From the beautiful Casino Ballroom, Overlooking Avalon Bay
The Santa Catalina Island Company, under the direction of William Wrigley Jr. and David M. Renton, built the Casino building between 1928 and 1929. Mr. Wrigley had built a smaller version of the building, called Sugarloaf Casino, in the same spot eight year earlier to serve as an entertainment and gathering place for the Island’s visitors but soon realized that the building was too small to accommodate the growing visitation to the Island.
In early February of 1928 the Sugarloaf Casino was torn down and construction of the new Casino began. Architects Sumner A. Spaulding and William Webber designed the building at Mr. Wrigley’s request with a ballroom over a movie theatre in the Moorish Alhambra style with Art Deco fixtures, furnishings and artwork. The construction of the building lasted 14 months with crews working around the clock.
Artist John Gabriel Beckman was commissioned to decorate the interior of the theatre and the main entrance foyer with extensive murals. The theatre was originally built to accommodate 1250 moviegoers and was one of the first theatres in America retrofitted for both silent and sound motion pictures. The ballroom was designed and built with a cantilever construction that made possible an expansive circular dance floor without supporting pillars. A soda fountain, known as the Marine Bar was built and a beautiful circular terrace surrounding the ballroom added a finishing touch. The Casino opened to the public on May 29, 1929 – a landmark building that remains an architectural wonder and has served as a place if entertainment for residents and visitors for 78 years.
The ballroom dance floor was carefully constructed of maple, white oak and rosewood that rest on a layer of felt and acoustical paper. The felt and paper are installed over a subfloor of pine that floats above support beams on strips of cork. Such careful attention was given to the dance floor to ensure a smooth and comfortable dancing experience for the buildings many visitors.
A long list of notable Big Bands entertained visitors in the Casino Ballroom over the years. Mauric Menge and his El Patio Orchestra had the honor of officially opening the building in 1929 and since that day Big Band sounds have echoed through the building. Many of the bands would play four to six week engagements at the Casino, filling the ballroom every night during the summer season. Visitors had the opportunity to dance to the impressive sounds of Jan Garber, Kay Kyser, Bob Crosby, Buddy Rogers, Dick Jurgens, and Jimmy Grier, just to name a few. A Kay Kyser performance in the 1940s boasted the most people to ever dance on the ballroom at just over 6,000 dancers.
Beginning in 1934, Philip K. Wrigley along with close friend Les Atlas of the Columbia Broadcasting Company arranged for nightly broadcasts of Big Band music from the Casino Ballroom. The broadcasts continued with few interruptions through the 1950s. Throughout this time, listeners from across the nation heard “From the beautiful Casino ballroom, overlooking Avalon Bay at Catalina Island, we bring you the music of…” The names of the bands changed regularly, but the magical sounds of the era’s most notable Big Bands introduced the nation to the Casino Ballroom and Catalina Island.
John Boraggina is curator of the Catalina Island Museum.