A long time ago, sometime around 1912, a director by the name of D.W. Griffith packed up his filmmaking wares and took his crew, including favored cinematographer Billy Bitzer and star Mae Marsh, across the water to a relatively mysterious island off the Southern California coast to shoot a short film.
During the silent era other more notable titles were filmed either partially or entirely on the island, including Cecil B. DeMille’s Male and Female (1919) and The Ten Commandments (1923), Fred Niblo’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), Old Ironsides (1926) starring Charles Farrell and Wallace Beery, The Black Pirate (1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks, and the earliest filmed version of Treasure Island (1918).
But perhaps most important to a popular and prevailing legend of the island’s history is the 1925 production of The Vanishing American, based upon a Zane Grey story of the history of Native Americans and their struggle for acceptance after having their land stolen from them by settlers and the United States government. The movie, starring Richard Dix and Noah Beery, is frequently commemorated and mentioned at various historical sites and outposts visible throughout Avalon, the island’s main harbor town, for its unique contribution to the island’s population, that of the 400 or so North American bison that can be found there.
The animals were shipped to the island to provide verisimilitude for the outdoor production and then, once that production wrapped, were left on the island to roam free; this is the official history. But Jeannine Pedersen, curator of the Catalina Island Museum, tells of a curious discovery. She got a look at The Vanishing American recently and wrote that “in watching the film it appears that it was not filmed on Catalina Island,” a revelation that must have come as a bit of a shock. She speculates that perhaps the Catalina Island bison footage was replaced with other footage shot on the mainland, and outside the influence of alien transport this seems the most likely scenario. According to Pedersen the bison have been roaming the hills of Catalina since December 1924, around about the same time The Vanishing American would have been filmed. (It was released in October 1925.)
Many movies, significant and otherwise, were shot on the shores of this lovely island getaway during the last decade of the silent era. But as the talkies approached, there was still no place where one could actually go to see a movie on Catalina Island. Enter chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, who bought controlling interest of the island in 1919. Wrigley, who would also eventually establish a spring training facility for his Chicago Cubs on Catalina Island where the Catalina Country Club is now situated, built a dance hall on a site in Avalon that had been originally cleared for the planned construction of the Hotel St. Catherine. That hotel was eventually realized, but in nearby Descanso Canyon instead, leaving room to build Wrigley’s Sugarloaf Casino, which served not only as a ballroom and gathering place for island residents and visitors but also as the town’s first high school, until the population outgrew the school’s capacity. And in 1928 the original Sugarloaf Casino itself was razed in order to make room for a newer, bigger, even more spectacular building, one that would fill the need for celluloid dreams on the shores of Avalon.
In May of 1929, under Wrigley’s supervision and direction, the Catalina Casino, designed by architects Sumner Spaulding and Walter Weber, was finished. The first completely circular building of its time, the Casino, at an equivalent height of 12 stories, was and is an Art Deco and Mediterranean Revival masterpiece consisting of three levels—a museum dedicated to the island’s art and history which occupies the lower level, a massive 20,000-square foot ballroom on the upper floor, and on the central, ground-level floor, a beautiful movie theater capable of seating 1,154 people.
The Casino building dominated the landscape of Avalon, easily visible on approach to the island by boat and from just about anywhere else in the downtown Avalon area, and the theater inside it more than lived up to the grandiose expectations the exterior set for it. But the Avalon Theater was not only spacious, ornate and gorgeous to behold, instantly the hot spot on the island for locals and visitors. It was also the very first movie theater ever to be designed with acoustics tailored for the advent of sound motion pictures, and as such was a favorite showcase for filmmakers like DeMille and movie studio bigwigs like Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn in which to premiere their new films. There had literally never been anything like it in the history of the movies.
The one thing the Catalina Casino is not and never has been, however, is… a casino, at least as the term is currently understood. The building’s name was given based on the meaning of the word in the original Italian language, which simply connotes “a gathering place,” so it’s unlikely there were ever any visitors decked out in top hats, tails and evening gowns who arrived at its doors in 1929 expecting an evening of gaming and perhaps slightly more decadent, alcoholically enhanced fun.
Not so in 2015, however, at least occasionally. Despite clear declarations in just about any literature you can obtain about the building, either online or on the island, pertaining to its function and purpose, there are still island revelers who sidle up to the dark wood doors of the entryway on a weekend evening, in their beachwear finery of tank tops, sunglasses and flip-flops, and are disappointed when the employee at the entrance informs them that, no, there are no slot machines or black jack tables waiting inside. The look on the faces of the couple who approached the Catalina Casino just ahead of me, my wife and my daughters last Saturday night after being informed of this fact—well, think of a child who’d just been told that there was no Santa Claus, or of a slightly older child who’d just been told that, no, Santa Claus would not be dealing poker for them after all and that they would have to make the half-mile walk back into town to the karaoke bar for any real action.
The Casino building itself stands as majestic and beautiful now as it ever did, perhaps even more so, its cavernous movie auditorium and lush ballroom interiors having been recently restored to their original glories. It’s a place that has always called to me whenever I look at pictures of Avalon Harbor, and it certainly did upon my one previous visit to Catalina Island around 21 years ago. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to set foot inside of it during that trip. But when my family and I ventured the short boat ride across the sea to get there last weekend, I was determined to make a movie at the Avalon Theater the crown jewel of our brief visit.
We started our walk from the downtown district Saturday night just a little early, acting on a tip from one of the guides on the zip line adventure I went on earlier in the day (That’s another story!) that on Friday and Saturday nights the movie is preceded by an hour-long concert performed by one of the only musicians, on the island or anywhere, with the ability to play the theater’s massive pipe organ. So we made sure to get there in plenty of time for the musical prelude. Arriving just before 6:30 pm, and after listening to the employee at the door explain the meaning of the word “casino” to the disappointed folks ahead of us, we handed over our tickets and went inside, heads immediately tilting upward to take in the beautiful walnut wood paneling that enriches the ambiance of the theater’s lobby.
But it’s the auditorium itself which is designed, as all great movie palaces are, to take your breath away, and that it did. We entered through the center doors and began the walk toward our seats gazing upward, as everyone surely does, at the beautiful Art Deco murals created by artist John Gabriel Beckman that grace the domed walls, including a figure surfing dual waves (presumably off the Catalina coast) on the stage curtain and a reproduction of Botticelli’s Venus residing on the apex of the proscenium arch just above the screen.
My first thought was that, with its lack of curtained walls or any of the familiar trappings of an acoustically designed space that we’ve become used to seeing in modern theaters, the Avalon may look beautiful, but the sound coming from the movie, much less the organ, is probably going to reverberate like a nightmare in an echo chamber.
Wrong. According to the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, because the theater was the first to be constructed with an ear toward the oncoming sound era of motion picture production, great care was taken to make sure that not only was the sound optimal inside the huge auditorium, but also that the theater and the ballroom be exceedingly insulated from each other so that moviegoers were not distracted by the sound of the band or the potential 3,000 dancers that could be in the ballroom above.
In fact, the acoustics provided by the circular domed ceiling have been studied by acoustical designers from all over the country because of the high quality transference made possible by the auditorium’s design. The conservancy claims that a speaker on the theater stage can speak in a normal voice without a microphone and can be clearly heard by everyone seated inside, and after experimenting a bit with this before the organ concert began I can attest that it seems to be true. Yet when the performance was under way on stage, any talking by audience members didn’t seem to be loud enough to distract from that performance, unless the rude chattering was taking place directly next to me (which it was, occasionally).
And speaking of the pre-show entertainment, let’s just say that arriving early was one of the best ideas we had all weekend. The giant Page pipe organ, one of only two currently in operation in the United States, may have seen better days, but it’s still magnificent to behold and even more magnificent to hear, its massive gathering of sound gliding along the curves of the auditorium and enveloping the listener in a way that has effectively been lost to modern moviegoing audiences. The Avalon’s Page has been in operation since the theater opened. Though the theater was designed for the exhibition of sound movies, the era of talkies was yet to get full in swing by May of 1929, so this wondrous instrument was used frequently as accompaniment for the silent pictures that would still play there.
But Catalina Island historians, and the residents who are still around to remember firsthand, also loved the organ for the special concerts given before the screening of movies, or sometimes in a separate program during those comparatively lazy island afternoons. (These free afternoon concerts were an Avalon Theater tradition that, except for a break during World War II, extended well into the 1950s.) Much care and refurbishment of the organ has taken place in the years since, including a major overhaul done to coincide with the theater’s 50th anniversary in 1979, and it still feels and sounds like an instrument that enjoys the benefits of a lot of TLC, to say nothing of the tender talents of those who play it.
The name of the man at the keys of the Page before the movie last Saturday night was never made available, either in advertising or at the theater that night, and it’s a notch against me for not pursuing the information. But my zip line tour guide assured me earlier in the day that he was the only one on the island with the ability to coax the sort of music out of it that it was meant to create, and when we finally saw him at the bench, his informal, friendly manner did nothing to diminish the grandeur of his playing. Whether cruising through a medley built around “Blue Moon,” summoning the mystery and romance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” or cranking out a jaunty melody that made me feel like I’d suddenly been transported inside the world’s largest mock-up of the insides of David Lynch’s radiator, the man’s performance was nothing less than mesmerizing.
At one point I made my way up to the front row of seats directly behind so that I could better see how it was than one person could wring so much out of such a complicated construct. I sat and listened there for at least two tunes, when suddenly, in between numbers, he turned to acknowledge the audience’s applause, saw me sitting there and said “Hello.” In breach of all acceptable audience protocol, I jumped up and took advantage of the opportunity to tell him how much I was enjoying the performance. And then I asked him, seemingly out of nowhere, if he’d ever seen the Vincent Price classic The Abominable Dr. Phibes, hurriedly including, lest my inquiry seem dangerously random, that the movie opens with Phibes at another majestic pipe organ, playing an otherworldly and terrifying arrangement of Mendelssohn’s “War March of the Priests,” and that I was hoping, by some happy chance, he knew how to play it. (Yes, I made… a request.)
(Click here to hear Dr. Phibes play Mendelssohn)
To my surprise, his face lit up. “I love that movie!” he replied. “And that music!” For a brief moment I held out hope that I might actually get to hear him peel off Dr. Phibes’ greatest hit in this awesome venue. But it was not meant to be. He said he’d always wanted to learn it but has yet to take the plunge. “But I love that movie!” he offered, before thanking me for my interest and returning to the Page for his grand finale.
After that, it hardly mattered what movie was playing, which was fortunate because the main feature was Terminator: Genisys, a picture my kids had a loudly professed desire not to see. (They might have actually rather have seen D. W. Griffith’s Man’s Genesis instead!) But what could we do? We were on an island, the ultimate captive audience to the only show in town, and we let the high of the Page pipe organ performance carry us through the latest thoroughly unnecessary installment in this apparently unkillable franchise. The movie’s alternate universe/time travel narrative becomes so abstractly convoluted that it loses all urgency, not a good development for an ostensibly high-octane summer blockbuster. But I didn’t much care. I spent much of the movie’s two-hour running time amusing myself by noticing how much the slab of beef cast to replace Michael Biehn as Kyle Reese reminded me of Chico Marx after a summer workout regimen at World’s Gym.
Soon it was over, the world had once again (for the time being) been saved, and by the time we hit the pathway along the harbor on our way back to our hotel I’d almost forgotten the movie entirely. But somewhere I could still hear the distant chimes and mellifluous waves of chords building to monumental crescendos and then subsiding inside my head and I thought, what a wonderful way to end a family vacation on Catalina Island, a place where so much movie history was born and continues to flourish. I looked at my wife and the faces of my kids as they bopped down past the moored boats toward the bustling nightlife of Avalon and I could see that they undoubtedly would have agreed.
And then I remembered, as I would frequently that night before I went to sleep, that tonight I met a master of the Page pipe organ at the Avalon Theater who turned out to be a Dr. Phibes geek. Top that, Walley World.
Catalina Casino Wikipedia page