Doesn’t it surprise you that there’s a scenic island, only 22 miles away from Los Angeles (estimated 2010 population 4,000,000), that has only one small town and a population of under 4,000? Santa Catalina Island (usually called Catalina) would like to keep it that way, thank you very much.
In truth, folks have spent most of the last 150 years trying to figure out how to make Catalina into a popular tourist destination. William Wrigley, Jr., he of the chewing gum empire, bought controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island Company in 1919 with the intent of making it a recreational and entertainment destination. He built infrastructure, had ships make regular runs from the mainland, even brought his Chicago Cubs to the island for spring training.
The most distinctive structure Wrigley built was the Catalina Casino. This circular building is surrounded by the sea on three sides, and was constructed in the Art Deco style. But don’t let the name fool you — it never was a gambling hall. Its downstairs housed a huge movie theater, supposedly the first constructed specifically for movies with sound. Upstairs is a dance hall, in a building that stands the equivalent of twelve stories tall.
The primary town on Catalina is Avalon, with a population of about 3,100. It’s home to a picturesque harbor and a small but busy beach. Most of its activity today is oriented toward tourists, about a million of whom visit the island each year.
Today, William Wrigley’s son, Philip, has given his share of the island to the Catalina Island Conservancy, which protects the island’s natural heritage. Oh, remember how his father brought the Cubs to Catalina for spring training? One year, one of their young broadcasters decided to slip away to nearby Hollywood and do a screen test while he was in town. The producers liked young Ronald Reagan, and the rest, as they say, is history…