Reaching out to Princess Diana's gown Tributes: A cable network brings a royal relic to American malls, where devotees can express their feelings about the tragedy.

November 14, 1997|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

A mall is as good a place as any to see a relic. You can venerate what is left of the dead, grab a sandwich, check out Crate & Barrel and pick up that watch that was in for repair, without ever moving the car.

And so they came yesterday to the Grand Court on Level 1 of Towson Town Center, to behold a gown that once belonged to the late Princess Diana and to pay tribute to her as part of the "Legacy of Love National Mall Tour," sponsored by Romance Classics, a cable channel that has to do with love and its many splendors and splinters.

As relics go, the gown is a beauty. And so mall appropriate. A pale blue silk chiffon, strapless, draped and tucked to recall Grace Kelly's gown from the film "To Catch a Thief." The People's Princess wore it at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987. It is contained in a striking reliquary, a tall glass case, in which the gown, under ordinary circumstances, rotates so visitors can examine its elegantly folded landscape.

Unfortunately, an unloading mishap made rotating impossible yesterday. But an entourage of models, producers and other staffers carried on nevertheless, inviting the reverent to tape their thoughts about Princess Diana for a possible 1998 broadcast on Romance Classics, sandwiched among all 514 episodes of "Peyton Place," "The Long Hot Summer" and "true-life love stories," including an episode in which "a couple celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary with a thrilling ride on the Goodyear Blimp."

Cassandra Browning was the first to speak of her love for Diana on a neat little portable set adorned with hearts. "She touched your heart," Browning, a mall employee, told producer Wheeler Jackson.

"Would you say she is a role model?" he asked.

"I don't know if I would say she's a role model."

Like everyone who taped a tribute, Browning received a copy of Elton John's "Candle in the Wind '97" CD.

Next came Terrie Mucha and her 6-year-old daughter Rachael.Rachael cried and lit candles in church when Diana died, her mother says. And whenever she sees a fender bender, Rachael says, "'Oh, Mommy, that's how Princess Diana died,' " her mother said.

As Jackson has traveled from mall to mall in the Midwest and the East Coast, he has found that people want to pay their respects on tape as a sort of catharsis. There was the poetry-reciting truck driver, a balladeer who accompanied himself on guitar, the woman dying of cancer, the Diana look-alikes (at least two to a city).

The tour has been visited by plenty of "certified wackos," he says, including the woman who painstakingly explained how she was related to Diana. But when the bright lights blink on, most people, like so many Shelby Footes discussing a pivotal Civil War battle, calmly gaze into the camera and offer their reflections, as if born to the task.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. In June, with a promotional tour in mind, Romance Classics bought three of Diana's gowns at auction for more than $200,000.

The tour, which included a sweepstakes prize of one of the gowns, was going full tilt when Diana died in August.

The tour was immediately discontinued, explains publicist Alexandra Carlin. "But what we then decided, there were so many elements to her life that were important for people to know about, besides her wonderful sense of style we all remember her for."

So on Oct. 23, the tour resumed. By the time it reached Towson yesterday, Legacy of Love veterans had fallen into a convivial rhythm of work and play. A photo of two Romance Classics models smooching a producer on the set was passed around. A threat was made to shoot the noisy roulette wheel at the nearby WMIX-FM booth. Jackson flirted gently with three high school girls who taped their sentiments while on break from a mock Congress convention at Goucher.

The piped-in mall music was finally getting to Doug Meltzer, a free-lance cameraman from New York. Still, this gig was a welcome change from the newsmagazine show assignments he usually gets, in which he must participate in interviews with grieving parents, or senior citizens bilked out of thousands.

Not too long ago, Meltzer appeared on Page One of an Oregon newspaper, applying powder to a serial killer's face, in the bizarre, hall-of-mirrors way that media begets its own celebrity.

And so it was yesterday. There were no apparent serial killers in attendance. But a flurry of reporter types gathered around the Legacy of Love encampment, in between the Body Shop and the Peace Frogs cart, interviewing the interviewers and interviewed in a never-ending cycle.

And there was Raymond Lawing, a veteran bit player in Barry Levinson's and other Baltimore-born films. He, too, wanted to pay tribute to the late Princess of Wales. In a guest book to be sent to her family, Lawing added his thoughts: "Princess Diana was a very regal and honorable human being. I'm proud to have known her."

Lawing didn't really know her, of course. But he felt as if he did, especially when she was brave enough to admit that she had suffered from bulemia and anorexia, he told the camera.

And he just missed her once as she came out of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.

Asked for any final words, Lawing thought long and hard. Finally, he responded. "She took the place of Jackie Kennedy in the minds of the people," he said.

It had been said before, but not by a man. Jackson nodded approvingly. A wrap.

Pub Date: 11/14/97

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