Queen of seas reigns no longer

December 26, 2006|By Bloomberg News

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- The Queen Mary luxury liner, which went from monarch of the sea to tourism tool over the years, has become a royal headache.

The owner of the lease to operate the 72-year-old ship and her 365-room on-board hotel was forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year in a dispute over $3.4 million in back rent with the city of Long Beach. The city purchased the Queen Mary in 1967 to help it compete for visitors.

Now, a court-appointed trustee is trying to sell the 66-year lease and rights to develop 45 acres of land near the ship, which once carried Winston Churchill, Fred Astaire and Bob Hope in Art Deco elegance across the North Atlantic.

"The ship has been pilfered," said Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, a former Long Beach activist. "It's falling apart."

The vessel's engines and boilers were removed. Pigeons nest in portholes, and seagull droppings dot the fading teak decks. The Queen Mary, named after the wife of King George V, transported troops during World War II and with sister ship Queen Elizabeth dominated the trans-Atlantic passenger trade for almost two decades.

"I understand the `coolness' of staying aboard a great luxury liner and being a part of its history," according to a comment about the Queen Mary's hotel posted on tripadvisor.com's Web site. "But be prepared for the reality of it also. It's old. It's run down. It's dark. And it smells funny in there."

Today, the Queen Mary is perhaps best known as a ghost ship. It offers a year-round tour of supposedly haunted sites, such as a children's playroom where a baby's cries can be heard and a long-empty, first-class pool that has sounds of splashing.

The vessel in January will host a three-day "paranormal retreat" for ghost hunters. Last month, the ship was the site of GhostFest Expo 2006, with seminars such as "The Poltergeist Syndrome" and "The Unquiet Dead."

Joseph F. Prevratil, 69, has run the Queen Mary on and off for the past quarter century. He said he has done much to improve its finances since taking over the lease in 1993, after Walt Disney Co. scuttled plans for a theme park. The ship averages about 1.2 million visitors a year and has annual revenue of $36 million.

Prevratil now is blamed by the city for putting the Queen Mary in limbo. There's a floor price of $38 million for the lease and development rights. Among other suggestions that have been dismissed was one by an unidentified Arab sheik who offered to haul the Queen Mary to a desert.

Prevatil settled with the city Nov. 21, two years after he accused Long Beach of reneging on a deal to allow him to take a $7 million discount on his monthly rent - $25,000, plus as much as 5 percent of the ship's yearly revenue.

Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster said last month that he was encouraged by the settlement and looked forward to the "ultimate resolution."

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