SS Catalina Hopes Lie With Hollywood Production Company
By Jean Quist
Reprinted in excerpt with permission from the November 26, 2003, issue of The Log, California's Boating Newspaper
It's a story that could only come from Hollywood, and if plans proceed in the direction they are now headed, S.S. Catalina's first stop on its way home will be on the silver screen.
The story has several beginnings, but the S.S. Catalina Preservation Association (SSCPA) hopes it will have only one ending: A Hollywood production company is close to inking a deal which would subsidize the salvage of the 301-foot steamer and bring her back to U.S. waters to "star" in a mainstream movie about the World War II sinking of U.S.A.T. Dorchester.
Passengers aboard the SS Catalina, circa 1920s
Out of time and money
By late 2002, members of the SSCPA, the group dedicated to saving the Great White Steamer that ferried millions from Los Angeles to Catalina Island since its maiden voyage in 1924, were despairing that the ship would ever make it back to Southern California in one piece.
Passed from owner to owner and sitting in 15 feet of mud and silt in the middle of Ensenada Harbor in Baja California, Catalina is a pale shadow of her former glorious self, but still manages to inspire dreams and memories of a simpler past.
With her hull full of holes, she lies in a part of the harbor that Mexican officials are ready to develop for a new marina to handle the growing recreational boating traffic along Mexico's under-developed peninsula.
After an effort to refloat the ship in 2000 failed, the SSCPA was running out of time and money to salvage the ship. Home now to only large groups of seals, sea lions and seagulls, it looked like the Mexican Navy and Ensenada port officials were going to make good on a threat to cut her up and haul her out in pieces.
Help from Hollywood
Then, shortly before the association's Annual Members Meeting in October 2002, board president Phil Dockery was contacted by a veteran of Hollywood, who was interested in making a film about a similar type of steamer and had heard that Catalina might fit the bill as the film's central character.
For the past year, producer Ken Wales and Crusader Entertainment have wished to remain anonymous while negotiations to use Catalina have been underway. Now that a shooting script for the film is close to completion, and the production company readies plans for pre-production, Wales and SSCPA feel confident the project will move forward.
During a visit to Catalina in March of this year, Wales was accompanied by veteran art director Bill Kreiber, who toured the listing vessel and pronounced it adequate for the film's needs.
Shortly after that, SSCPA hired industry experts Mickey Leitz and Richard Barta to conduct a dive survey on the hull. Their report stated that Catalina was still salvageable. They estimated that underwater repairs, refloating and moving Catalina to drydock for further work would cost between $1.5 and $2 million - significantly less than the estimated $4 to $6 million cost of building a replicate soundstage from the ground up.
Since then, Wales has finalized a script and hopes to have Crusader's production head give the final nod to using Catalina early next year - just in time to meet deadlines for its removal imposed by Ensenada port authorities.
Commitment to History
While a detailed contract has yet to be worked out with Crusader Entertainment, Dockery is highly optimistic about the outcome. "Ken Wales recently told me that he has the first half of a shooting script finalized and expects to have the second half in hand by the end of the year. He said he and Crusader are committed to making every effort to use the Catalina in 'Sea of Glory.' He has an emotional connection to the ship.
"We now need to get their vice-president in charge of production to sign on. The art and set production people are onboard. They all want to make this film as historically authentic as possible, and they can do that with Catalina."
Following its use in the film, a rejuvenated Catalina would then be turned back to SSCPA for use as an educational and historic resource.
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