Black-and-white movie sparks a lifetime of Titanic fascinationJames Sheetz was hooked on the Titanic story once he saw the 1950s film “A Night to Remember,” based on the book of the same name by Walter Lord. The book is said to have brought about the second of three waves of interest in the tragic tale.
By: Mike Creger, Forum Communications, Pine Journal
James Sheetz was hooked on the Titanic story once he saw the 1950s film “A Night to Remember,” based on the book of the same name by Walter Lord. The book is said to have brought about the second of three waves of interest in the tragic tale.
Sheetz was so enthralled by the tragedy as a child that he would try to recreate it, slitting holes in the side of a toy boat to mimic the iceberg’s damage and setting it out on a lake near his home south of Carlton. Later, he would set out on a craft he fashioned as his own lifeboat, scaring his mother as he became adrift on the water.
His interest hasn’t ebbed in adulthood, though it’s become more scholarly than macabre. Sheetz owns the historic Scott House, the home he grew up in. It’s a special events center for those who want a glimpse at the past. This Saturday and Sunday, that glimpse will include the Titanic-related items he’s gathered over the years with an open house display and tea.
“I’m a history buff,” Sheetz said in understatement.
He joined the Titanic Historical Society in the 1990s as the third wave of interest hit the public imagination. The Titanic had been found on the sea bed off Newfoundland in 1985 and the result has been more than two decades of numerous tours around the world with artifacts from the find.
Sheetz has traveled to Europe for a society convention and a tour of Southhampton, England, Titanic’s home port 100 years ago.
He met the oldest living survivor of the sinking, Millvina Dean, who was nine weeks old when her family took the maiden voyage to New York.
She had become a media darling when the blockbuster James Cameron film “Titanic” came out in 1997. Sheetz said he became fast friends with the woman who died in 2009.
People thought Sheetz’s fascination with the ship was a bit odd.
“It was relatively obscure” as far as the scope of history goes, Sheetz said, but not after the movie in 1997. Now he is part of legion of enthusiasts.
Meeting Dean brought to life years of reading and other research on the Titanic, Sheetz said. “Here I was actually connecting with a third-class passenger.”
“She was very direct and forthcoming,” Sheetz said of her being surrounded by so many people with a rabid interest in all things Titanic. He recalled a story about Dean eating at a restaurant during the Europe convention and someone stealing up behind her to snip a lock of her hair.
The historical society, based on the East Coast, was formed in 1963 when it became clear that many of those who had survived the sinking were getting older and dying off. Lord had collected many of their stories for his book but more came out with their stories after the film was released.
“When survivors were contacted, they were humbled,” Sheetz said.
The Titanic story had been swallowed up by two world wars and human suffering far beyond what happened in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912. The world had changed from its strict social strata and survivors had moved on as best they could.
Interest waned again after the 1960s but then came the find in 1985 and the movie 12 years later.
“It’s a little sappy,” Sheetz said of the fictional account Cameron came up with, a forbidden love story with a third-class passenger falling for a woman in first class. But Sheetz was impressed with the attention to detail when it came to the ship and other facts.
At the society’s London convention, he got to see portion of the sets and met the director Cameron and explorer Dave Ballard, who was part of the 1985 team that found the ship 3 miles from the surface of the Atlantic.
What Sheetz still marvels at today is the technology of the ship, the thought that humans had finally found a way to master the sea but were proven wrong. It’s also the opulence of the time – a first-class ticket cost the same as the new Model T, around $850, or more than $18,000 in today’s economy – and how the tragedy wove so many disparate lives together.
Sheetz said he’s enjoyed the tours that have come to the region, the last one in 2010 at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. He said the miniature replicas and displays in Branson, Mo., are “excellent.”
If he were to offer someone a starter kit on getting to know the Titanic story, he recommended Lord’s book first, then a display like the one in Branson.
At first, he had mixed feelings about artifacts being taken from what many consider to be an ocean graveyard and displaying them to the world.
“But seeing (the items) brought it back to life,” he said. “You see a piece of clothing and think: There’s a story in that.”
He doesn’t see his Titanic interest ebbing as each year brings new finds and areas to research.
“It just pulls you in,” he said.