The ladies who lunch came to tea in full regalia this past Sunday as the Richmond Hill Historical Society held a special event at the Center at Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.
Though no passengers from the doomed liner are known to be among the 80,000 individuals buried at the cemetery, there is a connection that was explained by Carl Ballenas, historian for both the Society and the Friends of Maple Grove, a nonprofit organization which sponsored the event.
“The whole Lang family is buried here,” he said. “Mr. Lang founded a lithograph company, Fuchs and Lang. In 1912, the family filed a suit against the White Star Line over items lost in the cargo hold on the Titanic.”
The Titanic sank at a little after 2 a.m. on April 15, 1912, two and a half hours after striking an iceberg on its maiden voyage. More than 1,500 people died in the tragedy.
For Sunday’s event, Ballenas raided his personal memorabilia collection to create a Titanic display in the center’s lobby. Among the artifacts were Titanic insignia from the White Star Line, a replica of the fictional Heart of the Ocean blue diamond necklace from the 1997 film “Titanic,” which attendees were allowed to try on, and a brass button from the same die used for Titanic crew uniforms.
“When this anniversary came, we wanted to make a tie with it. It’s a fascinating piece of history. It will continue to fascinate,” he said.
The society, founded in 1997, is “steeped in Victorian times,” Ballenas said. “It seemed only natural we would have a high Victorian tea.”
The tea, a nearly annual tradition, has become one of the society’s most popular events.
This year, though, “we bumped it up to the Edwardian era,” said Helen Day, vice president of the society, to coincide with the commemoration of the Titanic.
Day, who also serves as secretary of Friends of Maple Grove, said she put in weeks of preparation for this year’s tea.
It took that long, she said, “to put together all the dishes and plates and cups and saucers,” which came from several countries including Japan, England and the United States and represent both the Victorian and Edwardian eras as well as the 20th century.
A staff of four or five bakers helped her prepare the homemade pastries and finger sandwiches which were washed down with freshly-brewed teas.
Ballenas said the public’s fascination with the ship remains strong because “it’s frozen in time. A whole culture sank to the bottom and hasn’t been touched in years. It was the whole world on the ship - the poor, the rich. It was a floating play of life, and we were the audience.”
A fifth- and sixth-grade history teacher at Immaculate Conception School in Jamaica, Ballenas co-authored “Maple Grove Cemetery,” a volume in the Arcadia Publishing Images of America series.
“People in America are afraid of cemeteries,” he said. “They’re a wonderful source of historical lessons.”
Lest anyone think social activities such as the tea are inappropriate at the site of final resting places, Ballenas said, “Everything we do is in honor, memory and respectful of those who are here” at the cemetery.
Even the entertainment seemed appropriate. Renowned concert pianist Cecilia Brauer, of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, gave a masterful demonstration of the Armonica, a musical glass instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin that produces an ethereal sound when one rubs one’s fingers across its connected hand-blown glass bowls as they spin.
Brauer is one of approximately 14 active Armonica performers in the world. The instrument, which weighs between 35 and 40 pounds, can be temperamental. “ I get so mad at it sometimes. It’s not like putting the keys down on a piano,” she said.
Architect Ivan Mrakovcic, the founding president of the society, said he “felt the need to promote and preserve the area” after he and his wife moved to Richmond Hill.
“As we moved in, we met a lot of like-minded people, people who love the texture of old houses,” Mrakovcic said. “It’s tough to know where you’re heading unless you know the history of your community.”
Among the 80 guests at this year’s tea, nearly all of them women, was Ann Mancaruso, a Richmond Hill native who has attended every year since the tea’s inception.
“It’s a lovely occasion. You socialize with very nice people. They give out a prize for the nicest hat,” she said.
This time, Mancaruso brought along a friend, Miriam Barto, who lives in Glendale. “It sounded like fun,” Barto said, while waiting for the event to begin. Pointing to her attire, she added, “I felt like wearing this dress for the first time in 23 years.”
One of the youngest on hand was 11-year-old Ambre Andruszkiewicz, of Ozone Park, who came with her grandmother.
She was there as a fan of the 1997 Leonardo DiCaprio-Kate Winslet film that became a worldwide hit. Looking elegant in her wide-brimmed, ornately trimmed white hat, Ambre said, “I can’t keep count of how many times I saw it.”