AVALON CASINO THEATRE
Catalina Island, California
Living in a tourist mecca such as Los Angeles, one often ignores the nearby attractions. I'm as guilty of that as anyone. I knew Catalina as an Island a few miles offshore of the California coast. I knew it was a popular travel destination, just a boat trip away. I knew it was a location for Doris Day's THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT, a fun little movie I saw as a kid. But what finally piqued my interest was learning that in the Avalon Casino, the most iconic building on the island, one of the most historic buildings in all of California, was a theatre. A beautiful, historic, classic theatre.
Suddenly a trip to Catalina Island was very appealing.
There are some helpful websites offering information about the numerous fun things to do on Catalina island, from the famous glass bottom boat tours to snorkeling, parasailing, scenic tours, zipline, etc. Not being terribly adventurous, what appealed most to me were the scenic tour, glass bottom boat and of course, the reason for going there, the Casino.
A call to the good folks at the Santa Catalina Island Company eventually led me to Michele Bestudik, Historian and Film Liaison. Michele, a resident with a long history on the island, told me they had started a more in-depth tour of the Casino building that not only included the theatre and ballroom, it also went backstage and through all the private lounge, greenroom and dressing room spaces audiences would never see. The SCIC website has a great deal of detail and is highly recommended.
There were some financial and logistical challenges to get to Catalina for a day, but things eventually came together for a very memorable day. Catalina Express offers a special Birthday promotion that helped make my visit possible. They also offer discounts for Seniors 55 and older. Catalina Express leaves from three locations, including San Pedro and Long Beach.
The shortest trip I could find on public transportation from Hollywood was to San Pedro, where the terminal Catalina Express leaves from was about to be replaced. Logistics may point to the Long Beach location as an easier option, though the trip is nearly twice as long.
On the voyage to the island aboard the Catalina Express you have several options for seating, and a nice snack bar with refreshments. I recommend you arrive early for the best seating choice. I ended up on the rear of the vessel, with great exposure to sea air and a spectacular view on a comfortable chair. In overcast morning sky and surrounded by water, this was cool in more ways than one. Having dressed for summer temperatures, I luckily had packed several extra layers and used them all. You may spot dolphins alongside, but it's mostly water and sky until finally you see land ahead. You can spot the iconic Casino from far away.
To make the most time for a day trip on Catalina, you'll want to arrive early, and it is likely to be overcast. I'm told that's quite normal. By noon the sun had arrived and the weather was glorious.
The day I visited, Avalon had a special guest: The World, an enormous cruise ship that is also the world's only floating condominium. I recognized The World because this ship was the subject of a TV special.
Catalina Express brings you to a dock on the opposite side of the bay from the Casino building. You will also see a lot of boats that hold something like permanent parking spaces across the bay.
The boxy vessel on the far left of Avalon Bay is the shuttle to and from cruise ship-condominium The World.
The beautiful Casino building was the star of my trip, but there is much to do in Avalon.
I was greeted at the dock by my kind host Michele, who took me on a little drive through the town and outskirts of Avalon, with a special destination most tourists never see. As I mentioned before, I had a memory connection to Catalina from a movie I saw as a kid, THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT.
Original photo courtesy © Santa Catalina Island Company
The original Nautilus Glass Bottom Boat, as seen in the movie.
Michele, who has a bit part in the movie, told me they still have glass bottom boat tours, but in more advanced vessels. When I asked about the boat used in the movie, she told me the boat still existed. The original boat, named Nautilus, had an interesting history beyond the movie, and has been retired to a sort of dry-dock on a remote part of the island. After an intriguing drive with a few twists and turns, we arrived at a place on the Island known and accessible only to residents. Not quite a location worthy of a picture postcard, but off in the distance, behind two fences, there it is...
I was surprised the original Nautilus still looks quite like it did in the movie. Michele said there had been talk of sinking it in Lover's Cove, where it would be seen by the current underwater tours, (and it would naturally deteriorate over time) but the cove is a seriously protected area, and there were also talks of repurposing the Nautilus to preserve its history, in a public part of the island (maybe as a ticket booth), which strikes me as a very good idea. Meanwhile it safely awaits its comeback here.
I was then treated to a fun tour of other areas on the Island known to residents and experienced drivers. As our drive brought us up more winding roads, I noticed we were gaining altitude, and, being (understatement) not overly fond of heights, was feeling mixed emotions as my host stopped the vehicle for me to take in the amazing view. Rather than lean out the window, I opened the door to step out, but, looking down, noticed there wasn't much road to step onto, between us and a rather steep drop. (Gasp!) You know, the view is quite nice enough through the window...
A breathtaking (literally) view of Avalon Bay.
And Avalon itself.
To be fair, I must mention there are roads like that in the hills above Hollywood, not far from my home, and experienced drivers like Michele safely navigate them every day. I'm just not used to it, and again, not (understatement) very comfortable with heights.
It was great fun to have Michele show me around the place. The island of Catalina has many beautiful sights, and I look forward to taking the actual Avalon Scenic Tour on my next return trip.
As we made our way through the streets of Avalon, I learned some practical facts about life for fulltime residents: The island has its own cable TV system, there was a huge rate hike for electricity based on the expense of overhauling the original wiring, there are two places where islanders shop for groceries, and there used to be a separate movie theatre (!) aside from the one in the Casino. I saw many appealing options for visitors to eat, shop and stay, and in the area nearest to the bay, saw so many structures that reminded me of Martha's Vineyard - which we see as "Amity" in the movie JAWS. Then we arrived at our destination - the star of my visit - The Avalon Casino. The original definition of Casino is a gathering place of entertainment, which this building certainly has been for many years. It has never been used for gambling.
The amazing front entrance of the Avalon Casino building features a beautiful art deco boxoffice in the center,
...presided over by a mermaid...
...one of several nautical themed murals with a detailed history of their own.
In this boxoffice you can get tickets to the Casino tours, to movies in the Avalon Theatre, and to the events and musical performances in the Casino Ballroom. Two interesting DVDs are available for sale here: Greg Reitman's CATALINA, HOLLYWOOD'S MAGICAL ISLAND, which features interviews with famous former residents, and an episode of CALIFORNIA'S GOLD in which you can see and hear a bit from historian Michele Bestudik.
The theatre lobby features artfully detailed ceilings...
...rich wood paneling...
...a fully stocked concession stand with fresh popcorn...
and the original custom furniture, which, like the rest of the building, is in amazingly good condition.
In this lackluster multiplex age, here is a Real Theatre. The auditorium, the first to be designed for talking pictures, has such fine acoustics that it influenced the design of New York's landmark Radio City Music Hall.
The figure of Venus watches over the show from the vaulted ceiling, which was originally covered in silver.
The Behind the Scenes Casino Tour begins backstage at the beautiful Avalon Theatre, where the original stage rigging and electronics board are now augmented by computer. You may begin to hear organ music...
...from master organist Jon Tusak, whose live performances before films are a favorite feature of the theatre.
There is much more to come, including more details of the theatre, behind the scenes areas, and movie artifacts and the historic Casino Ballroom, not to mention the other attractions I was able to fit in on my visit, and some great news for moviegoers planning a visit to the island.
With some exceptional help, my day was so packed with experiences that there was barely a moment to spare until it was time to wait for the boat home. I had a great time and barely skimmed the surface of the Catalina Island experience. Things got a bit more adventurous (understatement) than I had hoped for... Come back soon for story updates about Catalina Island, the beautiful historic Avalon Theatre and Casino, plus other fun and memorable attractions.
Many thanks to Michele Bestudik, Santa Catalina Island Company, Catalina Expeditions and Catalina Express. I can't wait to go back, and you should go too, as soon as possible!
Story/Photos © by TJ Edwards
Some Additional Images courtesy © the Santa Catalina Island Company