at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Beforehand, women and children were ordered to descend first into what proved too few lifeboats. Of those on board, an estimated 1,500 died. Some 700 survived.

Yet the Titanic festivities here will be just that – a celebration.

"We're not sinking. We're staying away from sinking," Strauss said. "What this is all about is being a part of living history while remembering the heroism, courage and self-sacrifice of the passengers and crew."

A Weekend To Remember

Something for everyone is the aim of Mary Strauss. For the 100th anniversary of the Titanic, she's helped mastermind the following:

• Friday, April 13, at the Missouri History Museum: View Titanic-related artifacts and attend a 7:30 p.m. screening of "A Night to Remember" (1958). Though not a documentary, Strauss calls it "the best, most authentic" movie made, to date, about the Titanic. Tickets for the showing are $10. For a 6 p.m. Edwardian Champagne Reception with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, plus the exhibit and movie, the cost is $50. Discounts are available for museum members.

• Saturday, April 14: "The Last Dinner on the Titanic," with 6 p.m. cocktails and hors d'oeuvres in the grand lobby of the Fox Theatre and an 11-course dinner on stage, beginning at 7 p.m. Valet parking. Formal or vintage attire encouraged. Price: $500 per ticket. Proceeds benefit the Fox Performing Arts Foundation, which counts among its events Kids' Night on Broadway, the St. Louis Teen Talent Showcase and a new Lion King Literacy Project.

• Sunday, April 15: "First Class Titanic Brunch," with seatings at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m., in Tower Grove Park's completely restored Piper Palm House. Not only is the locale the oldest standing greenhouse west of the Mississippi, but according to Strauss, it closely resembles the Verandah Café on the Titanic. The menu will include a glass of champagne, smoked salmon, grilled sausage, lamb chops, sirloin steak, omelets prepared to order, baked apples, fresh fruit, scones, cornbread and dessert. Price: $45 per person.

To order tickets, visit www.titanic2012stl.com, www.metrotix.com or call Metrotix, 534-1111.

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