CALIFORNIA | AVALON
This week, we’re heading down the coastline of The Golden State to Hollywood’s favorite day-trip locale. One short 22-mile journey from Los Angeles later, and we’ve arrived in Avalon, California!
Avalon is the only incorporated community present on the beautiful Californian island of Santa Catalina. This land has been claimed under Spanish, Mexican, and now U.S. rule- and has welcomed tourists for more than 100 years! This is no typical facsimile, polished resort community, however- there’s history and uniqueness to discover in every corner of this small town.
THIS TOWN IN HISTORY: Hollywood’s Star-Studded Getaway
Due to its proximity and isolated nature, Avalon’s history as Hollywood’s vacation spot is as old and storied as Tinseltown itself. But how was this small community primed to handle celebrity visitors throughout the 30s, 40s, and beyond? In fact, the settlement was first established as a tourist destination in the late 1800s!
The first landowner to attempt to turn Avalon into a resort town was George Shatto, whose development of the area began in 1887. He is credited with building the Avalon’s first pier and hotel, and his sister-in-law gave the settlement its name. The name Avalon refers to a poem by Lord Tennyson called "Idylls of the King," which detailed the legend of King Arthur. “Avalon” was, at the time, described in the dictionary as meaning “'Bright gem of the ocean,' or Beautiful isle of the blest,” and is often the name given to the island where Morgan Le Fay takes her brother, King Arthur, to rest and be healed. As a fellow thing-named-after-Arthurian-legend, I feel a little connected to Avalon because of this name’s origin story :)
George Shatto may have laid the foundations of the community as a tourist destination, but it was the efforts of William Wrigley Jr. (who we’ll discuss shortly) which elevated Avalon to its status as the premier vacation spot for the stars. A few regularly visiting celebrity tourists to the island have been John Wayne, Charlie Chaplin, and in more recent years, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry! Norma Jean Dougherty (who would later take the moniker Marilyn Monroe) lived in a third-floor apartment in Avalon for half a year, while her first husband was stationed there during World War II.
HOMETOWN HERO: William Wrigley Jr.
As I briefly mentioned, the true local hero who developed Avalon into the destination it is today was William Wrigley Jr.- the chewing-gum industrialist. Originally hailing from Pennsylvania, Wrigley built his chewing-gum empire in Chicago from the only $32 he had to his name, to the massive company still operating today. He then purchased a controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island Company in 1919, and with the company received the island.
Wrigley initially focused on developing utilities, landscaping, and the Pebble Beach Quarry and Tile Plant to employ local residents. With the quarry in production, he repurposed its profits to beautify the island, focusing on attracting tourists. Wrigley poured millions of dollars into his vision of building a “playground for all”- building steamboats, hotels, and in 1929, the island’s landmark Catalina Casino.
Part of Wrigley’s vision for Catalina Island was to preserve its natural beauty for the next generations to enjoy. When planning the landscaping for the island, Wrigley focused on protecting the local flora, fauna, and ecosystem as much as was possible. It is in this spirit that in 1972, his son Phillip K. Wrigley established the Catalina Island Conservancy for this purpose and transferred all family ownership of the island to it. William Wrigley is now honored for his contributions to Avalon by a memorial in the Wrigley Botanical Gardens on the island.
LOCAL INSPIRATION: Catalina Casino
The Catalina Casino built by Wrigley is an absolute architectural marvel in its own right and was a major inspiration for the Art Dec influence in my own mural this week! You won’t find any gambling in this Casino, though- its name comes from the Italian casino, meaning a "gathering place."
In lieu of slot machines and card tables, this opulent building instead hosts a grand ballroom, movie theater, and (formerly) an art museum. The building was completed on May 29th of 1929 and is host to both the largest circular ballroom without internal support in the world (at a massive 20,000 sq. ft.) *and* the first movie theater designed to premiere “talkies,” or movies with sound.
Throughout the 30s and 40s, the Casino was the best place on the West Coast to see a film premiere or listen to the latest stars in live music. All of the best Big Band acts performed in this massive ballroom, and it’s held up to 6,200 dancers on its floor at once (they were there to get down to the music of Kay Kyser on May 8, 1940.) Similarly, big-name movie directors like Cecil B. DeMille, Louis B. Mayer, and Samuel Goldwyn often traveled to the Casino to premiere their latest films- always by yacht, of course.
What really struck me about the Casino is the series of ornate, Art-Deco murals found throughout its interior and exterior. After doing some digging, I discovered these were primarily the work of John Gabriel Beckman- the same muralist whose paintings grace the walls of the nearby Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Supposedly, Beckman sat down with Wrigley over dinner to discuss all of the pieces, had sketches approved in two days, and completed all of the murals in three short months! That’s an inspiration to me in and of itself, even more so given the beautiful organic forms his work uses so masterfully. Hat’s off to Wrigley as well, for both his patronage of the craft, and for being a cooperative client!
These days, the theater and ballroom are closed except in the case of special events. However, you can book a guided Behind the Scenes Tour of the Casino to experience its grandeur for yourself.
TO SEE & DO: Green Pleasure Pier
Whether arriving or departing Catalina Island through Avalon, you’ll likely notice the bright Green Pleasure Pier right next to your main port of call. Though Avalon’s first pier was sadly destroyed by a storm in 1908, the following year the current pier was built using a War Department grant. In 1914 the dock was sold from the Santa Catalina Company to the City of Avalon for a mere $5, and it was named Pleasure Pier by the city in 1915.
The pier was painted its iconic green color as part of Wrigley’s revitalization efforts in the 1920s and henceforth has been known as the Green Pleasure Pier. These days it is the official weigh station for sport fishermen in the area, as well as the primary dock for local watersports, submarine tours, and diving excursions.
My must-stop on a visit here is Avalon Seafood, a casual restaurant on the end of the pier that has been in continuous operation since 1967. Nothing sounds better to me (especially in the midst of this cold snap in Florida) than fresh fried seafood and a beer, sitting on the pier, smelling saltwater, and watching the boats pass by.
So that’s all for Avalon, Catalina Island’s hospitable small town designed for the stars. Their local museum director Michael De Marsche describes Avalon as a town that “hasn’t changed that much, and that’s what people love about it. It’s like going back in time. It’s a special town, a charming town; a town of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.” There is a certain romance to this simple, smaller community. There are no traffic lights and few people- particularly in the off-season- with a local population of only 4,000 residents.
Are you enticed to visit this hidden gem to the stars yourself? I know I personally will be taking my yacht over to the Casino at the first chance I get ;)
I’ll catch you next week, as we head to the Centennial State for what might be my most challenging choice of small-town-representation yet?? See you then!
"I dream of her in Avalon / From dusk till dawn. / So I think I'll travel on / To Avalon." - Al Jolson, from the 1920 song, Avalon