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Nostalgia Island

Santa Catalina Is No Cancun--and That's a Good Thing

August 10, 2003|MICHAEL T. JARVIS

Paradise has a way of getting paved over, and that goes double for beachy idylls. These days it's a "Survivor" world. It's a Waikiki world. It's a Club Med world. But not yet, thank goodness, on Catalina, where you can still find Old California a mere 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. It remains a slower, less fabulous but more courteous place whose salty charms are being celebrated in "Santa Catalina: In All the World No Trip Like This" at the California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica.

The museum, housed in a 1893 building decorated with Monterey furniture and California pottery and tile, sets the tone with vintage luggage and an antique jukebox playing songs about Avalon, Catalina's main port. Using postcards, artifacts and more than 400 photos, the exhibit salutes an aquatic world built around amphibious tourism dating back to the 1860s, when early Catalina developers Phineas Banning and his sons offered four- to six-hour vessel trips to the island.

What we know as camping passed for high-end resort accommodations then. "Tent cities were lavish, wonderful things," says museum director Tobi Smith. "They were on the beach. You had maid service with a rocking chair, a bed and crockery because they didn't have bathrooms." Period clothing on display includes 1920s-era swimsuits bearing no resemblance to the thong bikini. "Most people didn't own [swimwear] so you'd rent your bathing suit," Smith says.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 26, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Catalina postcard caption -- In the Aug. 10 Los Angeles Times Magazine, a caption for a postcard of Catalina Island that accompanied an article about an exhibit at the California Heritage Museum incorrectly stated when the postcard was produced. It was 1939, not the 1920s.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 07, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 10 Lat Magazine Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
A caption for a postcard of Catalina Island that accompanied the article "Nostalgia Island" (Metropolis, Aug. 10) incorrectly stated when the postcard was produced. It was 1939, not the 1920s.

In 1904 the Bannings christened the SS Cabrillo, a 600-passenger steamer, which ventured from Wilmington to Avalon. Although seaplanes and sailboats brought many people to Catalina, most ferried to the island by steamship from 1920 until the mid-1960s. Catalina boomed after gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. bought the island in 1919 and developed it as a Shangri-La for the masses. From 90,000 visitors in 1919, Avalon was hosting 750,000 visitors in 1930.

Wrigley's 1929 casino, a landmark hybrid of Moorish exterior and Art Deco interior featuring a ballroom and theater but no gambling, is still in use today. Some of Wrigley's Avalon attractions have disappeared, including the Chicago Cubs spring training camp that operated from 1921-'51 and the 500-cage exotic Bird Park, which sent its birds to the Los Angeles Zoo after World War II. The Wrigley mansion is now the luxurious Inn on Mount Ada, which competes for the title of best view in town with the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel, a former home of the noted author and outdoorsman.

So far, Catalina has managed not to go Cancun on us. The Catalina Express runs as many as 30 departures daily to Catalina from San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point year round. Fast-food restaurants have arrived in the last several years, and there's perpetual debate over how to "develop" Catalina. But much of the island is protected by the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, and Catalina's beauty and its past continue to resonate. Sure, the exhibit's elegiac-sounding title is really an ad slogan that touted the island to visitors during the 1920s. But to a heartening degree, Santa Catalina remains a place where even the tourist hype is still quaint.


"Santa Catalina: In All the World No Trip Like This," through March 28 at the California Heritage Museum, 2612 Main St., Santa Monica; (310) 392-8537.

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