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THE MOVABLE BUFFET

The Titanic docks at Luxor

The largest chunk retrieved from the doomed ship arrives in advance of an exhibit.

August 31, 2008|Richard Abowitz | Special to The Times

AFTER midnight on a recent Tuesday, a crowd has gathered behind velvet ropes in front of the Luxor on the Las Vegas Strip, as if waiting for the Hilton sisters to arrive. Instead, they're watching a flatbed truck with a huge piece of jagged, round steel that looks like a postmodern sculpture.

Slowly, workers arrange two conveyors to lift the heavily wrapped, padded and Styrofoam-protected steel, taking their instructions from Alison Worrell, project director of Premier Exhibitions, whose construction helmet stands out by virtue of being pink. She and the others will spend the next seven hours preparing a dolly to roll the object into the Luxor as the crowd, in search of more immediate pleasures, moves on. But for a moment everyone watches, rapt, as the object is raised and it becomes clear that this is not the latest Richard Serra work but rather a part of a ship's hull.

Worrell is helping oversee the move of what is called the "Big Piece," the largest chunk of the Titanic brought back up from the bottom of the sea. Premier Exhibitions is capitalizing on the public's seemingly never-ending interest in that long-ago encounter between a ship and an iceberg, with six touring shows internationally and a permanent exhibit in Vegas, all dedicated to the "unsinkable" ocean liner.

The Titanic exhibit in Vegas currently is at the bankrupt Tropicana. At the end of the year, it will move and join another Premier show, "Bodies," which left the Tropicana for the higher-profile Luxor earlier this year. ("Bodies" is the controversial exhibit that uses polymer preservation to allow real human bodies to be presented as if playing sports and doing other activities.) The Egyptian-themed hotel-casino is one of the hot properties on the Strip thanks to the nightclub LAX, celebrity chef Kerry Simon's CatHouse restaurant and the soon-to-open Cirque show starring illusionist Criss Angel, "Believe." Premier has a 10-year lease on its Luxor space.

"Vegas is our showpiece exhibition," says Tom Zaller, Premier's vice president of exhibitions. "You need the wow factor in Vegas. And it is nice to have it one place for a long time."

In fact, the Big Piece spent 86 years underwater before being brought up to surface in 1998 (the first attempt two years earlier failed). In recent years, the chunk of the hull from Titanic's C deck has had an itinerant life among the company's exhibitions -- albeit not in recent years at the Tropicana, which features a variety of other artifacts.

But its most recent move was no easy task. After all, the Luxor is a pyramid.

"Luxor is a complicated building," Zaller says. On this night, he was still fretting as the project fell hours behind. "It will take about $200,000 to move it. Almost all of that is to place it in the building," he says. "The trip from the warehouse in Georgia is easy. Getting into the Luxor is hard."

To do so, the company built special equipment, including a dolly that turned the piece 60 degrees, with about a half-inch clearance through an entrance of the glass pyramid. To figure out and implement the move took the assistance of four engineering firms, and, Zaller estimates, more than 100 people were involved in moving it the 500 feet from the truck to its final position. In addition, the floor was reinforced to allow the piece to be lifted to the Luxor's atrium level, where the exhibit will be housed.

Despite all the preparation, by early morning, when all was set to be finished, the Big Piece was ignominiously tucked behind some scaffolding for the day.

It would take one more day for it to find its new semi-permanent home.

"We've moved this piece quite a bit into all sorts of buildings," Zaller says, "but never anything like this."

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For more of what's happening on and off the Strip, see latimes.com/movablebuffet.

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