Let's get this out of the way first. The "Casino" my friends and I explored is not, and has never been, a place where shiny men in visors play poker till the complimentary breakfast spread is put out. It is a "casino" in the elegant, archaic Italian sense -- "a building built for pleasure and entertainment." It's rather a shame, because the crowd that jostled with us as we stepped off the Catalina Express Ferry seemed like they would be thrilled with a house martini and some nickel slots.
Every day, lovely, peaceful Avalon, Catalina's only incorporated town of around 3,700 permanent residents, swells with scores of boisterous tourists who come over from the mainland on ferries or helicopters. People arrive on little boats, which putter over the crystal blue water, from a giant Carnival Cruise ship that docks on the outskirts of the marina during the day. No matter what form of transport you take, the first thing your eye is drawn to is the gleaming white, rotund Casino, which juts out from Sugarloaf Point, dominating the little town like a provincial church in rural Europe. We walked along colorful, charming waterfront streets, lined with pricey eateries and eclectic souvenir stores to reach the Casino.
We were dwarfed by the Art Deco/Spanish influenced masterpiece, surrounded on three sides by the bluest California water I have ever seen. Stylized "ocean-scape" murals, including the famous mermaid rendered in brightly colored tile, towered over the ticket booth. Inside the amazingly grand, mural covered lower level movie theater, the curved ceiling shimmered with silver leaf stars, and the tour guide demonstrated the theater's perfect acoustics. We went up a utilitarian ramp to the massive ballroom, featuring a beautiful wood dance floor and a disappointing durable peach paint job I often see in historic buildings. The ballroom's mint condition, custom made Tiffany chandeliers caused one woman to exclaim, "Oh my god, Tiffany!"
Outside on the ballroom's wrap-around balcony, aptly nicknamed the "romance promenade," my usually jaded friends and I gasped at the view of the bobbing boats in the marina, framed by the elegant columned arcade. I got out my chipped I-phone to take a picture. I looked at my friends' knotted hair and down at my stained Rainbow sandals. The Casino harkened back to an era when entertainment had style, sophistication and high hopes. I felt as if I didn't really meet the building's expectations.
The Wrigleys Get It Right
I found my love in Avalon beside the bay. I left my love in Avalon and I sailed away. I dream of her in Avalon from dusk till dawn. So I think I'll travel on to Avalon. --"Avalon," 1920, sung by Al Jolson
With merry shouting and followed by the great throng which attended opening ceremonies, [Neptune's] chest was brought to the Casino entrance, and Mr. D.M. Renton was presented with the golden key that lay within and bidden to open the doors of Catalina's great "pleasure chest," the Catalina Casino itself! -- Patricia Anne Moore, "The Casino Avalon" 1
The small, mountainous island, only 22 miles long and eight miles wide, was first settled by the Tongva tribe as early as 7000 B.C. They called the island Pimu or Pimugna, and they traded with Native American tribes on the mainland, 22 miles away. In 1542, the island was discovered by Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and named San Salvador, in honor of his beloved ship. The island was seemingly forgotten and "rediscovered" in 1602 by Sebastian Vizcaino. He renamed it Santa Catalina in honor of Saint Catherine. Eventually, the Tongva population was decimated by disease. After periods as a pirates' hideout, and a gold rush and bust site, among other things, the island was put in a succession of private hands.
Early resort development began in the 1880s and '90s with the founding of the Santa Catalina Island Company. The Banning family developed the island, particularly Avalon, and built dancing pavilions and the grand Hotel St. Catherine. In 1915, fire destroyed over half of Avalon, devastating the burgeoning tourist trade. In 1919, William Wrigley, chewing gum magnate and the owner of the Chicago Cubs, bought a majority of shares in the Catalina Island Company. He was enraptured with the natural beauty and amenities of the island, stating:
I have seen the temples of the world, and have been on almost every ocean, but they are not to be compared with Catalina and the Pacific. The marine gardens, the glass bottomed boats, the fishing, the bathing...I am almost sure Eve gave Adam that fatal apple on Catalina Island ... It is unthinkable to mar the beauty of such a spot with roller coasters and the like ... this is a place with hills to climb and flowers to pluck. 2
Indeed, Wrigley developed the island to be "not a Coney Island" with an eye toward preservation, simplified beauty and temperate family fun. To encourage tourism, he built a playing field that would be spring training grounds for his Chicago Cubs for almost three decades. "If I can make people chew my gum, I can make 'em go to Catalina in the wintertime," he bragged to the Bannings. 3 Two large steamships were put into commission to carry visitors over from the mainland. Everything was an event, even arrival. According to one passenger: "There is dancing all the way over on the boat. As the steamer nears the island, speed boats dart out from Avalon Bay to greet the incoming ship, and seaplanes whirl overhead." 4
Wrigley increased the local population threefold in ten years by developing mines, increasing the rock quarries' production, and founding a specialized tile company and a furniture factory, both of which used the island's abundant natural resources to make their highly prized crafts. In February 1928, many of these local resources, both human and natural, were put to use when whirl-wind construction began on the new Catalina Casino. Designed by the L.A. design team of Webber and Spaulding, the Casino cost an astonishing two million dollars. Construction crews, supervised by David M. Renton, Catalina Island's master builder, worked around the clock to finish the steel frame, concrete building. The building was 12-stories high, although it only contained two floors.
The Casino's Moorish/Spanish Colonial Revival/Mediterranean design was said to be "built on the principle of the coconut shell." The "14-foot long loggia promenade" that encircled the entire building was inspired by a visit Wrigley took to the Alhambra in Spain. The roof was covered in 105,000 Mission style clay tiles, produced by the Catalina Clay Products Co. The interior was strictly luxurious Art Deco. The plush furniture and the black walnut paneling in the downstairs foyer were made at the Catalina Furniture Factory. The dance floor of the ballroom, said to be the largest circular ballroom in the world, was floated on a layer of cork and inlaid with seven types of precious hardwood. The cork muffled the sound of dancing feet, so that it would not bother theater goers who sat in the 1,184 seat movie theater below.
Wrigley also came up with the idea of traffic-friendly ramps leading from the theater to the ballroom, much like the ramps at his beloved Wrigley Field. The large theater was rigged for new-fangled talking pictures, although Wrigley had little interest in talkies, having heard they were not very good. However, the state of the art sound system would prove so impressive that it would be closely studied by those who built Radio City Music Hall. The fantastical Art Deco murals above the theater entrance and in the interior were designed by John Gabriel Beckman, already famous for his work at Sid Grauman's Chinese Theater. In later years he would become a set director, working on films like "The Maltese Falcon" and "Casablanca."
The Casino was opened to the public on May 29, 1929. Billed as the "crowning jewel" of Wrigley's ten year development plan for the island, the Casino's opening was attended by around 10,000 curious spectators. A fashion show was performed (presided over by an actor playing Neptune), before a parade featuring energetic bands marched its way through Avalon to the Casino. There were speeches and a free dance. Over 200 of the "most prominent members of the Hollywood motion picture world" joined the festivities, and the theater showed its first film, Doug Fairbanks' The Iron Mask. 5 The L.A. Times reported:
Tonight thousands of colored lights focused from points on the mountain side shed multicolored beams across the bay, as visitors to the island attended the opening ball in the dance room of the new pavilion. 6
Big Ballroom, Big Bands, Big Business
Catalina Casino, the world's most distinctive and magnificent pleasure palace tops Avalon Bay as its crowning jewel. Here dancing and music hold sway. It is a veritable fairyland palace where each night is one of romance and enchantment. Under a canopy of rainbow lights to the music of the El Patio Catalina Orchestra, directed by Maurice Menge, 3000 couples may dance on a floor floated on cork, one of the largest dance floors in America. All the joys of vacation time are in full sway on the play isle of the Pacific. -- Los Angeles Times, June 26, 1929 7
Let me linger a while on this magical isle. -- Los Angeles Times Ad, Aug 7, 1932 8
Neither the depression, nor the 1932 ascent of Philip Wrigley after the death of his visionary father, did much to stifle the Casino's rapidly sustained popularity. The theater showed first run pictures, featuring pre-show concerts on the venue's prized Page organ. During slow mornings, one might find Cecil B. DeMille in an editing room at the Casino, watching rushes of movies he shot on the island. Movie stars were a constant presence at Catalina during the '20s and '30s, whether shooting island themed pictures on the north end of the island or enjoying Catalina's endless recreational activities. A typical Catalina week was reported thusly:
Joseph Schenck's palatial cruiser, the Caroline, was the "set" where Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Fairbanks were to be found most of the time. Sunday afternoon they boarded the yacht to be favored guests during cocktail hour. Strolling along the terrace of the Hotel St. Catherine during this week, with a frisky dachshund leading them on by his straining leash were Benita Hume, William Powell and Ronald Coleman. Richard Cromwell was glimpsed in such activities as riding horseback in the Avalon Hills, dancing at Catalina Casino and enjoying many outdoor sports. 9
The heart of all of Catalina was undoubtedly the Casino Ballroom. In spite of the Wrigleys' insistence on a strict dress code (including no slacks for ladies), dance floor decorum, no smoking in the building, and no sale of alcohol (until 1949), the ballroom became one of the hippest spots in America. Its expansive dance floor, amazing acoustics, and exotic location made it the perfect spot for the big band sound, the popular music of the era. Featuring youthful orchestras led by charismatic leaders and accompanied by smooth singers, these jazzy swing combos played music made for dancing couples and hyper youths. The musicians were often loosened up by "leaky suitcases" containing contraband liquor, while visitors to the Casino carried hip flasks or took a few nips at Catalina's local underground watering holes.
During the summer season, "under a canopy of changing lights" thousands of couples danced to the music of big band legends like Kay Keyser, the Dorsey Brothers, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Ben Bernie, who performed for weeks long engagements. 10 Singers like Jo Stafford, Rudy Vallee, and Perry Como appeared with these bands, as did musicians like the legendary Johnny Mercer. Bandleader Jan Garber, known as "genial Jan," helped put the Casino on the map in 1934 with nightly broadcasts on the radio. From then until the death of radio, the Catalina Casino would be famous across the nation for shows performed "high atop the Casino on beautiful Catalina Island." That year Garber explained to the L.A. Times the more practical reasons that led to the Casino becoming such a popular spot for countless big band broadcasts for 20+ years:
When we were presented with the proposition to migrate to the coast for a summer season at Catalina Island, I jumped at the chance for several reasons. The most important reason was the realization that our broadcasting from the coast would sound a lot better than it does in the East. In my case, it means that at 4 o'clock in the afternoon I will do my network broadcast after a rehearsal session and before my boys sit down to a 5 hour stretch of public appearances. It means that my musicians will be able to give their best to the radio before the real grind starts. And if you don't think that would help anybody's broadcast-then you've never had to do several hours rehearsing and from five to ten hours of public appearances. 11
William Wrigley's dream of a year-round tourist trade was never realized, and the ballroom was often closed or on a slower schedule during off-season months. After the Second World War, dress codes were reluctantly relaxed, and booze was allowed at the Casino. Commercial air travel also hurt Catalina tourism, with more exotic vacation locations now easily accessible to the masses. The big bands continued to draw crowds into the 1960s, and still perform at the Casino occasionally, although the crowd is now nostalgic and on the elderly side -- perhaps remembering a time when they felt eternally young.
Romance, Romance, Romance
Twenty-six miles across the sea Santa Catalina is a-waitin' for me Santa Catalina, the island of romance Romance, romance, romance -- "26 Miles," 1958, sung by the Four Preps (reached #2 on the charts)
During the 1950s and '60s, many visitors, who had perhaps had a few too many newly legal drinks, often reported seeing ghosts -- in the shape of peppy little girls -- running along the second floor balcony, or dangling a smaller child by the feet out a high window at the Casino. These were not ghosts, but the children of building superintendent Dale Eisenhut, who lived with his wife and three daughters in an apartment in the east wing of the Casino. Dale, often called "the phantom of the Casino," took care of the building for decades, while his daughters grew up in a most unusual home. 12
In 1975, the Wrigley family donated most of the island to the Catalina Island Conservancy, assuring the preservation of the island for generations to come. The Casino has undergone renovations, although the interior work is remarkably preserved, primarily because of the Wrigley's much loathed smoking ban. In the 1980s, John Gabriel Beckman assisted in retouching and restoring the murals he designed decades before, which had been rendered almost unrecognizable by subsequent artists. Together with ceramic artist Richard Thomas Keit, he was finally able to finish his mermaid mural in vibrant tile, a project that had been put on seemingly infinite hold due to the Depression.
Today, the Catalina Casino shows first run movies (when I visited, "Godzilla" was playing), gives daily tours, and houses a small museum. The Casino plays host to the annual Catalina Jazz Festival and the annual film festival. The ballroom is rented out for corporate events, weddings, and still features bands and all that jazz. But there is something melancholy about the Casino in 2014, a feeling that the party has passed its grandeur by. I suppose that is why I like it best at night, lit up brilliantly against the sea, like a temple dedicated to some aspirational way of life that has danced out over the gentle waves.
Additional Photos by: Cat Vasko
1 Patricia Anne Moore, "The Casino Avalon", Santa Catalina Museum Society Inc., 1979, pg. 29
2 Lawrence Culver, "The Frontier of Leisure", Oxford University Press, 2010, pg. 116
3 Ibid, pg. 122
4 "Isle of play not far away" Los Angeles Times, June 25, 1930
5 "Island fashion revue intrigues eyes" Los Angeles Times, May 30, 1929
7 "Resorts of California: Catalina has a myriad joys" Los Angeles Times, June 26, 1929
8 Los Angeles Times Ad, Aug 7, 1932
9 Old Man Vacation Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1937
10 "Isle of play not far away" Los Angeles Times, June 25, 1930
11 "News of radio and its personalities" Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1934
12 Patricia Anne Moore, "The Casino Avalon", Santa Catalina Museum Society Inc., 1979, pg. 78