When the hit movie Titanic came out in 1997, Mark Hanna, principal partner of Customer First, a Houston hospitality public relations firm, organized a small dinner party at a hotel he was representing at the time. It featured Gary Archibald, author of Last Dinner on the Titanic: Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner, and was a big success.
Flash forward to earlier this year, when stories about the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic began appearing everywhere. With memories of the dinner party 15 years ago, an ad in the New York Times for a 32-inch replica of the ocean liner caught Hanna's eye.
"I bought it and off I went," he recalls.
That small gesture grew into an elaborate dinner party Hanna hosted at his home replicating the last meal believed to have been served on the Titanic on April 14, 1912. It also revealed several tips any host should keep in mind when putting together a can't-miss dinner party.
Pick a theme
The best dinner parties revolve around a theme. It doesn't have have to be as grand as the Titanic dinner party, but a theme is a real ice-breaker and gives guests something to talk about.
The replica of the Titanic that jumped started Hanna's idea to host the dinner party. It rested in a prominent place in his dining room during the dinner.
Highlight the theme throughout the evening
Upon arriving, guests handed an arrival card to a staff member who ushered them upstairs to a study made to resemble the A-Deck reception salon where first class passengers gathered on the luxury liner before dinner and announced their names.
Hanna had researched lists of those who had sailed on the Titanic and came up with a character for each dinner guest to portray. "I picked the ones who were scandalous and fun," he said.
Guests weren't expect to role play the entire evening, but it was a great conversation starter. As the dinner came to a close, Hanna told each of the guests their fate.
Make sure the guest list reflects the spirit of the occasion
For a theme party it's important to invite guests who will embrace the idea. If one guest shows up without dressing for the occasion, it really puts a damper on the evening. "There are a lot of people I could have invited, but I wanted people who would get into this," Hanna said.
The invitation requested formal dress, white tie for the gentleman and Edwardian evening clothes for the ladies. Guests complied with their own interpretation.
Hanna, left, took on the role of crusading journalist William T. Stead, and Adria Czerewaty was silent film actress Dorothy Gibson. Stead perished on the Titanic; Gibson was playing bridge at the time of the accident and escaped on one of the first life boats.
Judy and Darryl Otto portrayed Lady Lucy and Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon. Lady Lucy was a fashion designer, which matched Judy Otto's background (she owned Pryorities boutique and now organizes designer trunk shows). The couple escaped in Lifeboat 1, with only 12 people, mostly crew.
Paula Murphy portrayed probably the most famous survivor, the American socialite, philanthropist and activist Margaret "Molly" Brown, the subject of a Broadway and movie musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Murphy created her feathery hat. John Dascoulias was Francis David Millet, a prominent American painter. His body was recovered in the icy waters.
Greenwood-King agent Cameron Ansari portrayed Col. Archibald Gracie, a New Yorker who made a fortune in real estate. Gracie was rescued from the icy waters but never fully recovered from the trauma. The New York mayor's residence, Gracie Mansion, is named for the home built by his great-grandfather.
Teresa Byrne-Dodge channeled Helen Churchill Candee, who shared a lifeboat with Molly Brown.
Elouise Adams Jones portrayed Lucille Polk Carter, a Philadelphia socialite who survived the disaster; I was Major Archibald Butt, a military aide to two presidents, who perished onboard.
Maintain the atmosphere throughout the evening
Hanna kept the guest list to 10 (including himself) "because that's what my table fits." For the 10-course dinner, he used his grandmother's heirloom tablecloth and just about every set of dishes, utensils and glasses he owns.
In keeping with the Titanic theme, Hanna created the menu on his computer.
Make sure there's lots of good food (and drink)
While Hanna loves to cook, he knew he couldn't attend to kitchen duties and host the evening, too, so he hired a friend, Carol Ericsson, who had once worked as a private chef, to prepare the meal, and three servers. Hanna and Ericsson tweaked the menu but kept it faithful to the Titanic last meal.
After a marathon shopping trip to Central Market and Randall's, Ericsson spent nearly three days preparing the 10-course dinner.
Pictured here, a server offers the first course, oysters on the half shell.
Hanna also hired a small orchestra put together by Michael Viteri to perform throughout the meal. The three-piece group played a repertoire of period songs, but they did not perform "Nearer My God To Thee," the song that the orchestra played as the ship was sinking.
"It would have been kind of grim," Hanna said.
Plan for good conversation
Hanna set the alarm on his phone to ring during the dinner at 8:59 p.m., the time that the ship had scraped the first iceberg. The alarm also rang out at 11:39 p.m., when it sank, but his guests were too busy in conversation to notice.
The evening won raves from the guests and Hanna was so thrilled with how it turned out that he says he might do another theme party again, once his budget gets back in balance. "It was perfect," he said.