Adrift amid tragedy

<I>Variety</I> investigated effects of Titanic disaster

News did not travel at the speed of a mouse click 100 years ago, so it’s not surprising that reports about the sinking of the Titanic came out only in dribs and drabs.

The then-7-year-old Variety wasn’t quite as myopic as one Scottish newspaper, whose provincial angle on the tragedy purportedly was summed up in the headline: “Ship lost at sea, Scotsman feared overboard.” But Variety did have to find an entertainment angle in general news stories, a challenge not always easily or gracefully met, and the tragedy of the Titanic was no exception.

The ship hit an iceberg on April 14, 1912, but the story developed over the next week, with hearsay competing with facts as information seeped out. (First newspaper reports suggested the ship had managed to stay afloat — the Daily Mail in London: “Titanic Sunk, No Lives Lost” on April 16 –and was being hauled into port. But more than 1,600 passengers actually perished.)

Variety came out April 20 with the headline “Paralyzing Titanic Terror Casts Pall Over Theaters.” What the story lacked in overall perspective and elegance of phraseology, it made up in telling detail.

It focused on the tragedy’s effects on particular Broadway houses and on theatrical people personally affected by the disaster.

At the Winter Garden, for example, the sister of Benjamin Guggenheim, one of the passengers on the cruise liner, “had been assured in the afternoon that everything was alright, following the false report sent out by the White Star Line that the Titanic was being towed into Halifax.”

But, the paper added: “About the middle of the show the male members of the box party stepped out for a drink. Upon their return one, with unpardonable stupidity, brought the young woman information as to the probable fate of her brother. She promptly dropped into a dead faint, almost precipitating a panic in the music hall.”

Similar scenes played out at other theaters throughout the city.

Between acts of “The Wall Street Girl” at the Cohan Theater, playgoers who stepped out saw news bulletins in front of the Times Building. When they reported the awful details to the remaining audience, “An almost dead silence fastened itself upon the remainder of the performance.”

The paper also reported that steamship cancellations had already begun to flood in as news of the disaster’s extent sunk in.

Several theatrical people, who had made reservations to sail, vowed to cancel, going to the mountains or the seashore instead, the paper noted.

Variety, like its contemporaries, had little sense then of what an indelible impression the disaster would make on the public consciousness. The tragedy went on to inspire more than a dozen films, telepics and stage productions that touched on the famous ship’s demise.