Los Angeles, an excursion to Santa Catalina Island, with its clean air, clear water and blissful absence of traffic may be the perfect antidote. There isn't a single traffic light, yet you're only 23 miles from the California coast and still in Los Angeles County. Most Angelinos refer to Santa Catalina Island as Catalina Island, or just Catalina. Because of Catalina's relative isolation, out-of-state tourists tend to ignore it, but those in the know come to boat and fish. There are also miles of hiking and biking trails, plus golf and tennis; but the main sport seems to be bar-hopping. You will not go thirsty on Catalina Island.
Catalina Island (population 4,000), a 75 square mile patch of mountainous land, is one of eight Channel Islands off the coast of California. A herd of bison roams the island, first imported in 1924 for the silent film version of Zane Grey's Western tale, The Vanishing American. At times numbering as many as 600, the bison population is maintained today at +-150. Zane Grey’s former weekend home is maintained as a small hotel overlooking Avalon Harbor, a modest adobe villa with an arrow-shaped swimming pool. Back in the glory days of Hollywood, movie industry luminaries such as Clark Gable and Howard Hughes flocked to the island for a bit of privacy not easily attained on the mainland.
Catalina is so different from the mainland that it almost seems like a different country, remote and unspoiled. In 1919, the island was purchased by William Wrigley, Jr., the chewing-gum magnate, who had plans to develop it into a fashionable pleasure resort. To publicize the new vacation land, Wrigley brought big-name bands to the Avalon Ballroom and moved the Chicago Cubs (which he owned) to the island for spring training, a tradition that lasted 30 years. Wrigley also built the landmark harbor-front round structure known as the Casino, which contains a ballroom and movie theater, but has no gambling. The historic Catalina Casino also houses the island’s museum, keeper of the island's cultural heritage. Its collections include artifacts of over 7,000 years of Native American history, more than 10,000 photographs, a large collection of Catalina-made pottery/tile and ship models.
Original Art Deco casino details:
In 1975, the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, a nonprofit operating foundation organized to preserve and protect the island's nature habitat, acquired about 88% of Catalina Island, protecting virtually all of the hilly acreage and rugged coastline that make up what is known as the interior. In fact, some of the most spectacular outlying areas can only be reached by arranged tour.
The picturesque town of Avalon is both the port of entry for the island and the island's only city (population 3,980). From the ferry dock, you can wander along Crescent Avenue, the main pedestrian street along the beachfront, and easily explore numerous side streets. Visitors are not permitted to drive cars (only a limited number are allowed on the island, and residents have a 15-year waiting list to operate one), but may rent golf carts or bicycles. Organized bus tour companies use vintage vehicles to show visitors the varied points of interest.
Photo: a 1953 tour bus is still in service.
Scenes of downtown Avalon:
Norma Jeane Dougherty (the future Marilyn Monroe) lived in Avalon at 310 Metropole Avenue with her first husband, Jim Dougherty, who married her less than three weeks after her 16th birthday. In 1943 Jim, a member of the Merchant Marine, was assigned to Catalina Island as a physical training instructor and brought his bride with him, who lived here for about 18 months. To earn extra pocket money, she was a frequent babysitter for neighborhood children. During WWII the island was shut down to tourism and taken over for military training. When her husband was shipped overseas in late 1944, Norma Jeane (a brunette until 1946) moved in with her mother-in-law in Burbank and took a job as a worker in a defense plant inspecting parachutes. Norma Jeane divorced Dougherty in 1946 to pursue a modeling career, and she signed her first movie contract in August of that year, with Twentieth Century Fox, at age 20.
The Four Preps (four students from Hollywood High School) had a million-selling hit song in 1958 that began:
"Twenty- six miles across the sea,
Santa Catalina is a-waitin' for me,
Santa Catalina, the island of romance, romance, romance, romance..."