When we finally caught up with the always-involved and charismatic Mary Strauss, she had just watched the season premiere of the Masterpiece Classic series Downton Abbey, starring Maggie Smith as the imperious Dowager Countess of Grantham. “I am really enjoying that show!” she admits. “And I just love Maggie Smith!”
Because the British drama’s story begins with news of the Titanic disaster in 1912, the costumes and details are of special significance for Strauss, whose 2012 calendar of projects will include the long-planned Titanic Centennial weekend, April 13 to 15, at different venues throughout St. Louis, including the Fox Theatre. (Strauss, of course, is bestknown for her direction of the theater’s restoration, after her late husband, Leon, purchased the forgotten building more than 20 years ago.)
Strauss says the centennial is being promoted around the world, including a travel package featuring the newly renovated and oh-so-English Cheshire Inn. “We want to commemorate the heroic crew and passengers, and take people back to that luxurious age,” she says. “It’s a time that seems romantic, and we often think of it as theater, because it was so rich with drama and personality.”
Centennial events begin with an evening at the St. Louis History Museum, where a screening of the 1958, film A Night to Remember, will be held. The next day, the Fox Theatre stage will host a re-creation of the last dinner on the Titanic, with guests encouraged to dress in vintage attire for what Strauss expects will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “We’ve put together the same 11-course menu, with nine wines. I’m telling everyone not to eat that day!” she laughs. Actors, seated at tables with other dinner guests, will portray some of the luminaries on board the famous ship. “We’ll have John Jacob Astor, Captain Smith, Benjamin Guggenheim, Molly Brown and others. There will be lots of little-known facts and fun conversation about the food, the music and of course, the history.” To close out the weekend, the Piper Palm House in Tower Grove Park will host breakfast, and the menu also will duplicate the Titanic’s menu, Strauss says. “The Piper Palm House is the oldest greenhouse west of the Mississippi, and looks very much like the Veranda Café on the Titanic.”
When the centennial weekend concludes, Strauss will just have time to catch her breath before her next project, the second annual Teen Talent Showcase competition, presented by the Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation. “We’re giving senior high school students the opportunity to win prizes and scholarships, and of course, the chance to perform on the Fox stage,” Strauss says. “We have more than 200 registrants this year, and the preliminary competition and semi-finals are in March. Then we’ll choose 12 finalists to perform at the Fox in a choreographed Broadway show, on April 27.” Judges are performing arts professionals from St. Louis, Los Angeles and New York. “The judges really do a fine job of talking to the kids and providing feedback on their performance. It’s a very warm and positive kind of event.” Participants from last year’s competition have performed throughout the area, she adds, including First Night, The Muny and Six Flags over Mid-America.
After a busy year of watching projects come to fruition, Strauss jokes that she may have to resist any new opportunities in 2013. “I think I may have to say that I’m out of the country!” But the Ladue High School alum loves the chance to promote the arts in St. Louis and feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to be involved.
“I feel very lucky—my life has been a wonderful ride!”