AVALON, Calif. – Modern visitors arrive by the boatload to revel in Santa Catalina Island’s crystal-clear waters, Old California and Art Deco architecture, and sometimes, with hopes of catching a glimpse of one of the many buffalo that graze throughout the island’s vast interior.
The laid-back atmosphere belies the rich history of this appealing island, which lies less than 30 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. Catalina was once a playground for A-list celebrities like John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, and Errol Flynn, and spring training home of the Chicago Cubs.
That history is being celebrated in a new museum that showcases everything from Native American artifacts to the dark days of World War II, when Catalina served as a camp for the U.S. Merchant Marine and the government’s secretive Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to today’s CIA.
Tourists have been visiting regularly since chewing gum mogul William Wrigley Jr. bought the Santa Catalina Island Company, which developed the island, in 1919 with the intention of creating an island getaway accessible to the middle class. These days, Catalina is reached by ferries from Southern California ports, though the island does have one tiny airport and even a helipad for those without the patience for the hour-long boat-ride. Cruise ships arrive on the island on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Tourists – most coming just for the day – arrive ready to see many of the same attractions that have kept the island so popular. Visitors should plan to do “something on the water, and something on the land,” says Amelia Lincoln, events manager at the Catalina Chamber of Commerce. On any given day, islanders and tourists alike can be spotted playing water games, snorkeling, renting boats or taking excursions to view the colorful fish in kelp forests near the shore.
On land, visitors are encouraged by locals and island veterans to explore the “interior,” a blanket term for the majority of the 26-mile long island outside of Avalon. Visitors can bike, hike or hop onto a local bus for a dollar.
The island has a botanical garden, a memorial to Wrigley and in the interior, abundant wildlife including deer, island foxes and the island’s famous misplaced buffalo population. Barged over in the 1920s for the making of a silent film, The Vanishing American, they were deemed too expensive to ship back to the mainland. The peaceful Catalina buffalo have since taken root and are often spotted on the trails.
Catalina bills itself as a year-round destination.
“It’s an ideal place in the winter,” says Cathy Miller, marketing director for the chamber. “It’s quiet but not cold. You can hike, you can bike, it’s a lovely temperature and no one is here [so] rates are half the price.”
Avalon’s signature sight is the casino, an enormous round building built in 1929 and prominent as you arrive by water. The casino boasts both the biggest uninterrupted dance floor in the world and the first movie theater constructed for both sound and silent films. But the name is a misnomer; there’s no gambling in this casino. Rather, it takes the Italian word literally, meaning a recreational meeting place, often for dancing and socializing, explains Michael DeMarsche, executive director of the Catalina Island Museum.
The museum, a short walk from the casino, is the island’s latest tourist destination. It’s six times the size of the one it replaces.
“When you walk in through the door, the feeling we wanted you to have was, ‘Wait a second, this is not a little hacienda-style museum’,” says DeMarsche. “We wanted it modern.”
As visitors enter, the museum takes them back to the island’s heyday. Music from the 1930s greets guests as they step inside the stark-white interior with high ceilings. A few senior patrons happily hum along to the Four Preps’ ballad 26 Miles (Santa Catalina).
The museum features a digital theater and three galleries, one of which will always be devoted to Catalina Island history. There’s home footage of Charlie Chaplin, tales of Errol Flynn’s sordid adventures, and the tabloid headlines of Natalie Wood’s drowning on a boat with fellow actor Christopher Walken and husband Robert Wagner in 1981. Marilyn Monroe, then known as Norma Jeane Dougherty, lived in Avalon briefly before the start of her film career.
Unlike in the past museum, the collection now includes exhibits about the island’s Native American past, including artifacts excavated by an amateur archaeologist. “We felt it was important that we not avoid that story,” remarks DeMarsche.
The second floor of the museum features two plazas with outdoor seating and an in-progress building sight for what will be the museum’s amphitheater, which will seat 100 and where movies will be screened outdoors in special events.
*The museum charges $7.50 for adults, $5 for seniors and members of the military. Members of the museum as well as all children 15 and under are admitted for free.
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