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Alluring Graceful Gale at Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor

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Graceful Gale (Jennifer Hills) haunts Queen Mary's Dark Harbor. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Graceful Gale (Jennifer Hills) haunts Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

In the Still of the Night

Queen Mary’s Graceful Gale is enchanting… and deadly

by Bondo Wyszpolski

If you push your way through the brambles on a moonlit night and climb towards the summit of Palos Verdes, which faces the Port of Los Angeles, there’s a magnificent view of the “Queen Mary.” But how to explain that eerie glow that lately has enveloped it? Easy. From late September through Halloween, parts of the ship and its surroundings (including the dome that formerly housed the Spruce Goose) are transformed into the mazes that comprise “Dark Harbor.”

One of the undead, in search of victims like you. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

One of the undead, in search of victims like you. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

The six mazes and assorted, or sordid, attractions employ over 200 zombies, ghouls, ghosts, and other apparitions. If one of them doesn’t jump out and scare the bejeezus out of you then rest assured that a dozen others will. Either way, people, mostly the fearless among us, keep returning for more, year after year.

Night of the living dead

Among the nameless hordes are several prominent characters, from Samuel the Savage to Scary Mary and Half-Hatch Henry. But the one who caught my attention was Graceful Gale. These characters have backstories. Henry was bisected and Mary drowned. Gale was an alluring, first-class passenger who boarded the Queen Mary in May of 1939. When the ship docked at its final destination she had vanished, never to be seen again.

The story may have some basis in fact. And besides, the ship is rumored to be the home of numerous ghosts. One of them, the so-called “woman in white,” is a partial inspiration for Graceful Gale.

Dark Harbor's Talent Director David Wally and Makeup Supervisor Christina Cofran. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Dark Harbor’s Talent Director David Wally and Makeup Supervisor Christina Cofran. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Now, the majority of the monsters, or talent, as talent director David Wally refers to them, pretty much resemble your average 20-something who’s landed a cool job for a few weeks. They grovel and slither and leap about, the normal thing that scary creatures do. But Graceful Gale, and I’m referring to the principal Graceful Gale (there are others), bears herself elegantly, with dignity, moves slowly, languidly (like Paul Delvaux’s nocturnal women, if you know the painter), and envelops herself in an aura or shroud of absolute stillness.

The effect is enhanced by her silence. Graceful Gale doesn’t utter a sound, or rather she speaks volumes by not speaking at all. She is aloof, but she is sad. Mascara runs down her face, and her eyes are dark, fathomless pools of sorrow. Her lips are bright red, yet her pallor is a deathly white. The bottom of her ballgown is blood-soaked. Did she murder someone, or was she herself the victim of a violent crime?

I am, of course, reading too much into this. Or am I? Under the makeup and the blonde wig one detects an attractive woman. The eyes, as dark as the eyes of a seal on account of the special contacts she’s wearing, are spooky, but what I’m reminded of is the story of Pygmalion and Galatea, in which the sculptor falls in love with his ivory creation, and Aphrodite turns her into a living woman. In Ovid’s version, a daughter is born, and her name is Paphos. Although she’s just a footnote in classical mythology, I’d recently written about her, and Graceful Gale brought all this to mind.

As fanciful and farfetched as these perceptions and projections are, that’s how I saw the character of Graceful Gale. But how does the real woman behind the makeup see her? I was given the opportunity to find out.

Jennifer Hills: From here, the transformation begins. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Jennifer Hills: From here, the transformation begins. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Emerging from the shadows

Her name is Jennifer Hills and behind the scenes she’s as alluring as her character but more expressive. One interesting thing, amusing in its own way, is that despite Graceful Gale’s reticience Jennifer talks a mile a minute.

I’ll call her Jennifer instead of Hills, and instead of Graceful Gale, too, which frankly sounds more like a nickname, not unlike Hammerin’ Hank or Joltin’ Joe. Sure, she enters like a gentle gust of wind, so the moniker applies, but I picture her with a far classier name, and we’ll bandy about some possibilities in a few moments.

This is Jennifer’s fifth year as Graceful Gale, and her seventh year at “Dark Harbor.” Before that she did dance shows at Universal Studios, parade shows at Disneyland, and made some appearances on TV. She’s still taking dance classes, but she’s actually gone back to school to earn a degree in earth science.

After her first two years at “Dark Harbor,” the characters received a makeover and Jennifer was given a certain amount of leeway to mold the character of Graceful Gale. She knew the supposed history of the vanished passenger, but “obviously she has to be a bit more on the scary side; we’re here to haunt you, and you need to be able to (convey) a villainous feeling almost.

It all begins like this...

It all begins like this…

“She’s from the ‘20s, ‘30s, she’s a first-class passenger,” Jennifer continues, “so my first thought was that she was a former entertainer, dancer, that kind of thing. She has an air about herself, she conducts herself well, she stands up straight. In those days things were segregated, so a lot of times I’ll pass by monsters, when they’re in character, and just not take notice because back then people didn’t do that. So I make sure I carry myself with a certain air.”

The creators now promote the idea that Graceful Gale is gliding about the ship, searching for her soulmate. “If you are lucky enough to see her, she may extend her hand for a dance,” according to the PR, “but dance with caution [because] in death she tears apart the living and reassembles her victims to create the perfect dance partner.”

...and like this...

…and like this…

Well, maybe. My guess is that ghosts or spirits often hang around because they may not know or accept that they’re dead, or because on this plane they have unfinished business. Looking for a soulmate may play well, but I think that our young lady would be confused or in denial. And it would be a sadness that’s closer to profound grief and melancholy.

While Graceful Gale’s sadness is a given, Jennifer also sees her as villainous, and possibly deranged.

“People will always comment, ‘Oh, she looks sad!’ And I’m like, Good! I am, but there’s a twistedness and it’s like if I turn and look at you, and I have the black contacts and the makeup and the cracked face, and I smile at you, it could be unnerving.”

On my previous visit to “Dark Harbor” I never saw Graceful Gale open her mouth, let alone smile. Even a mannikin shows more life. But because Jennifer’s character cannot indulge in the usual jump-and-scare tactics of her confrère beasties, largely because she’s in heels and clad in a long, form-fitting dress, she has to be more subtle. And thus the (evil) smile.

...and slowly someone or something new begins to emerge.

…and slowly someone or something new begins to emerge.

“It’s rare,” she says. “That means I’ve got a victim. It’s the smile that creeps people out. It’s like people are afraid of clowns because of that creepy smile they have painted on their face.”

In other words, the smile only comes out when she knows it will be effective. One really doesn’t need to leap up and down and shout. The power of suggestion can yield the same result. For example, one of Jennifer’s inspirations for her appearance came from “Halloween,” with Michael Myers (the white, full-face mask). “I took a page out of his book,” she says. “Sometimes silence can still be the creepiest thing.”

Originally, however, there was less subtlety, as when Graceful Gale carried around a large dagger. I’m regaled with one anecdote of how she caught someone by utter surprise, slowly bringing out the weapon from behind her back. In the dark, who can tell if a dagger is razor-sharp or dull, right? And who wants to find out the hard way?

Now for the mascara.

Now for the mascara.

In which one Gale meet another

Jennifer appreciates the “Dark Harbor” guests who know her name and backstory. It shows that they’re fans or else have done their homework. But it’s here that I ask her, Would your character really be named Gale? And if not, what might it be?

“That’s actually a really good question,” she replies. “You’d have to think of what names were popular during that time period. I mean, Graceful Gale actually flows very well [but] Gale (or rather Gail) is not a usual name you hear nowadays; it seems like it would be an older name.”

I point out that the name should not be out of place in 1930s (as the name Jennifer probably would), and it should still have a resonance today.

Eventually Jennifer says, “All night I’ll be standing there, all silent: What would my name be?” She laughs. “What is she thinking about? I’m thinking about my name!” And then, in a theatrical tone of voice: “You’ve stumped me, Sir; how dare you.” More laughter.

Looking at the photographs, what name would you give her? Margaret? Flora? Emmeline? And for a last name, maybe something suggesting wealth or breeding such as Windsor, Dupont, or Waldorf?

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of Graceful Gale is the tragedy in her eyes and the running mascara.

We're almost there. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

We’re almost there. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

“She was crying, she’s lonely, and the blackness under her eyes adds an element of scariness to it,” Jennifer says. She notes that she’s the only Graceful Gale wearing full blackout contact lenses. “It just looks like my eyeballs have melted into these sockets, and the black coming down is also part of that.

Notice the blood-stained gown. Something a little violent occurred, perhaps?

Notice the blood-stained gown. Something a little violent occurred, perhaps?

“She’s also going crazy, too,” hell-bent on finding her soulmate. “So she’s murdering people, she’s cutting them up, she’s sewing them back together and taking parts. And so when you go through ‘Soulmate’ (the maze at the rear of the ship that tells her story) you see the madness start to unfold, and she starts to get crazier and crazier as she goes.”

If there are spirits or unextinguished life forms, and we mess with them, could there be repercussions?

“I do want to add that I feel the first year I played Graceful Gale, she was looking for me, the real ghost,” Jennifer says. She describes in some detail an encounter that lacks a sensible explanation, where “the woman in white,” usually glimpsed on the former first-class levels of the ship, came below to see what was going on.

Thinking about her character's true name?

Thinking about her character’s true name?

“The fact that she was roaming around the bowels of the ship where we were scared me to no end, and I had to say, Ma’am, whoever you are, I’m not here to make fun of you. I’m merely here to portray you; I’m so sorry. Ever since then nothing ever happened, but it was really, really weird and to this day I don’t know… I felt that first year that she was checking things out. Maybe she was making sure that she was represented well, so I’ve got to make sure I’m doing a good job.”

I think this answers the question as to whether or not Jennifer believes the “Queen Mary” could be haunted. And why not? Launched in 1936, retired in 1967. It carried statesmen, starlets, socialites and all manner of the well-to-do. Its colorful and diverse history includes the war years when it was painted grey (“the grey ghost”) and served as a troop transport. On deck and below, a lot happened on this floating palace, and who’s to say a lot isn’t happening still?

Becoming Graceful Gale

After our conversation I found myself in the makeup room where 200 young people were being be transformed into 200 scary beings by up to 22 makeup artists, and I don’t use the term makeup artists lightly. These people know what they’re doing and the effects are largely impressive.

Jean-Louis Barrault in "Children of Paradise"

Jean-Louis Barrault in “Children of Paradise”

Jennifer Hills applies an undercoating of white cream that will later give her face an effect resembling cracked porcelain. Then she sits down and for the next 30 or 40 minutes goes from being a student of earth science to a femme fatale and a wandering lost soul. At first she’s reminiscent of the mime Marceau Marceau or the harlequin played by Jean-Louis Barrault in “Children of Paradise,” but later one is more likely to think of “Carrie” after her drenching by a bucket of blood.

Graceful Gale, once more in the public eye. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Graceful Gale, once more in the public eye. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Having met the live woman behind the dead woman, was I now disillusioned? I think, subconsciously, I’d hoped she’d be a little more like her character, wistful and soft-spoken (but not menacing), just as one might hope, interviewing Sean Connery or Daniel Craig, that some of the Bond persona would emerge. But as soon as Jennifer was in full makeup and had again become Graceful Gale I was once more in awe, enthralled, and slightly terrified.

It wasn’t hard to recall what Jennifer Hills had said to me a little earlier:

“Graceful Gale, she’s a silent being. Just don’t get her mad, though.”

Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor continues through Halloween night. For complete details (including zombie protection, I hope), go to queenmary.com/events/dark-harbor. ER

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