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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Maher

Let's look inside the Casino Building!

For the first time after year of living on Catalina, we finally toured inside the Casino Building! The Casino is a 92-year-old building, although from the outside, the building looks brand new! The architectural design was ingenious for its time. The Casino Building is a place where people gather, not gamble. In Italian, the word “Casino” literally means “a place of gathering,” and that was the intention. A huge rock formation, called Sugarloaf Point, once stood where the Casino Building is now located. It had been demolished by the Banning Brothers in the early 1900s to create hotel St. Catherine (1918-1966), but instead the hotel was built on Descanso Beach.

When William Wrigley Jr. bought the island in 1919, he had big dreams of creating a gathering place. Currently, the Wrigley family owns most of the shares of the Catalina Island Company, and the interior is preserved by the Catalina Island Conservancy. With the help of D.M Renton, Wrigley’s idea of the Casino Building was born on May 29, 1929, at the cost of 2 million dollars. The Casino Building only has two floors, but it is 12-stories! The first floor is the Theatre, and the second floor is the Ballroom.

Interestingly, the first invitation to the Casino Building depicts a woman dressed as a pirate standing next to a treasure chest (or pleasure chest like it says) with a galleon in the background. This is because during the grand opening, “Neptune’s chest” was brought to the Casino entrance, and Mr. D.M Renton was presented with the golden key that lay inside that symbolized the opening of the doors of Catalina’s great “pleasure chest,” the Catalina Casino! The invitation is displayed in the history gallery of the Catalina Island Museum.

Upon entering, we were welcomed by the mural above the entrance to the theatre of the Casino Building; an underwater theme centered around the image of a risqué mermaid. This mermaid image is the icon of Avalon. The mural was first created by John Gabriel Beckman and revamped in the late 80’s by Richard Keit. It was stylized to mimic Catalina’s aquatic environment. You can see an aqua green seascape with small fish and colorful bubbles that hover around a mermaid with long delicate arms. Her hair flows upward, and her body curves like the long tendrils of kelp that surround her.

Richard Keit also created the tiles lining the walkway to the Casino. The images are taken from postcards sold in the 30’s that depict the sea life, and history of the island. My favorite is that of Charles Holder standing next to Mexican Joe, a local at the time, who was the oarsman of a small fishing boat when Charles Holder had caught his first bass[1]. Charles Holder founded the Tuna Club in 1898 which still stands today.

As we entered inside the Casino into the theatre lobby, I noticed the ceiling is painted with palm leaves! The palm leaves were first painted red, then pressed up against the ceiling to create the texture. The carpeting and furniture are replaced, but the ceiling and the black oak walls are original. The lobby was kind of creepy and it had a haunted house vibe. I think the vibe was coming from the musty smell.

I was awe-struck when I entered the Theatre, I didn’t realize how much of a dome shape it was based on just the pictures I have seen. Remarkably, there are no support beams! All the weight is distributed to the side of the building like a coconut. Colorful lights surround the theatre, illuminating the stunning artwork by John Gabriel Beckman. Along the walls of the theatre are colorful depictions of early California history and plant life.

The dome shape of the theatre amplifies sound. Anywhere you sit you can hear a whisper from across the room. The tour guide explained that sound traveled upward and then rained down from the ceiling to every point in the room. When he spoke, it sounded like he was speaking right next to me. The dome shape creates a natural surround sound. Ironically, our tour guide had to talk over the amplified screams of a child!

You travel back in time when you sit down in one of the vintage red cushioned seats. As I sat in one of them to admire the artwork, I noticed that the 92-year-old seats were in good condition. Since there are no windows in the theatre, vents are located on the floor under the rows of seats to circulate air. Back then, everyone smoked indoors!

The mural inside the theatre is huge and is a series of connected images painted all along the walls of the dome which capture the desert environment of Catalina Island. Some examples of the images include Native Americans on horseback with bows and arrows, cactus, bougainvillea, deer, and birds. However, there is a monkey depicted at the back of the theatre, which is of course not native to the island.

A galleon is painted on the left side of the theatre next to mysterious hooded Franciscan Friars. I bought a poster of the image of the exact galleon at the Catalina Island Museum gift shop! During the 16th century, the Spanish trade route extended just south past the Channel Islands, when ships were coming from Manila and heading toward Veracruz.

Framing the stage is an artistic representation of clouds made from metal. It reminded me of a steam-punk theme. Above the metal clouds is the image of the Greek goddess Venus. Much of the "art-deco" combines seascape themes with Roman mythology.

The stars depicted on the dome ceiling caught my eye because they glittered with gold leaf. The ceiling was once all covered in silver leaf! You can just imagine how striking the dome was! It probably felt like you were inside a crystal ball! The silver leaf had to be removed and it is now just a soft grey color.

Just above the Theatre in the back is the projection room. Inside, it was like an exhibit because you could see the vintage movie projectors. Of course, the Theatre now uses a modern projector and will be showing Stepbrothers during the Catalina Wine Mixer in September. I want to see it just to hear the surround sound of the theatre! It will be a great way to end our adventure on this picturesque paradise of the Pacific for the Caribbean!

On the second floor is the Ballroom, and it is constructed upon a layer of cork, which muffles the sound of feet dancing above the theatre. Upon entering, my eyes were immediately drawn to the center fixture on the ceiling. It was a rotating golden egg shape that was part of the fan designed for the ventilation system. Unlike the softly lit enclosed theatre, the Ballroom is bright from the natural light spilling in from the big windows! The artwork of the Greek gods along the walls of the Ballroom, and the view of the ocean and the swaying palm trees surrounding the Casino made me feel like I was in another exotic Mediterranean country!

I am so glad that we finally had the chance to see inside the Casino before leaving this stunning island! I had the pleasure of gazing at Avalon Bay from a different perspective as I walked around the terrace walkway that surrounded the Ballroom. I highly recommend booking a tour through the Casino because it is a big part of Avalon culture and history.

[1] Holder, Charles F., An isle of Summer, 1901, p. 37

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