Returning to Historic Catalina Island and the Echoes of Big Bands Past
Long before Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco, throngs of everyday Americans in the difficult 1930s and 1940s were keeping a stiff upper lip to the world’s problems and singing “…I left my love in Avalon…” to the Big Band sounds of Miller, Herman, Goodman, James and Dorsey.
The song “Avalon” was first recorded by Al Jolson in 1920, and has been re-recorded and played for almost a century. It has immortalized the famous Casino Ballroom situated in the northwest end of Avalon harbor, on the enchanting island of Catalina.
Through the years, the name “Casino,” which is often associated with gambling, has caused disappointment to some island visitors expecting a gaming opportunity. However, there never was a plan to offer gambling in the Catalina Casino.
The island’s owner, the late chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr., chose the name “Casino” because it means “public gathering place” in Latin, and that is exactly what he envisioned in 1928 when he began building the now famous circular icon.
The 18,000 square foot ballroom is on the building’s top level and is accessible by circular walkways from the main floor – no doubt a challenge in the days when high heels were obligatory for the ladies.
The Casino Ballroom has the world’s largest circular dance floor. It must have been quite a site on May 29, 1929, when the new structure opened with 2,500 couples swinging to the sounds of Maurice Menge.
They danced on a ballroom floor layered with felt, acoustical paper, and cork – all sandwiched between the support beams, and the elegant maple and rosewood dance floor. Five Tiffany chandeliers provide the light from atop an arching fifty-foot ceiling. Mr. Wrigley spared no expense.
The Casino has no heating or air-conditioning, so the round ballroom was constructed with massive floor to ceiling doors that allow guests to move freely to the spacious outdoor balcony – where all could enjoy the gentle evening breeze, and moon lit view of Avalon harbor.
If you tired of dancing, you could descend the walkway to the main floor, and the luxurious 2500 seat Avalon Theater.
On opening day in 1929, you would have been thrilled by Douglas Fairbanks in the “The Iron Mask.” It was a silent film, so Mr. Wrigley made sure his guests had the pleasure of accompanying sound from the world’s largest Page Organ – it provided the proper audio emotion for every moment.
Today the Casino organ is listed with the American Theatre Organ Society’s National Registry of Historic and Significant Instruments, and is one of only four working Page organs in the world. It still delights Friday and Saturday night patrons of the theater.
To further enhance his guests listening enjoyment, Mr. Wrigley had the high domed ceilings of both the theater and the ballroom designed for optimum acoustics. Amazingly, no electronic amplification is necessary in either chamber.
In 1934 and smack in the Great Depression, Philip K. Wrigley arranged for nightly broadcasts of Big Band music from the Casino Ballroom. Thousands of people huddled near radios every night in anticipation of the words “From the beautiful Casino Ballroom, overlooking Avalon Bay at Catalina Island, we bring you the music of…” Of course, the names of the bands changed over the years, but the music played on at the Casino until the 1950s.
One summer night in 1938, a record 6,000 people crowded the Casino Ballroom floor to dance to the Kay Kaiser Band. Can you imagine? What a night – what an extraordinary memory.
We like to return to Avalon whenever we are in Southern California. There is so much to enjoy on Catalina Island, and we always make it a point to visit the beautiful landmark Casino with its classic art deco ambiance – and echoes of America’s past.
Getting to the island from Long Beach,Newport Beach, or Dana Point is easy on the Catalina Express, which docks in Avalon Bay, just a short stroll from the Casino. The 20+ mile sea journey takes about 75 minutes.
During our cruise to Catalina, we often talk about the many thousands of excited couples who made that same passage over the years on the long-gone steamships of the 30s and 40s. In those days, the trip took over two hours. We think and muse that it would have seemed a very long voyage – as they anxiously anticipated dancing to Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey’s rendition of “Avalon.”
If you enjoy the era of the Big Bands, and are fascinated by America in the hardest of times and during the greatest of conflicts, the grand theater and ballroom on Catalina will prove a considerable satisfaction.
For more information about the island, places to stay, and things to do, check out the excellent website hosted by the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce *here*
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© Travels with Wayne and Judy Bayliff
Photos © Judy Bayliff