When Turner Classic Movies seventh Classic Cruise sets sail for a five-night voyage from New York to Bermuda on Oct. 22, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz won’t really feel surrounded by strangers. Like past cruises organized by the cable movie channel, he expects to view the several thousand like-minded classic film fans on board almost like family.
“I would defy anyone to name a television channel that has the same relationship with its viewers that TCM does,” said Mankiewicz from his home in Los Angeles. “We’ve fostered this really intense close community of classic film fans who love coming together to share and celebrate movies at our festivals.”
Sailing on the Disney Magic with its 2,700-passenger capacity, Mankiewicz says the Classic Cruises have a different atmosphere to the annual film festival the channel holds each spring in Los Angeles.
“I’m claustrophobic and had never been on a cruise before the first one (in 2011) so I was initially apprehensive,” he recalled. “All that disappeared when I stood on the deck surrounded by the wonderful openness at sea. With the ocean in every direction and feeling that sea air, it was exhilarating.”
A three-year gap separated this year’s cruise from the last one in 2016.
“We never wanted to do away with it, but TCM only has around 60 full-time employees making us one of the smallest television networks anywhere,” he said. “Organizing each cruise took almost half our staff working for half the year. After the last cruise, we received fan petitions asking us to continue, so we now have partners and have figured out how to make it work better for us. While the cruise doesn’t make a lot of money for TCM, we knew how popular it was and wanted to continue using it as a way to engage the fans. We’ve already scheduled another for 2020. So I would tell people if you want to go - don’t dawdle!” (see www.tcmcruise.com).
Looking back over past cruises, Mankiewicz says a highlight has always been the presence of celebrity guests which have included Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds and Jerry Lewis. Guests participate in Q&As and introduce films which have meant a lot to the fans - and Mankiewicz.
“My first big TCM interview was at one of the early TCM Film Festivals in Los Angeles with Mickey Rooney,” he recalled. “According to the stories, Mickey wasn’t always the easiest guy to work with, but we shared a wonderful moment on the second cruise.”
Rooney was interviewed on two occasions, once by Mankiewicz and by beloved TCM host Robert Osborne on the 2013 cruise, but a few days into the journey, Rooney felt light-headed.
“The doctor examined him and told him to relax for the rest of the cruise. Well, being unable to deliver for the audiences, Mickey was crestfallen. When I visited him in his room, he gave me a signed copy of his book and said he felt he’d let down me, Robert, and the fans. I said, ‘Mick, you just crushed it twice and everyone who saw you will talk about the time they got to see Mickey Rooney tell stories about Judy Garland and Pat O’Brien.’ It was a lovely moment to see him wanting to please people - he was just so human - and every story I’ve ever heard about Mickey Rooney went out the window!’ He felt a bit better later and enjoyed the rest of the cruise.”
Mankiewicz will be joined on the 2019 Classic Cruise by fellow TCM hosts Eddie Muller, Alicia Malone and Dave Karger. Special guests include Cicely Tyson, Diane Ladd and Mitzi Gaynor.
“The fans love coming together to share their passion for movies as well as the chance to see some big classic film stars,” said Mankiewicz. “And because we’re on a floating ‘hotel’ in the middle of the ocean, it’s just so relaxing for everyone - the staff, the stars and the fans.”
Despite the casual atmosphere, Mankiewicz plans to wear a suit while conducting his TCM duties.
“But I feel like I should wear a tropical hat and sip on a Mai Tai for the interviews,” he says. “For Mitzi Gaynor (star of 1958’s ‘South Pacific’), maybe I will!”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 750 magazines and newspapers. See www.getnickt.org.