Despite the reason for the gala -- the Los Angeles debut of "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit," featuring replica rooms of the doomed luxury liner and hundreds of personal effects of long-dead passengers -- women in ball gowns gaily toasted the 1912 disaster victims, lifting their Kir Royals.
"It's a little morbid," one guest said. "Whole families were lost. Generations were lost." Then, taking in the chandeliers, the rose-topped tables and the waiters in white tails, she tipped her sweet aperitif and said, "Drink up!"
This "let them eat cake" scene took place Feb. 8 at the California Science Center in Exposition Park, where about 1,000 guests -- among them state Assembly Speaker Herb J. Wesson Jr., actress Rebecca De Mornay and Nobel laureates Louis J. Ignarro and Kary B. Mullis -- had gathered for the Discovery Ball, a fund-raiser for the museum held to celebrate the exhibition's opening.
The evening paid homage to the ship originally touted as "unsinkable," but which sank after colliding with an iceberg on its maiden voyage, killing more than 1,500 of its 2,228 passengers. Guests were issued "boarding passes" with the names of actual Titanic passengers as they headed into the 12,000-square-foot exhibition. After viewing a piece of the ship's hull, they searched a memorial wall for the names to determine whether they survived. The intent was for guests to connect emotionally with the disaster, but the festive decor and ubiquitous cocktails created an experience more surreal than moving.
The evening's menu was inspired by the last dinner served to first-class passengers. An actor impersonating Capt. Edward John Smith visited tables during the lobster and crab salad course, telling the ladies: "Don't worry about the calories tonight, because we're going down!"
The exhibition, produced by a division of Clear Channel Entertainment, is one of the company's many collections of Titanic artifacts, which have been touring U.S. cities for four years. Among the items recovered from around the ship, still on the ocean floor off Newfoundland, are perfume bottles, currency, jewelry and china.
The exhibition's designer, Mark Lach, recently visited the site in a diving expedition. "We free-fell for two hours," he said. As they reached the ocean floor, Lach said, he saw the captain's bedroom, exposed after a wall had deteriorated. "It almost appears as a movie set," he said. "That's when a real strong human connection happened.... The story started with such great hope and optimism."