Catalina Island: Where stars shine brightest

By Shandelle Battersby

Shandelle Battersby steps back in time to a casino that's long been a celebrity favourite.
Catalina Island, off the coast of California, has long been a celebrity favourite. Photo / Visit Anaheim
Catalina Island, off the coast of California, has long been a celebrity favourite. Photo / Visit Anaheim

These days it's a popular hangout for the likes of Lorde and her BFFs Taylor Swift and Haim, but Santa Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California has long been a playground for the celebrity set.

Hollywood's elite began flocking to the picturesque Mediterranean-style island, an hour off the coast of Southern California's Long Beach, after William Wrigley jnr bought a controlling stake in it in 1919. One of its most famous visitors was actress Natalie Wood, whose body was found floating in the sea off the island in 1981.

Chewing-gum mogul Wrigley built its famous art deco circular casino - not a gambling house but an entertainment venue - in 1929, and today you can take a 40-minute walking tour, scheduled twice a day, for US$13 ($19). It's a must for any visitor to the island.

The tour starts outside under the casino's portico, which features large artworks painted by muralist John Beckman, the man responsible for Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Inside, the venue's elaborate detailing is made of real gold, silver and brass.

The building sits 12 storeys high but there are no stairs; instead it uses a ramp system similar to the ones used in baseball grounds - something Wrigley picked up from his association with the Chicago Cubs.

During the tour we learn how the building's plush movie theatre was the first built for the "talkies" and is acoustically perfect. The custom-made pipe organ in the theatre cost Wrigley US$40,000 ($57,800), a huge sum for the era, when tickets for the cheap seats cost 10c and wingback chairs higher up 25c.

The casino features details that were groundbreaking at the time, such as the wide use of carpet. This was removed from the ramps in the 1950s after a woman caught her stilettos in it and took a tumble. At the top is its crowning glory, the ballroom, which features a magnificent disco ball made by Tiffany of real gold and silver, and of undetermined value.

Anything and everything happened at the casino - scandal, romance, jealousy, passion. Everybody spent the nights on their feet dancing, shoulder to shoulder, with a record number of 6200 attending a Kay Kyser show in 1940.

There was no air-con and no heating, but the many balcony doors allowed some relief from hot nights, as did the nearly 5m-wide ceiling fan cleverly hidden above the mirror ball.

There were also no tables and chairs in those days in the ballroom - people stored their bags and coats in a huge coat-check on the ground floor and rested at the Marine Bar, which served only soda until Prohibition ended in the 1930s.

These days 3500 people live on Catalina, which has just over 4.5sq km of living space; 88 per cent of the island is conservancy space, gifted to the state by the Wrigleys in the 1970s.

Avalon is the island's main town and its buildings sit precariously on the mountainous terrain, hovered over by the Wrigleys' summer mansion, which these days is home to a six-room B&B, The Inn on Mt Ada.

The town is walkable, but exploring further afield requires either hiring a golf buggy or bikes, or joining a tour.

Even the island's wildlife history is interesting: its population of at least 150 bison are the descendants of 14 shipped there for the film adaptation of Zane Grey's The Vanishing American in 1924 and were left behind when shooting was over. And Catalina's unique island fox, which is about the same size as a domestic cat, was nearly wiped out in the late 90s after a raccoon with canine distemper found its way ashore and spread the disease. These days fox numbers are around 2000.

It's an easy day trip - though there are hotels - but, a local tells me, the best option is to self-cater (with food from the mainland) in one of the many beach cottages available for hire.

Be warned that every 15 minutes from 8am to 8pm bells ring out across the bay from the Chimes Tower, a gift from Wrigley's wife Ada in 1925.

If anything, it will remind you to check your watch to make sure you don't miss your ferry back to the mainland.


Hawaiian Airlines flies to six California cities. Economy Class return fares are on sale from $999 until April 30.

From Los Angeles Airport, Long Beach is about a half-hour drive with Karmel Shuttle.

The ferry takes an hour.


Head for The Lobster Trap dive bar on Catalina Ave. Popular with locals, the menu features fantastic seafood and is a lot of fun. Try the poke and lobster tacos.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf02 at 21 Oct 2016 10:42:10 Processing Time: 904ms