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Backstage at Avalon Casino

June 21, 2009|Rosemary McClure

SANTA CATALINA ISLAND — The guide had promised us a special tour.

But here we were, wandering along a dark hallway in a creaking old building. All the action seemed to be outside: tourists strolling palm-lined streets, sandcastle sculptors creating fanciful characters, high-flying sea gulls cawing and wheeling against a bright blue sky.

We suddenly emerged on a stage, and floodlights snapped on, an organ began to play and the special tour became a first-class pass to the past. A half-century dissolved and we were big-band-era performers, with thousands of adoring fans waiting to hear us play.

The applause was deafening.

Well -- not really. We had to imagine the applause. But the new tour, Behind the Scenes at the Avalon Casino, helped us make the leap from reality to make-believe. The hourlong walking tour, set up in honor of the landmark's 80th birthday, celebrates a golden era in the island's history.

The circular white casino building, opened in 1929, is Avalon's most recognizable sight. It towers over the yachts riding at anchor on Avalon Bay, dwarfs the village's other structures and has become the scenic focal point for hundreds of thousands of snapshots.

At one time, the casino was the heart and soul of Santa Catalina Island. The nation's most famous performers appeared here: Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Gene Autry (who brought his horse).

Catalina was Hollywood's home away from home, and casino gigs were highly sought after. The concerts were broadcast across the country on radio, enhancing the venue's popularity. Thousands of concertgoers paid $2.25 each to take the Great White Steamer from San Pedro on the mainland to Avalon. Then they danced to big band music, thanking their lucky stars that the concerts themselves were often free, thanks to the building's founding father, chewing gum mogul William Wrigley Jr.

The new casino tour brings all these elements alive with a peek behind closed doors. The tour snakes along backstage hallways, detours inside dressing rooms, a projection room and private rooms where the rich and famous partied and drank. And yes, although it was Prohibition and alcohol was banned, "a lot of musicians walked in here with leaking suitcases," said our guide, Joe Caliva. "Everybody had a flask."

Caliva, originator of the new tour, dredged up antique signs, a treasure-trove of old black-and-white photos of performers, some vintage costumes and other decor from storage vaults within the casino to redecorate areas of the building that had fallen into disuse and disrepair. Among the finds: an original poster with the words to one of Catalina's signature tunes, "I found my love in Avalon beside the bay. I left my love in Avalon and sailed away." The lyricist was said to be Al Jolson.

The casino, 12 stories tall and ringed by balconies that overlook the bay, was believed to have the biggest dance floor in the world when it was built. It was called a masterpiece of Art Deco design that "receives patrons at its doors from seaplanes, yachts and motorcars," according to a 1929 article in the Catalina Islander newspaper.

Caliva said the tour was designed to bring the experience alive for visitors. And walking out on the stages in the theater and ballroom is a splendid chance to briefly play rock star.

Two other new tours are being launched this summer in Avalon.

The Catalina Seatrek Eco Tour will take visitors into the bay to view underwater gardens and a wrecked vessel that lies just off the beach. The 90-minute tour "is for people from 8 to 80," Caliva said. "You don't need to be a scuba diver; you just wear a helmet like something out of a Jules Verne book."

Participants receive shore-side instruction, don a wet suit and a diving helmet, and walk into the bay. The tour is available in several tropical locations in the world, but Catalina Island will be the first venue in colder waters. Seatrek tours are to begin next month; tickets are $89 per person.

Also available on the island is a new GPS Walking Tour. Participants receive a GPS and instructional audio that explains various sights and landmarks on the island. It is available for $19.

travel@latimes.com

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Tour prices

The Behind the Scenes tour is at 12:30 p.m. daily; adults, $27.50; seniors, $24.50, and children, $20.50. Another tour of the building, the Casino Walking Tour, has been available for several years, but it visits only parts of the casino that are open to the public. It is at 2 p.m. daily and costs $17.50 for adults, $13.25 for seniors and $15.75 for children.

For information on any of these tours, call (310) 510-8687 or see www.visitcatalinaisland.com.

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