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Let’s Swing at Santa Catalina Islands Casino on Avalon Bay

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Let’s Swing at Santa Catalina Islands Casino on Avalon Bay

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In the 1930s and '40s, this is where you came to dance the night away with your beau, or perhaps meet that new handsome man or pretty girl. Since its Grand Opening Memorial Day weekend in 1929, Santa Catalina Island’s Casino has been and continues to be a main attraction.

The maple, white oak and rosewood dance floor in the circular ballroom on the top floor could hold up to 500 dancing couples. Nightly they arrived by steamship from Los Angeles, a two-hour trip one-way.

The art deco masterpiece that is the Casino became a world-famous landmark, thanks to nationwide nightly big band broadcasts. “From the beautiful Casino Ballroom overlooking Avalon Bay, at Catalina Island, we bring you the music of . . . ” told radio listeners they were about to hear the best of the big bands. Every one from Glen Miller to Harry James to Jimmy Dorsey to Woody Herman performed to enthusiastic dancers and listeners. For 28 seasons the Casino Ballroom averaged 4,000 guests every night. The largest group of dancers ever gathered in 1938 for Kay Kaiser’s Band: 6,200 people.

It was an elegant time when the dress code included high heels for ladies. Smoking was never allowed in the ballroom—floor-to-ceiling doors opened to a balcony outside—so the original dance floor has never been sanded down or refinished.

William Wrigley, Jr., who purchased Santa Catalina Island in 1919, built the Casino because his wife, Ada, and her sisters loved to dance. In the 1920s, the word casino was Italian, meaning a place of gathering or entertainment, or a grand dance pavilion—nothing at all to do with gambling.

Although the style of the Casino is referred to as Moorish Alhambra, the building has become the premier example of the art deco style so prevalent in the 1930s.

At 130-feet tall, the Casino reached the height limit in Los Angeles county at the time of construction. For awhile it was the tallest building in LA. Five hundred workmen had worked three shifts daily for 14 months to complete the structure. The design was considered simple for the time—no heating or air conditioning—and the clay roofing tiles were made on the island. But Wrigley spared no expense; chandeliers were designed by Tiffany. In the lobby, the black walnut wood alone is valued today at $3.9 million. Vibrantly-colored ceiling frescos, decorated with 22 carat gold leaf and sterling silver leaf, were so well-executed that they have never needed restoring.

Mural artist John Gabriel Beckman, already famous for his work at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, was hired to design all of the interior and exterior artwork. Beckman wanted his exterior images to be executed in tile. However, he ran out of time, so they were painted. A contemporary restoration of the entrance saw his feature mural of Aphrodite rising from the sea finally executed all in tile.

Wrigley’s budget for the design and construction of the Casino was $600,000, but he ended up spending $2 million. He must surely have been committed to keeping Ada and her sisters happily dancing.

A theater was also designed for the lower level of the casino. Its walls sport art deco murals of Greek goddesses and gods such as King Neptune and his son Triton, but also much of Southern California and island history. While waiting for the classic 1929 theater pipe organ to play, you could gaze at Portuguese explorer Juan Cabrillo, who discovered the island in 1542. Or you could point out to your children the trees and animals native to the island.

The Avalon Theater was the first theater specifically designed for the new sound movies, “talkies". The domed ceilings of both the theater and the ballroom make for perfect acoustics; no electronic amplification needed. A tour guide stands on the stage and speaks in a normal voice; we hear her perfectly in the last row. Behind her is the original fire curtain from the 1929 Casino opening. The title of the mural on the fire curtain is “The Flight of Fancy Westward".

Avalon Casino and Museum
Open 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. daily.
Adults $14.50; Seniors $13.;
Children $7.25
Museum alone
Adults $4.00; Seniors $3;
Children 6-15 $1.00.

We are treated to a viewing of a Buster Keaton silent short, “The Boat". A musician accompanies the film on the organ, so that we can imagine what it must have been like in the 1920s to see a silent movie in this beautiful theater. Today, Avalon Theatre is still the only movie theater on the island; this week’s show w hile I was on island is “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy".

2005 marks the 75th y ear celebrating the Casino’s

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Carolyn Proctor, Jetsetters Magazine Correspondent. Read Jetsetters Magazine at www.jetsettersmagazine.com

About the Author

Carolyn Proctor, Jetsetters Magazine Correspondent. Join the Travel Writers Network in the logo at www.jetsettersmagazine.com


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