What is it about the Titanic that continues to both fascinate and horrify 100 years after the infamous "unsinkable'' ship hit an iceberg, sending 1,500 passengers to their death?
"It's all so melodramatic, like a Greek tragedy,'' says Lowell Lytle, a St. Petersburg area native and actor who has traveled the world portraying Titanic Capt. Edward J. Smith since 1998.
"You have the most luxurious ocean liner ever built, some of the wealthiest and poorest people in the world and an unsinkable ship that hits an iceberg and is lost. It's unthinkable,'' says Lytle, who is back in town for opening events of the new RMS Titanic exhibition
at The Mahaffey
, Progress Energy Center for the Arts.
The exhibition, which runs from now through March 3, 2013, includes 3D images of the wreck site and 125 artifacts, like a man's suit found inside a leather suitcase, a bathroom sink and still intact dishes.
An Uncanny Likeness
With his booming voice and imposing stature (6-feet 4-inches tall), Lytle commands attention when he appears in his captain's hat and uniform. He also bears an uncanny likeness to the real Capt. Smith.
"My neighbor recommended me for the part of the captain and when I went for the audition, I saw a souvenir front page of the New York Times in the gift shop,'' says Lytle. "There was a photo of the captain with a story about the sinking of the ship. The likeness was so remarkable at first I thought my neighbor had taken my picture and was playing a joke on me.''
Since then, Lytle has played Smith for audiences all over the world. He has researched the passengers' stories, memorized the captain's last speech and met some of the survivors, including Millvina Dean, who was just nine weeks old when the ship sank. Dean passed away at age 97 in 2009.
"Her father put her in an RMS Titanic
mail bag and handed her down to her mother in one of the lifeboats,'' says Lytle. "Then the father stepped back. He went down with the ship.''
But Lytle's ultimate thrill was the opportunity to see the shipwreck first-hand. In 2000, he convinced the owners of RMS Titanic that as the ship's "captain'' he should be allowed to join an expedition searching for artifacts.
RMS Titanic Inc. was granted sole rights to the ship in 1994 and has conducted eight research and recovery expeditions, bringing back some 5,500 artifacts.
"I was the 109th person to go down there and yes it was quite a thrill,'' says Lytle. "When I first got into the sub and they tightened the hatch, I thought what am I doing, I can't change my mind here.''
Diving Deep Into The Sea
Lytle was 68 years old at the time and spent 11 hours inside a tiny submersible with the crew as they dropped 2 ½ miles down to the bottom of the ocean floor to survey the debris site and look for salvageable items.
"We started out in beautiful blue-green water, but as we went deeper it kept getting darker and darker. By the time we got to the bottom, it was pitch black. I crouched down and looked through the porthole and they turned on the lights. It was totally amazing. I thought, 'this is not a movie; this is the real thing'.''
The trip was a success. Among the items Lytle spotted was a large metal mechanical device called a telegraph that was used to communicate messages before the days of technology.
"There it was just sticking up in the debris field,'' says Lytle. "What a find. It was the telegraph that Officer Murdock used to alert the men in the engine to prepare for an emergency. The ship had struck an iceberg and this was not a drill.''
Janan Talafer is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg, FL, who shares a home office with her dog Bear and two cats Milo and Nigel. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.