August 23, 2016

Photo Essay: Come Gather Round All Ye Islanders at the Catalina Casino (Updated for 2020)

[Last Updated 4/8/2 10:20 PM PT—info about public event closure added]

One of the most iconic images of Catalina Island and its harbor in the town of Avalon is of "the Casino building."

You can see it from high up in the wild interior...

...and from the sea, as you arrive via boat.

No matter where you are on or near the island, you're aware of it.

And that's by design. While the island is full of many ornamentations (like Catalina Tile), monuments, recreations, and attractions to lure tourists from the mainland, there's no other gathering place quite like this one.

Contrary to our modern interpretation of its name, the Catalina Casino wasn't dedicated as a gambling hall (though gambling has occurred in the past on the island and in its harbor).

People instead flocked to this circular building (like many other rotundas throughout history) to socialize amidst music and movies.

And if it looks a bit like a baseball stadium, that's by design, too—because it was built at the behest of William Wrigley, Jr., former owner of the Chicago Cubs and founder of Wrigley Field. (The Cubs actually flew all the way from Chicago to train on Catalina.)

But as soon as you get to the forecourt, its ornate box office window, and its resident mermaid, you realize you're there for anything but an afternoon ballgame.

Designed by Walter Webber and Sumner A. Spaulding, the Art Deco casino building was completed in 1929, built to replace the "Sugarloaf Casino" dance pavilion named for the Sugarloaf rock formation that was eventually blasted away to improve the view.

Construction was managed by David M. Renton, Wrigley's partner in many aspects of building up Catalina (and also the builder behind the 60-Inch telescope building at Mt. Wilson Observatory).

As the Casino is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean on three sides, while facing inland you can gaze upon ornate designs that are inspired by the sea...

...a design motif that continues into the interior—especially in its movie theatre.

The Avalon Theatre is credited as being the first theatre built with acoustics specifically designed for the projection of "talkie" movies.

That drew famous filmmakers of the time like Cecil B. Demille to the island to not only see their movies, but also to hear them.

Photo: David Prasad (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Apparently the acoustics are so good—and the auditorium is so sound-proof—that a full band could be playing for a room full of dancers upstairs, and it would never interrupt the sound of the movie being projected below.

The domed auditorium is lovely, especially with its Art Deco wall murals...

...painted by famed Hollywood production designer / art director / set designer John Gabriel Beckman, who also directed the design of the undersea fantasy in the forecourt.

Beckman had just completed work on Sid Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and also painted murals (which are now sadly faded into near oblivion) in the Fox Theatre Fullerton.

Because of the highly accelerated construction schedule for the casino...

...Beckman managed to complete his depictions of early California history and his version of The Birth of Venus in just three months.

Amazingly, the Avalon Theatre still shows first-run movies every night of the week... [regular screenings were suspended in November 2019]

...preceded by a performance of its Page Organ Company pipe organ, which is original to the theatre.

Although it was built for film, the Avalon Theatre also has the capacity to put on various live entertainment stage productions...

...with a vintage fly system...

...and original lighting board and other controls.

In the projection room... can find antique projection machinery like a Simplex Model E-7, a 1927 Brenkert Model F3 (with combined effects, slide, and floodlight projector)...

...and a Brenkert Enarc carbon-arc projector—a rare artifact that only gets used once or twice a year and can only be found in one or two theaters in the entire country.

In the circular ballroom on the upper level (the equivalent of about 12 stories up)...

...the dance floor, 180 feet in diameter, is the world's largest and reportedly can accommodate up to 3000 dancers at any given time.

If it gets a bit too crowded inside, you can exit through one of the many French doors that encircle the ballroom and take a stroll out on the balcony, nicknamed the "Romance Promenade."

From there, you can stare out onto the sailboats and yachts and ferries and other sea-worthy vessels...

...and wonder who out there—or up in the wild bison territory—is gazing out or down upon you.

Update: As of late 2019, the Avalon Theatre is only open for special movie screenings, private rental events, and the Catalina Film Festival. 

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Island Where the Buffalo Roam
Photo Essay: The House of Chewing Gum and Roses

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