The Queen of Catalina: Seven decades of island love

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Rosie Cadman shares a moment with longtime friend and former Mayor Rudy Piltch at the fish market where she created an empire of tartar sauce with fish and chips. Courtesy photo

If Catalina Island had a queen, there is little doubt who would currently wear the crown. After turning 93 on Monday, Rosie Cadman has become Catalina royalty, holding court daily on the pier where she fell in love with the island seven decades ago.

Her fairy tale story has taken her from her Lebanese roots all the way to this small island in the Pacific on which she first set foot in 1945. “I’ll tell you something,” she says, “the magic of Avalon catches your heart and you never forget it. This is a wonderful place. I love Avalon.”

Born in Lebanon, Rosie Rahbany’s parents had seven children. “I was the ugly duckling,” jokes Rosie, saying her siblings were all stunners. Not true, of course, but typical humility from this courageous, strong woman whose determination built an incredible life for her and her family on Catalina Island.

Rosie’s mom was “betrothed” to her dad at age 2. “That’s the way they did it in the old country,” she said. Forced to marry at 16, Rosie said her mom “didn’t like him, but after seven kids, she loved him.”

Her dad spoke eight languages, was a businessman who moved his family from Lebanon to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Then came the Mexican revolution. Dad moved the family again, this time to Boston. With a brother in the country, her dad bought a small grocery store in Venture County.

With his family again in tow, Rosie remembers taking the train to California. Once in California, she was here to stay.

Sitting on the pier, it can be a task to have a word with Rosie. Her cell phone rings. “Oh, who’s calling me?” she says to the phone. Then it rings again. “Oh stop it,” she orders the phone, telling her girlfriend. “I’ll have to call you back honey,” Then a couple walks up. “We thought that was you, how are you Rosie?” asks the couple. “Nice to see you honey,” she shoots back. “I’m fine, thank you.”

Despite the adoration and attention, life is much simpler for Rosie today than in her heyday. She was, and is, queen of Avalon’s famous green pier, and for 37 years, Rosie literally created a surfside legend with her iron will, sharp wit, and love of fresh fish.

Rosie never intended to deal with fish. At 19, she was working at her sister’s restaurant in Santa Monica, when she met Earl Cadman. “First time he saw me in front of my sister’s restaurant in Santa Monica, he came up to me and said, ‘you’re the girl I’m going to marry.’” Earl told her. Rosie shot back. “Get outta here, I don’t even know you.”

Earl “never gave up.” He was back in the restaurant that night, when Rosie was working. After 15 cups of coffee, “I thought he was going to float out of there,” she laughs, but then told him. “If you order one more cup of coffee, I’m going to charge you double.”

Actually, Earl “made a very good living” early on by selling livers from sharks, which in those days were used to make perfume. “Bet you didn’t know that,” challenges Rosie. One day, she and Earl were on a first date at the beach as Earl was putting the livers in five gallon cans, and placing them on the beach before shipping.

“By the way, I bought myself a spiffy bathing suit,” she snips.

All of a sudden, a freak wave comes in and knocks down the cans and one of the lids came off. “The expensive livers were floating the in ocean. Rosie jumped into action. She jumped into the surf and actually began swatting at the sea gulls and fighting them for the livers. “I was batting them down, hit them, grabbed the livers and put them back in the can.”

“Not very romantic, is it,” asks Rosie, “and not a great first date?” Earl was impressed. “You will make a great fisherman’s wife. Two months later, they were married. “He kidnapped me,” laughs Rosie. While visiting his brother in Chula Vista, he took Rosie across the Mexican border where they were married.

Although we were married in Mexico, Rosie said it was a “no no” to do anything else until they were married in a church. So they were married twice. A week later, Earl found a Presbyterian church, where the preacher ‘officially’ married them and their love story was romantically underway.

Earl had leased a boat for his fishing business and they took it to Catalina in 1945. The war had just ended. Cadman was fishing for the government, so the couple had governmental access to the island, even with the wartime occupation.

Rosie learned that while most people didn’t like to eat Mackerel, the government bought it to feed the soldiers because of its rich vitamin content. She learned quickly that if you take the mackerel meat, put it in a tray, add butter and buttermilk and bake it, the meat turns white and tastes delicious.

Earl asked Rosie what she thought of Avalon. Rosie looked around and pointed to a spot very near where she was standing. “I told Earl I love it. It’s magical. I could live here for the rest of my life.”

Earl then literally went ashore, rented a little apartment and, absent a brief medical interlude, they were to be on Catalina Island for the rest of their lives.

They made a good living by fishing and loved the people of Avalon from the start. The population was under a thousand, but still operated much like it does today. Raising their five children, Roger, Earlene, Cynthia (Cindy), Jonathan (Jon) and Janet, they were approached about taking over the fish market at the center of the pier, and, at the time, the center of Avalon life.

Rosie said the current tenant had been beset with tragedy, “stocked the place with vegetables and slept in the freezer (it wasn’t on),” she says. Rosie said they had “made a shamble” of the fish market.

Earl didn’t want to accept the offer. “Please take it,” they asked, and Earl said no, he wanted to stay fishing. Finally, Rosie’s father-in-law stepped in and told them “if you don’t take it, God is not going to give you another opportunity.” They took it and the rest is history.

Rosie demanded it be immaculately clean before taking it over. Although they were offered it rent free, Rosie refused the offer. “We have to pay rent,” she demanded.

A wonderful cook, Rosie began to experiment with ingredients. “I just took what I had and what I liked,” she said, and came up with a tartar sauce and cocktail sauces that, in nearly four decades, have become famous around the world.

She found sources of fresh fish, created a menu centered around fish and chips, scallops and fish and much of that same fare the fish market is selling today.

“We opened with a bang. Fish and chips. Scallops and chips. We would only serve fresh fish.” Everything was always fresh, clean and tasty at Rosie’s. Her legend at the fish market began to grow. Only 12 times in four decades she couldn’t get fresh fish. What did she do? She made a sign, “Couldn’t get fresh, prepared some frozen.” People kept coming.

Earl continued to fish but watching Rosie haul fish and do other manly tasks, he finally agreed to help his beloved. He finally came in off the boat, saying “I can’t leave you, you’re the love of my life.” “He loved me,” said Rosie, “and I loved him.”

Those were the days of Catalina flying boats. They would land near the dock and “come right up.” There was a boom on the dock where Rosie weighed fish. Tiny, not even five feet, she would manhandle fish, including big Marlins, with the best of them.

In addition to selling fresh and cooked fish, the fish market would handle many needs of the fishermen. When a trophy fish would come in, Rosie offered them mounting services. “If they wanted mounting, we prepared them, treated them with borax solutions, take the head off, separate the bill and the pectoral fin, scrub it, get the meat off, roll them up and freeze them,” she said.

They would then collect for it and send them to the late George Lee in Newport Beach for taxidermy services. They would then sell the meat of the trophy fish back to the owner at 50 cents a pound (prices varied).

Rosie was then and is now fearless. When her daughter Cindy wanted to get married in the Casino, she approached the Wrigley family. Rosie not only pulled it off but said negotiated a deal that allowed her to pay for 300 guests while actually having 400. Another Rosie first.

Rosie has a very strong faith. She thanks God for everything, including saving her oldest son Roger from an almost certain deployment to Vietnam, instead getting a surprise assignment in Germany. She also thanks God for all of the blessings in her life. “Never give up on God.”

It would have been easy for Rosie to do that. She lost son Jon to leukemia and the love of her life died in 2002, just months short of 58 years of marriage. Though she tried to keep it up, Rosie was heartsick with Earl’s passing and sold the business in 2004.

She worked for a while with the new owner, but eventually decided to retire to her grand memories. “I’m not the boss so I gotta quit,” she told him.

Today, her most prized possessions are the treasured memories of the island she loves. It’s almost as if the fresh Avalon air and seawater run through her veins. She’s given away her diamonds to her daughters and her 52 grandchildren and great grandchildren. “I love them all.” The one thing she kept is an engraved pendant given to her by the Tuna Club.

She loves Avalon today as much as her first day. Never one to drive, Rosie says she “can always run into someone who loves me. And that is worth a lot. It was a security for my heart and my mind.”

Cannons used in fishing has affected her hearing in one ear, saying “it took my hearing but didn’t take me.” Nonetheless, she has no problem strolling through the streets and on the pier, exchanging greetings and stories with most everyone she meets.

Rosie is happy with her life, which has obviously been well lived. Whether a billionaire or penniless, Rosie says “you’re not taking a cent with you” so she believes her “life is rich” in so many ways.

She ambles onto the pier each day, encouraged by a throng of fans hoping to get a word with her. She is a living history book of Catalina island.

Every day, Rosie thinks about Earl.

“He died trying to call me,” she says softly, her voice a bit lower. “I am still very much in love with Earl and with Avalon and I’m going to die that way. And that’s good.” Knowing that “we are all here for a limited time,” Rosie looks into her fate with a bit of sarcasm, saying she doesn’t want an open casket. “I won’t have anything on, so I don’t want people looking in there.”

“And by the way, watch what you write or I’m going to come after you.”

Her cell phone rings again and Rosie arranges to attend a “Potluck” dinner later that evening in Avalon. “I’m going to bring garlic bread,” she laughs. Most people don’t care what she brings, they probably just want Rosie and the riches of history that follows everywhere she goes.

She may not be a real queen, but she has built a kingdom of love around Avalon and the sea. And of this dominion, Rosie Cadman will be a queen forever.

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