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A Captain for a Queen : Landmarks: Joseph Prevratil has worked miracles for Long Beach before. But now he's facing a truly formidable task: making the Queen Mary turn a profit.

January 03, 1993|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the Long Beach Symphony was in debt and foundering, supporters called Joseph F. Prevratil to save it. When the city's Chamber of Commerce was nearly a quarter of a million in the red, officials called Prevratil to balance the books. When Long Beach's largest developer filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the company asked Prevratil to help shepherd it back to solvency.

Now the Queen Mary, the beloved ocean liner that has captured Long Beach's heart even if she hasn't added much to its coffers, is abandoned by the Walt Disney Co., forsaken by the Port of Long Beach, and dangerously close to being turned into a floating shopping mall somewhere in Hong Kong.

Who you gonna call?

Prevratil--part-owner of a Riverside hotel, former operator of a wax museum, respected fiscal mechanic and manager extraordinaire who seems to make almost anything he touches work.

The Long Beach City Council recently approved a five-year lease authorizing Prevratil to operate the Queen Mary and giving the ship what could be one last chance to make a profit in a beach city that desperately needs a tourist draw.

But making a success of the fabled ocean liner, where Winston Churchill held press conferences and Charlie Chaplin tramped the decks, poses a formidable challenge even for a man who started out as a buyer for a Vernon garbage disposal factory: The ship has lost money almost every year since the city bought it in 1967, prompting the city's mayor to declare it a "tombstone in a cemetery no one wants to visit."

Prevratil, 54, contends that the trouble is not the Queen Mary but the management. Disney, which had operated the ship for four years before pulling out last week, charged a steep $17.95 for admission, a price Prevratil believes turned away tourists who might have frequented the ship's gift shops and grand Art Deco bars and restaurants.

The key to Prevratil's rescue plan is free admission, a concept not unlike the one that made San Francisco's Pier 39 a success. Tourists will spend money once they are on board, he reasons.

Prevratil intends to reopen the ship's banquet facilities, wedding chapel, Sunday brunch and hotel, with introductory rates as low as $49 a night, within 90 days. He envisions replacing the tired on-board souvenir shops with a book shop, soap shop and a cafe offering cappuccino and a glorious view of the city skyline.

The Spruce Goose dome, vacant since the flying boat headed for a museum in Oregon, would be used for headliner concerts and major entertainment and sporting events, possibly as early as next spring.

The deserted grounds around the ship would be modeled after the Tivoli gardens in Denmark, with trees trimmed with white lights and rides for children.

Captain's cards would entitle Long Beach residents to free parking.

"It's a gift to the people of Long Beach for having some confidence in the Queen Mary," Prevratil said. "I am returning the Queen Mary to the people. The people will come."

The city seems divided between those too sentimental to part with the stately ship and those who believe 25 years of red ink is enough. But virtually everyone in Long Beach officialdom seems to agree that if anyone can turn the Queen Mary around, Prevratil can.

He managed the ship from 1982 to 1988, when it was operated by the Wrather Corp. City statistics indicate that the ship's best years came during his watch.

From the start, he was enamored of the "grand old lady," as he calls the ship, and is remembered as the man who could not stroll the varnished decks without stooping to clean up cigarette butts. About 1,200 employees staffed the ship, and he seemed to know them all by name.

"He would run into the most obscure steward and say, 'Hello, Tom, and how are Mary and the kids?' " said Chris Davis, president of the Long Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The man should run for office."

Much of Prevratil's professional life was spent running amusement parks, including the Japanese Village and Deer Park and Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park. (He negotiated the sale of that park to Six Flags Corp., then stayed on as vice president of special attractions.) He built a string of small attractions, including a place called the Mystery Fun House in Orlando, in 1975, and sold most of them to a division of Ripley International Inc. five years later.

The Wrather Corp. then hired him to manage the Queen Mary, and Prevratil oversaw the construction of the Spruce Goose dome and marketed the dual attraction that opened in 1983--the Queen Mary's most profitable year.

It is as much Prevratil's persona as his resume that has earned him respect in Long Beach, observers say.

Born in Chicago to Czech parents, Prevratil spoke no English until he was 7; the difficult language left him a pattern of speech that is deliberate and captivating. ("If Joe got up there and read the phone book, people would listen," said one bureaucrat.)

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