|Norma Shearer, Paulette Goddard and Charlie Chaplin off Catalina, 1934|
A Film Location and Celebrity Haunt Since the Early 20th Century
Santa Catalina, one of California's Channel Islands, is just 26 miles SSW of Los Angeles. Once called Pimu, it's been inhabited for more than 7,000 years and has weathered the Spanish conquest, an influx of otter hunters and infestation by smugglers over its long history. It is best known today as a playground for those with money and celebrity and was once a popular location for filming Hollywood movies.
|22 miles from shore to isle|
Not long after, in 1920, Al Jolson recorded "Avalon" and popularized the song about Catalina's resort town:
|"Avalon" sheet music|
Beside the bay.
I left my love in Avalon
and sail'd away.
I dream of her and Avalon
from dusk 'til dawn.
And so I think I'll travel on
As it turned out, the song's tune was similar enough to an aria from Puccini's Tosca (1900) that the composer's music publisher filed and won a plagiarism lawsuit.
|The Ten Commandments (1923)|
|The Casino's Avalon Ballroom opened in May 1929|
The new ballroom opened in May 1929 with the Maurice Menge band providing dance music for 2,500 couples. The theater opened with The Iron Mask (1929), a silent film starring Douglas Fairbanks enhanced by the musical accompaniment of the theater's organ, the largest Page organ in the world. Click here to visit the interior of the Casino theater and ballroom and hear "Avalon" played on the Page organ.
|The Avalon Theatre|
The island went on to appear in several classics of the 1930s: The Island of Lost Souls (1932), Rain (1932), Victor Fleming's version of Treasure Island (1934), Captain Blood (1935), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and Captains Courageous (1937).
|Errol Flynn on the Sirocco just off the island|
Filming on the island introduced movie casts and crews to the pleasures of Catalina, and those who could afford it sailed and vacationed there. Some of the biggest names in movies spent time on and around the island...Chaplin and Paulette Goddard (pictured above on Joe Schenck's yacht) reportedly enjoyed fishing for marlin in the nearby waters. And Errol Flynn, a devoted sailor and carouser, ended up on trial following one of his many sojourns to the island.
Beginning in 1934, the Casino Ballroom hosted legendary big bands that were broadcast nationwide as they played live. Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Harry James, the Dorseys, Woody Herman and other top bands played to ballroom crowds that, over 28 years, averaged 4,000 per night. A record crowd turned out 6,200 strong for Kay Kyser and his band in 1938. The Avalon Ballroom's live big band broadcasts lasted far into the 1950s.
In the mid-'30s MGM produced this 19-minute musical revue featuring Buddy Rogers and his band (the California Cavaliers), Chester Morris, Leon Errol and others. Filmed in beautiful 3-strip Technicolor, the short includes cameo appearances by Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, Mickey Rooney, Virginia Bruce, Lee Tracy, Randolph Scott, Marion Davies and Lili Damita. Avalon provides the sea- and sun-kissed setting.
|Bacall and Bogart offshore|
On a sadder note, Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner were spending Thanksgiving weekend 1981 in the area on their yacht, the Splendour, when she accidentally drowned.
During William Wrigley's ownership of the Chicago Cubs, the team's spring training was held on the island - a tradition that went on for 30 years. But in addition to developing and making use of the island, Wrigley wanted to preserve it. In 1972, P.K. Wrigley fulfilled his late father's wishes when he established the Catalina Island Conservancy and transferred family ownership to it. Ever since, most of the island has been held in trust by the Conservancy...and buffalo still roam in the uplands (click here to watch them roam), schools of Garibaldi fish still swim in the coastal waters, gray whales continue to pass by during their annual migration and dolphins are often sighted not far from shore.
|Catalina Casino entrance|
|Casino entrance detail|
|Captain Blood 1935|
|Mutiny on the Bounty 1935|
|Rosemary's Baby 1968|