Although it’s hard to define a true “living legend,” there lives on Catalina Island a 90-year-old man whose legendary pursuits probably come very close to living up to the title. More fitting, perhaps, is describing the story of the Bombard family as an embodiment of what many believe to be a living example of the American dream.
More than 100 people gathered at the Catalina Island Museum Friday night to attend a premier of the documentary film, “Douglas Bombard, A Life of Santa Catalina Island.”
According to Gail Fornasiere, director of Marketing and Public Relations for the museum, the film was well received, and the crowd was “standing room only.”
Basically, the documentary tells the story of Doug Bombard’s amazing success on Catalina Island, but from a larger perspective it illustrates the vastness of one family’s American dream.
In a short span, it tells the story of how a mechanic from Indianapolis, Indiana can eventually become Mayor of Catalina Island; and how his son can become a business partner of one of America’s richest families.
The first Indy 500 was held in 1911. Doug’s dad Al, had married Gertrude Morrin in 1898 and was a mechanic during racing’s heyday. He worked on race cars at the Indy 500. In the early days, the cars had a driver and mechanic, said Bombard in the film.
Al Bombard visited California after being invited to race at the Beverly Hills racetrack, which was at that time built near Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevard, long before the area was crowded with development. Just by chance while in California, a friend of Doug’s dad invited him to sail to Catalina Island on a weekend.
Bombard said his dad instantly fell in love with the Island. He went back to Indianapolis and sold everything and moved to Catalina.
Understanding racing and speed, Al found a job with a boat building company and soon, he became manager then owner. His mechanical knowledge of engines allowed him to build beautiful, and fast speedboats that became a big hit on Catalina Island.
Al and Gertrude brought Doug Bombard into the world in 1926. Now 90, Bombard has spent his entire life on Catalina Island and has had a life every bit as enchanting as his dad, who by the way served as Mayor of Avalon from 1948-50.
Bombard grew up watching his dad build race boats. He learned to drive them and soon knew every cove and bay on the entire island. Doug and his dad fished twice a day, every morning and most every evening.
Bombard’s first taste of fame came in 1938 when he was 11 when he hooked, and landed, a massive sea bass. For sure, his dad Al loved speed and built the fastest boats in the world. Bombard said he remembers after he caught the fish, his dad “speeding” to the landing.
“My fish was losing water and weight” by the minute and both the father and the son knew it could be a record breaker so the race to the scales was on.
Once weighed, the sea bass weighed 60 pounds and was a world record. Doug Bombard was already in the newspapers and the record books.
After serving in the military, Bombard’s island prowess led him to his wife Audrey (Sharples). Walking in Catalina one evening, he was approached by someone seeking help to find a lost boat in a remote cove. Bombard led them to the boat and Audrey was aboard. They met. Married and still are living happily on Catalina Island. They have four children Randy, Greg, Wendy and Tim. Tim and Greg also appear in the film.
The film details much of Bombard’s life as it chronicles near a century of Catalina Island history; the steamers, diving for coins, the purchase by Wrigley, the Chicago Cubs training, the silver mine at Blackjack and most every milestone development over the past century.
Bombard got his big break by proposing to the Island Company taking over their money-losing operation now called Two Harbors, which is located at the Catalina Island Isthmus.
“I told them I could make something of it and they said, maybe you could,” so they said yes. Bombard turned the operations around. First there was a general store, with boat parts. Then a restaurant that “grew like mad.”
Finally, he says in the film, the Island Company proposed to allow him to lease the operation and at that point, he founded Doug Bombard Enterprises and in 1958, the son of a former mechanic was now a strategic business partner with the Island Company.
Today, Bombard’s family owns or partly own several businesses, including the Catalina Express.
Having one end of the island more or less to his operation, Bombard became best friends of Hollywood heavyweights who escaped there from the mainland on their yachts. Before the age of private jets, Catalina Island was a mecca for luminaries like Charlie Chaplin, Maureen O’Hara, John Ford, Errol Flynn, Howard Hughes, etc.
Bombard made money by selling mooring space to his famous friends for their yachts. He had six coves, Emerald Bay, Cherry Cove, Little Geiger, Howland Landing, Isthmus and 4th of July Cove.
Bombard tells the story of the day John Wayne proposed building private homes above Emerald Bay. Bombard said Wayne was serious and he had never before been asked that question. He discussed it with the Wrigley family, but they insisted a strategic plan be written before anything like that could occur. “Never came up again,” he said.
Bombard laments the time when Wayne, whose body was riddled with cancer, came to the Island to say goodbye, he says in the film.
Also, Bombard reveals in some detail what he believes happened to his friend Natalie Wood, as it was in Bombard’s restaurant that Wood, Christopher Walken and Robert Wagner left before the incident. It was Bombard who found Wood’s body near Blue Cavern Point.
“I love Catalina Island. I love my family and I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world,” he says. “There’s nothing I ever wanted that I couldn’t find on Catalina Island.”
In a room jammed packed with friends and supporters, Bombard looked back on a life of excitement, history and fulfillment on Catalina Island. Few people living today can point to living through nine decades of development and having been part of so many legends.
His story is one of Catalina Island, but also one of living the American dream.