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Hackensack's Frank Avellino with a poster from his play and other Titanic items.
Posted: Wednesday April 4, 2012, 1:57 PM

Everybody knows a – as opposed to the — Titanic story.

That's because, in the 100 years since the Titanic went down, the story has been spun 100 ways: as a saga of class warfare, a heroic tale of noblesse oblige, an elegy for the end of an era, a sermon about man's pride.

April 15 will mark the centennial of that night to remember, when the "unsinkable" luxury liner struck an iceberg just before midnight on April 14 and sank off the coast of Newfoundland, killing 1,517 people. And a bumper crop of events, from today's 3-D IMAX re-release of James Cameron's $200 million blockbuster "Titanic," to the RMS Titanic Centennial Convention, April 27 to 29 in Secaucus, will testify to the fascination that this story continues to exert on filmmakers, playwrights, novelists, sermonizers, singers and tourists who visit Titanic sites by the thousands.

"Every decade it means something different," said Frank Avellino, a Hackensack playwright and Titanic buff whose play "Ice in April" won an Off-Off-Broadway Review Award in 1999.

"The Titanic is like the quintessential Greek tragedy come to life," Avellino said. "You couldn't make up a better fictional story."

"World's Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg" screamed a faux-vintage headline in the satirical newspaper The Onion in 1999 — and that about sums it up. Maybe that's why we continue to retell it, relish it, re-imagine it — whereas the Morro Castle, the Andrea Doria and even the Lusitania, all sea tragedies that had as big or bigger impact at the time, are now mostly names in a history book.

"It's just a fascinating topic," says Robert L. Bracken, trustee and treasurer of the Titanic International Society in Midland Park, a commemorative group founded in 1989.

"I go to a party and someone says, 'You know, Bob's doing work on the Titanic.' ... First thing I know there are 20 people sitting around me asking questions," Bracken says. "All you have to do is say the word 'Titanic.' "

Here are some of the ways it's been spun through the years:

* A saga of gallantry. This was the story's first roll-out, in popular accounts, soon after the actual sinking in 1912. It was women and children first, while men bravely went down with the ship. Some commentators chose to spin this further, into an object lesson against female suffrage: "Boats for women, not votes for women," ran the refrain of a poem published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

* A punishment from God. The hot topic in the sermons of 1912. The Titanic was a modern Tower of Babel. Man had committed the sin of pride by claiming to make an "unsinkable" ship. God reminded us – dramatically — who's boss. Later a favorite theme of gospel songs, such as "Down With the Old Canoe" and "God Moves on the Waters."

* A tale of fate. If only the ship were going more slowly. If only the rescue ship Carpathia were closer. If only there were enough lifeboats. If only the men on watch had binoculars. If only icebergs hadn't strayed south that year, due to a super-rare Sun-Moon-Earth alignment. The Titanic, in this telling, is the jinx to end all jinxes.

* A floating class war. The Titanic was stratified 1912 society in an 882-foot nutshell: snobbish rich people up top, helpless poor folk trapped beneath. "They stowed 'em down below, where they'd be the first to go" ran the campfire song "The Great Titanic," which began to be sung around 1915. James Cameron's 1997 movie took this idea to extremes.

* A come-uppance for white folks. Post-1912, a whole literature of sardonic black folk songs and poems arose, cluck-clucking at the fate of the ship that was too snooty to carry African-Americans. In one, heavyweight champion Jack Johnson is, ironically, saved because racist white folks won't sell him a ticket. In another, rich white folks beg the ship's stoker, "Shine," to save them, but he swims to Liverpool instead.

* A story of official malfeasance. Lifeboats for only half of the ship's 2,224 people? Excessive speed? There was plenty of blame to go around as people began to look at the causes of the disaster. A Nazi "Titanic" movie of 1943 even suggested that greedy Englishmen deliberately overtaxed the ship's engines in order to set a speed record and manipulate the stock market.

* An end of an era. This has been a popular view ever since Walter Lord's 1955 book "A Night to Remember." When the Titanic went down, Lord suggested, the complacency and optimism of the Victorian age went down with it.

"You say the word 'Titanic' and it sets a trigger off in everybody's mind," Bracken says.

Just look, he says, at how the very word is used in conversation today.

"[We say] 'Titanic' events, or 'Well, that was like the Titanic,' " Bracken says. "And the Costa Concordia [capsizing in January] was compared to the Titanic. So people are aware of it, almost everyone."

Email: beckerman@northjersey.com and rohan@northjersey.com
Events and TV specials commemorating the tragedy

Live events

• RMS Titanic Centennial Convention: April 27-29, Holiday Inn Meadowlands, Secaucus. The Titanic International Society, based in Midland Park, is organizing this convention, which kicks off with a memorial service involving the families of Titanic victims and survivors. Deadline to register is Wednesday. See titanicinternationalsociety.org.

• "The Titanic Collection" auction: In 1994, a U.S. district court granted Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions Inc. salvor-in-possession rights to the Titanic. New York auction house Guernsey's is selling those salvage rights, along with all 5,500 artifacts recovered from the debris field, many of which have been used in Titanic-themed exhibits. These artifacts legally must be sold as a group, or one lot, which, along with the salvage rights, has been appraised at $189 million, according to Guernsey's. Bids were due Monday, and the winning bidder will be announced April 11. Photos of a small selection of the artifacts can be viewed at guernseys.com.

Television shows

• "Titanic's Final Mystery": 8 p.m. Thursday, Smithsonian Channel. In this two-hour special, historian, author and Titanic expert Tim Maltin investigates a century of theories and uncovers "astonishing new forensic evidence" about what went wrong.

• "Titanic Collection 100th Anniversary": 8 p.m. Friday, QVC. The cable channel will unveil a collection of jewelry, home goods, giftware and even a fragrance inspired by artifacts recovered from the ship.

• "Titanic: The Final Word With James Cameron": 8 p.m. Sunday, National Geographic Channel. In the two-hour special, the Oscar-winning filmmaker gathers experts for a cold-case examination of what exactly happened after the ship hit an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912.

• "Save the Titanic With Bob Ballard": 10 p.m. Monday, National Geographic Channel. The man who discovered the shipwreck in 1985 visits the descendants of some of those who sailed on the Titanic, and questions how long the wreck can survive.

• "The Titanic With Len Goodman": 8 p.m. April 10, PBS. Wondering why Goodman, best known as a judge on "Dancing With the Stars," is hosting this special, which looks at the impact the sinking had on thousands of affected families? Before he was a dancer, Goodman was a welder for the company that built the Titanic.

• "Titanic": 8 p.m. April 14, 9 p.m. April 15, ABC. This four-part miniseries, airing over two nights, features both fictional and historical characters, following the events from different points of view.

• "Titanic at 100: Mystery Solved": 8 p.m. April 15, History. A team of scientists, engineers, archaeologists and imaging experts have joined forces to determine how the "unsinkable" ship broke apart and plunged to the bottom of the North Atlantic.

— Virginia Rohan

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