There is a bouncy little song about Catalina Island—“26 Miles”—that was popular in the 1950s. For years I mistakenly thought The Four Preps were singing “sunny Catalina is waiting for me.” Sunny is not a bad description of the place, but the lyric actually is Santa Catalina, the real name of the island off the coast of California that’s popularly called Catalina Island or simply Catalina.
The island, which is, as the song notes, 26 miles (more or less) from the mainland, is part of the state of California and, in fact, part of Los Angeles County. The 26 miles are far enough that in the early 20th century such celebrities as Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart frequently slipped away to the island’s famed Hotel St. Catherine for a private retreat. Western writer Zane Grey had a home there that still stands.
It’s also close enough to Hollywood to be a favorite locale for shooting movies and television programs. More than 500 movies, television shows, documentaries and commercials have been shot at least partly on Catalina Island. Except for the city of Avalon, where more than 85 percent of the island’s 3,600-person population lives, most of the island is rustic, even jungle-like, making its terrain a reasonable stand-in for remote tropical islands.
A 1966 Doris Day movie, The Glass Bottom Boat, was a natural to be filmed there since Catalina is the home of the original glass-bottom boat.
One odd little residual of the island’s history as a movie locale is that North American bison run wild on its hills. One of them lumbered up close enough to our tour bus that we got a good look at him.
The story of how the great beasts got there is one that’s usually told with a little reluctance since no one seems able to document it. It is believed that they were brought there in 1924 by a movie company that was shooting Zane Grey’s The Vanishing American. The problem is that there are no scenes in the movie that include bison or any places recognizable as Catalina. Possibly all of these ended up on the cutting room floor.
Most visitors to the island arrive by ferry—a few family members and I arrived on a cruise ship—but there is a tiny airport, called the Airport in the Sky, at the very top of the mountain at the island’s center. It was built in 1946 and hasn’t been updated much since then. The hangar and terminal look as though they’re straight out of an old black-and-white movie. Only private and charter planes use its one runway.
Reaching the airport from Avalon by bus, bicycle or car means a white-knuckle ride up a narrow mountain road, but the view from the top is spectacular. Also making the 10-mile trip to the 1,600-foot mountaintop worthwhile are a nature center and a little restaurant, The Runway Café, where the specialty is buffalo burgers. Even those who choose not to have a full meal there would do well to try the fresh-baked cookies. They’re not cheap—$2.50 a cookie—but they’re huge and delicious.
Humans aren’t the only fans of the cookies. They’re a big hit with the local ravens. Three ravens hatched at the home of a tour bus guide, who fed them and named them Edgar, Allan and Poe. Poe has died, but one of the surviving ravens followed our tour bus all the way down the mountain in anticipation of his cookie treat at the bottom.
From 1919 until 1975, the island was owned by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., who also owned the Chicago Cubs, and his heirs. The field where the baseball team for many years held spring practice is still there and Cubs memorabilia is abundant on the island. The Wrigley family is responsible for a good deal of the development designed to make Catalina a tourist destination. His success is evident today as tourists flock there for shopping, dining, surfing, snorkeling and other leisure activities. On its peak tourism day, the Fourth of July, the island’s population increases tenfold.
When you’re done exploring the charming little shops in Avalon, you may want to take the short, pleasant walk to Wrigley’s masterpiece—Catalina Island’s most famous landmark, Catalina Casino. If you visit, however, don’t plan on placing any bets. There’s no gambling there and never has been. Casino in this case draws on the original Italian meaning of the word: place of public entertainment.
The 12-story round building sits on its own little peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water. It was closed for repairs the day I was there so I didn’t get to go inside, but just walking around outside, I could appreciate that it’s a magnificent piece of architecture. Especially charming are the tiles along the walkway. Made at the Catalina Clay Products Company, which closed in 1937, each tile is a work of art depicting some aspect of the island’s colorful history.
Built by Wrigley in 1929, the casino has a number of superlatives to its credit. With a diameter of 180 feet, it’s the world’s largest round building and its top floor is the world’s largest dance hall. The ground floor is a huge movie theater, said to be the first specifically built to show movies with sound. The building also houses the Catalina Island Museum.
The casino was erected midway between Avalon and the Hotel St. Catherine to make it an easy walk from either place. Although the famous playground to the stars, the Hotel St. Catherine, was torn down in the 1960s, the casino remains a must-see for island visitors.