by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Santa Catalina Island for millenia was Pimu, home to native indigenous people who also resided in the thousands on the mainland of what is now greater Los Angeles. Later, it was a land grant under Mexico and fell under the ownership of a variety of figures after the American era began in the late 1840s.
For a brief period there was a mining boom on the island and among the speculators were William Workman and his son-in-law F.P.F. Temple who held claims on the southwest portion of the island, though, as is all too often the case, nothing came of the efforts to find precious metals there.
The prominent Banning family of Wilmington and what is now the Port of Los Angeles owned Catalina for nearly thirty years from the early 1890s to the late 1910s and brought about major changes to the island as a tourist paradise, centered on the island’s sole town, Avalon. A recent post here about the short-lived Wilmington Journal newspaper and its publisher, A. A. Polhamus noted that he, a longtime ship captain, plied the route from Wilmington to Catalina in a steamer owned by the Banning family.
After a devastating fire burned much of Avalon in 1915, the Bannings decided to sell Catalina. In 1919, Chicago chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. purchased the island and immediately embarked on major changes to the island and its operations. Among many transformations was the creation of new hotels, a golf course, a bird sanctuary, a Wrigley Memorial, and the use of the island for spring training for Wrigley’s Chicago Cubs baseball team.
While this year marks the centennial of Wrigley’s ownership through the Santa Catalina Island Company, tonight’s post highlights the opening, ninety years ago today, of the biggest single project Wrigley carried out on Catalina: the $2,000,000 casino that prominently stands at the western end of Avalon.
The spot was long known as Sugar Loaf because of the large natural rock formation there. As an early 1900s photo from the Homestead’s collection shows, a set of wooden stairs was placed in a cut to the formation so visitors could climb to the top and enjoy the views.
Wrigley, however, decided to blast away at Sugar Loaf, using the material for a breakwater in the adjacent harbor and build this remarkable structure there. The purpose was to commemorate a decade of ownership, while the casino was to provide a level of entertainment that would be not only a presumed tremendous boost to visitation and spending on the island but elevate Wrigley’s name in the public eye.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact, aside from a press photo and a real photo postcard showing the newly built edifice, is a remarkable document issued by Wrigley’s Los Angeles-based publicity department titled “Salient Facts About The New Catalina Casino.”
The document is a lengthy and exhaustive catalog of the features of the casino and has a one-page press release, dated 25 May, extolling the building. It begins with the statement:
Twenty five miles out in the ocean [actually “on the island”!] there has been erected a two million dollar Palace of Pleasure that strikes a new note of entertainment for Southern California’s residents and visitors.
The Catalina Island Casino—over a year in the making—opens its doors on May 29th for the entertainment and enjoyment of the people. It is freely dedicated to the public. There is no charge for admission to the Ballroom, while most moderate prices will prevail for admittance to the Theatre.
The new Casino fittingly marks the close of a decade of Catalina development under the ownership and direction of William Wrigley, Jr. In some respects, it is the greatest of his achievements on the Magic Isle . . .
Grace, strength, sophistication and simplicity all have been achieved in the designing and construction of this unusual pleasure palace, which is as different and distinctive as the romantic isle whose spirit it enshrines.
Impressive as the building was and is on the outside, the interior proved to be and remains stunning, including a half-circular lobby, and a massive 2,500-seat theater for watching movies, including the latest innovations in “talkies,” which came into being just a couple of years before.
Up wide lengthy ramps above the theater is a ballroom with a capacity for 6,000 people and with a floor, floated on cork and lined with felt for a softer feel for dancers, of intricately laid and varicolored hardwoods. Outside the ballroom is a balcony that follows the circular contour of the structure and “where guests will promenade between dances, in an atmosphere adapted at Mr. Wrigley’s suggestion from the stately columned loggias of the Alhambra [in Spain], ancient seat of the Moors.”
In the theater and ballroom a unique lighting system was utilized, including one for the former that had the effect of a flaming sunset, a radiant dawn, or a deep and radiant middle of the night, while a grill in the ballroom ceiling cast “great crystal shower lights” through the space while hidden lights also cast rays on dancers.
Abundant and striking murals showed maritime mythological and mythical figures as well as submarine gardens, while the theater curtain featured a depiction of “The Flight of Fancy Westward” based on a fanciful depiction of history. The summary concluded by claiming:
Nothing has been omitted that ingenuity, imagination, experience, skill with unlimited means, could devise to make the Casino one of the world’s outstanding pleasure palaces. Like any one of a dozen other distinctive features that mark the impress of William Wrigley, Jr., on Catalina, the casino alone is worth a trip to the Magic Isle.
With the Casino, the catalog of charms which Catalina offers seems complete. Southern California’s island suburb offers its guests a program of amusement and entertainment that probably cannot be duplicated elsewhere in western America, if in all the world.
In the detail sheets that followed, it was asserted that the Casino was the only theater building built totally on a circular plan; that could receive its guests from ships, amphibious planes, and cars; that it was 12 stories high, but contained only two in the theater and ballroom; that was free to the dancing public; was “not built for investment;” and was “built as a contribution to architecture, culture and public entertainment.”
In addition to the description of its Moorish and Spanish architectural elements and the dimensions of the building, the detail included reference to the fact that “the Casino is built on the principle of a nut shell with the outer structure carrying the main weight and protecting the inner curved walls of lighter structure” and doing so “much as the sections dividing the kernel chambers of a walnut.” It was repeatedly noted that neither the theater or ballroom had any pillars within the spaces.
As for interior decoration, 60,000 four-inch silver leaf squares and 500 square feet of 22 karat gold leaf were used; over 100,000 Mission clay tiles were laid on the asbestos-covered concrete roof; 4,500 square feet of black walnut paneling was used in the theater foyer; tile was made on the island’s Catalina Tile Plant; sand and cement used in the building came from the island; and the walnut panels and furniture in the foyer were also from the Catalina Furniture Factory.
It was added that there were convention rooms between the theater and ballroom; a 1,500-square foot radio broadcast room and amplification in the ballroom included microphones that transmitted sounds from the orchestra throughout the cavernous space. Moreover, the massive organ was outfitted with a microphone so that the music from the instrument could be heard elsewhere within as well as outside the casino.
Moreover, there was also a 2,000 square foot film laboratory, so that “raw films taken during the day of activities on the island are developed and shown at [the] theatre [the] same night.” Acoustics were claimed to be “as nearly perfect as the science of acoustical engineering can achieve.” The theater auditorium had an intricate system of hair felt cloth applied to a wooden frame an inch apart to create a vacuum. A layer of dust cloth over which was mesh provided the base for the application of the murals on what constituted an acoustic plaster overlay on the domed ceiling.
With regard to ventilation, there was an entire volume fresh air pumped into the building every five minutes and 142,000 cubic feet brought in every minute through seven massive fans of 14 feet diameter that forced air to the roof and drew it out. With exterior flood lights and interior systems using nearly 150,000 watts, the estimated nightly expenditure was roughly $1,000.
Architects Sumner Spaulding and Walter Webber were best known at the time for their designs of the full-time residence and beach house of legendary film comedian Harold Lloyd. Lesser known among their works is the headquarters of the International Institute, a Boyle Heights institution of over a century of existence which assisted immigrant women adapt to life in the United States.
Spaulding also contributed an essay about the newly completed casino to the November 1929 Los Angeles-based magazine California Arts and Architecture, whose managing editor, Mabel Urmy Seares was profiled in a post on this blog very recently. Images of the building were also profiled in the prestigious Architectural Digest, also in 1929. The Homestead has copies of both issues in its collection and samples of those articles are included here.
While the Great Depression broke out five months after the completion of the ornate and grandiose Catalina Casino and had an effect on patronage of the building and the island, the structure has survived. Years ago, Homestead paid staff took a day trip to Catalina and, among our experiences was a special guided tour of the casino. In frequent weekend visits to the island, I’ve seen several films in the gorgeous theater (often with just handfuls of people among its 2,500 seats), the last of which was Rio back in 2011 with my family—the film took on a different visual element in the whimsical environment of the theater, for sure.