By Lynda Millner   |   April 9, 2020
The Casino in Catalina

This too shall pass!” Until it does, how about some armchair traveling. You don’t have to get on a cruise ship, just a boat, to get to Catalina Island. It’s the only one of eight Channel Islands to have an incorporated city, Avalon. “Twenty-six miles across the sea, Santa Catalina is waitin’ for me. Santa Catalina, the island of Romance, romance, romance,” so sang the Four Preps. It’s amazing Catalina can exist so close to the roar of the freeways of Los Angeles. By the way, only golf carts or an “autoette,” which is a mini car no bigger than a golf cart, are allowed on the island and then only one per family.

Before today, Avalon Bay was inhabited by the Gabrielino/Tongva tribe. The island was a major source of soapstone to the Tongva, who used the material to make stone vessels for cooking. They called the island Pimu or Pimugna. By 1839 the entire island’s native population had died off or been relocated to the mainland to work in the missions or as ranch hands for private landowners. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo discovered Catalina in 1542, the same year he discovered Santa Barbara.

In the 1860s Augustus Timms ran a sheep herding business on the island. One of his vessels would ferry guests across the channel for bathing and fishing. By the summer of 1883 there were 30 tents and three wooden buildings at Timms’s Landing.

George Shatto was the first to try to develop Avalon Bay as a resort destination. He paid $200,000 to the estate of James Lick during a real estate boom in 1887. He built the town’s first hotel, the original Hotel Metropole and pier. His sister-in-law came up with the permanent name of Avalon. That was a reference from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson about the legend of King Arthur which features an island of the same name. Sadly Shatto defaulted on his loan in a few years and the island went back to the Lick estate.

The ballroom big enough for 6,000 folks in the day

The Phineas Banning sons bought the island in 1891, developed a resort, built a dance pavilion in the center of town and other improvements but in 1915 a fire burned half of Avalon’s buildings. Due to debt and World War I, they were forced to sell their shares.

In 1919 William Wrigley, Jr. bought the island (no one knows how much) and gained control of Avalon overseeing much of the city’s development which remains primarily a resort community today. Yes, it’s the chewing gum guy. Catalina became a place for his baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, to train as well as a resort for day-trippers and honeymooners to enjoy. More history can be learned at the Nature Center at the Airport in the Sky and the Catalina Island Museum. Facts, like when Marilyn Monroe lived on the island with her first husband James Doughtery in 1943. William Wrigley, Jr. died in 1932 and his son Philip continued his father’s work.

During World War II, the island was closed to tourists and used for military training facilities. In 1975 Philip Wrigley deeded their shares in the Santa Catalina Island Company to the Catalina Island Conservancy that he had helped to create.

The Santa Catalina Island Conservancy protects about 88% of the acreage. The wildlife love it. In May of 2007 a fire ripped through 4,750 acres just outside Avalon’s city limits. Luckily only one residence and six commercial structures were destroyed. In the 2010s the Company began a series of projects to upgrade the tourist amenities in Avalon. You can hike, go ziplining, visit botanic gardens, play miniature golf or simply have a drink and enjoy the view. Oh, don’t forget, the shopping and the romance is up to you!

The island is probably most famous for its Casino, but not the kind you think. It has never seen a slot machine or any gambling. It gets its name from the Italian language term casino meaning a “gathering place” and gather they did. Built in 1928, 6,000 people at a time in the 1930s and ‘40s would gather to dance to the latest big time band such as Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, and Kay Kyser. The dancing ran seven days a week with a new orchestra every week. The Casino took 14 months to build for $600,000 and was the world’s largest circular dance floor at 15,000 square feet. The wood was the most expensive black walnut. Now it won’t hold 6,000 because they have added a carpet area and tables. Today they hold a jazz festival, live theatre productions, cultural events and first-run movies.

To my surprise our docent led us into the first-floor entrance of the art deco movie theater with 1,161 seats and where the first talkie movie was shown (the ballroom is on the 10th floor). On our behind the scenes tour we saw all the old camera equipment they used to use. The acoustics in the theatre are perfect. Better watch what you say because if you sit in the center seat and whisper, it can be heard all over. The same architects that planned Radio City Music Hall in New York City did the Casino. In 1999 they closed the movie theatre.

Did you ever wonder where the buffalo roam? Actually they are bison and they roam on Catalina Island – 150 to 200 of them. Since two thirds of the island will always be wild, they are safe. They were brought there to be in the movies as “extras” in the 1925 film of Zane Grey’s The Vanishing American. After the filming was complete and the director George Seiwtz shouted, “That’s a wrap,” nobody told the bison, but keep a safe distance. They weigh about a half a ton.

As Karyn Planett says, “Sounds a bit like the title of a Ludlum best-selling novel but it’s really all about the Duke of Doublemint, the Chairman of Chew, the world’s largest producer of chewing gum, Mr. William Wrigley, Jr. He is much better known in his business headquarters of Chicago (think Wrigley Field, home of baseball’s cuddly Cubbies). He played a significant role in the development and preservation of Catalina.”

Wrigley’s first project was the Hotel St. Catherine west of town at Descanso Beach. Then he built a private mansion high up on Mt. Ada, later becoming a bed and breakfast. There is a Wrigley owned ranch where Arabian horses are still raised and trained. They have been shown around the world. And last there is the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden, a 37-acre showplace for endemic flora. The Wrigleys still own a part of Catalina Island but have gifted the rest to the Island Conservancy.

In the 1990s I spent a Fourth of July weekend in Catalina and was amused by their parade. Everyone decorated their golf carts and the USC band came over to march.

 “I found my love in Avalon,” that cozy little community a couple hundred yards off the tender pier. You’ll love it.


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