Hit the Road: Chronicling the storied history of Catalina Island

Guests at the 19-room Aurora Hotel get this view of Avalon Harbor from the third-floor deck. Photo by Jerry Ondash

Guests at the 19-room Aurora Hotel get this view of Avalon Harbor from the third-floor deck. Photo by Jerry Ondash

We are peeking through the large, locked glass doors of the Catalina Island Museum in Avalon, watching a team assemble an 18-foot, mystical glass sculpture called Blue Ridge Chandelier in the museum’s lobby.

The new Ada Blanche Wrigley Schreiner Building of the Catalina Island Museum is a nod to both the Spanish Mission style and Art Deco. With open space on the island at a premium, the museum was lucky to score the former location of Avalon’s city hall. Courtesy photo

The new Ada Blanche Wrigley Schreiner Building of the Catalina Island Museum is a nod to both the Spanish Mission style and Art Deco. With open space on the island at a premium, the museum was lucky to score the former location of Avalon’s city hall. Courtesy photo

The piece is just one of several created by renowned artist Dale Chihuly that will be featured at the museum through Dec. 11.

It is a few days before the exhibit opens and the museum is closed until the installation is complete, so we feel a bit nefarious watching as Chihuly’s team works.

They carefully, carefully slide the translucent blown-glass pieces onto the metal skeleton. I soon learn that we aren’t the only ones with noses pressed against the glass. This exhibit is a big deal for islanders and the museum, which until now, has focused mostly on the area’s history.

Dale Chihuly-White and Oxblood Seaform Set, 1983. This is one of the seven pieces that is featured at the Catalina Island Museum through Dec. 11.  Courtesy photo

Dale Chihuly-White and Oxblood Seaform Set, 1983. This is one of the seven pieces that is featured at the Catalina Island Museum through Dec. 11.
Courtesy photo

“Most of the people in Avalon hardly ever leave the island, and when they do, it’s to visit the doctor or for some other appointment,” explains Gail Fornasiere, the museum’s director of marketing and public relations. “So we wanted this new museum to not only bring the history of the island to the people but art and culture, too. We are an underserved community in this respect.”

Just getting the Chihuly pieces to Avalon is a story in itself.

“The logistics have been interesting,” Fornasiere says.

Ten thousand pounds of blown glass and steel armature were loaded on to two 53-foot trucks in Washington state. When the boxes arrived in Long Beach, they were reloaded onto four trucks that were loaded onto barges that were unloaded in Avalon.

In all, seven Chihuly pieces will be displayed throughout the 18,000-square-foot museum, many times larger than the former 1,500-square-foot space. Now, one of two large galleries focuses on island history.

Among the treasures are 10,000 photos and negatives that chronicle island life from the early 1880s, including pictures of William Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate who bought Catalina in 1919; the many seasons that the Chicago Cubs, which Wrigley owned, held spring training on the island; Natalie Wood, who died mysteriously while on a weekend boat trip to Catalina; and 16-year-old Norma Jean Baker (Marilyn Monroe) who spent time on the island with her first husband who was stationed there during World War II.

Long-held artifacts include a comprehensive collection of colorful Catalina tile, manufactured on the island between 1927 and 1937; and the guitar and ukulele owned by (still living) Bruce Belland of the Four Preps.
He was a Hollywood High teen when, in the late ‘50s, he posited from a Southern California beach that Catalina Island looked about 26 miles away.

“That was really just an estimate,” says Fornasiere. “It’s actually about 22 miles.”

Some things I just refuse to hear.

For more about the museum, visit catalinamuseum.org.

This view of Avalon Harbor and the landmark Casino greets passengers as they disembark from Catalina Express ferries. The dock and most of the town’s attractions are within walking distance, and cars are forbidden in certain areas, so Avalon a pedestrian-friendly town.

This view of Avalon Harbor and the landmark Casino greets passengers as they disembark from Catalina Express ferries. The dock and most of the town’s attractions are within walking distance, and cars are forbidden in certain areas, so Avalon a pedestrian-friendly town.

For an in-depth lesson on William Wrigley Jr. and the Casino he built to attract tourists, take the Behind-the-Scenes tour at this Catalina landmark. Visit catalinaisland.com.

Projectors from the early 20th century, which screened silent films and some of the first talkies, can been seen during the Behind-the-Scenes tour through Avalon’s iconic Casino. The well maintained landmark is still used frequently for events, and current movies are shown regularly in its nearly 100-year-old theater. Photo by Jerry Ondash

Projectors from the early 20th century, which screened silent films and some of the first talkies, can been seen during the Behind-the-Scenes tour through Avalon’s iconic Casino. The well maintained landmark is still used frequently for events, and current movies are shown regularly in its nearly 100-year-old theater. Photo by Jerry Ondash

And just so you go prepared, know that “casino” is an Italian word meaning “where the people gather.”
“It never has nor ever will have gambling,” emphasizes our guide Rebecca Watson, who performs an occasional a cappella song to demonstrate the acoustics of the historic building. Her narration takes us to an era when visitors came by the boatloads to dance away the afternoon and evenings to the sounds of the Big Bands.

We buzz through the performers’ dressing and break rooms, and the projection room where once a year, still-operational equipment from the 1920s presents silent films. The Casino, which also screens current films, was the first theater in the country to feature “talkies.”

Our last stops are the massive circular ballroom and the movie theater, each with spectacular murals that have been meticulously maintained.

All of Catalina’s attractions are an easy walk from the recently renovated, 19-room Aurora Hotel (auroracatalina.com), which offers a generous continental breakfast and a killer view of Avalon Harbor.
For a complete list of activities and attractions on Catalina Island, visit visitcatalinaisland.com.
Catalina Express runs ferries several times a day between Dana Point and Avalon. Trip time is 70 minutes catalinaexpress.com.

E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at eondash@coastnewsgroup.com

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