Celluloid Junkie is proud to have partnered Vista Entertainment Solutions (VES) for the Cinema of the Month series. Vista is the worlds leading cinema ticketing and software solutions company. We won’t just be featuring cinemas whose operators use Vista, but we are happy to mention when that is the case. CJ would like to thank Murray, Christine and everybody else at Vista for enabling us to showcase some of the most interesting, innovative and inspiring cinemas from around the world.
A small island a few miles off the coast, where in a peculiar old building at the exact same hour each day a loop of the previous day is repeated, putting it seemingly outside of time itself. This could be the plot for Tim Burton’s “Miss Peregrin’s Home for Peculiar Children”, but is also how you might describe the Avalon Theatre on Catalina Island, the world’s oldest cinema purpose-built for sound.
Catalina Island was once the playground for Los Angele’s beautiful and famous people. Drive an hour from any of the Hollywood studios in the 1940s to Long Beach and board one the ferries that steamed there in an hour for the perfect weekend escape. Unless you were a star like John Wayne or a studio tycoon like Louis B. Mayer and had your own yacht to take you there regularly.
Acquired by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. in 1919, the island was made the winter training ground of his Chicago Cubs baseball team. But Mr Wrigley also set about transforming the dry and shrub-covered island into a holiday excursion destination. He planted flowers and trees, he built a marina for yachts, a large pier for the two ferries, hotels, restaurants and bars on the island’s only town, the famous kiln for pottery and tiling that takes its name from the island, as well as a zoo and world’s largest aviary and bird park.
But the centrepiece of the island’s town of Avalon was the Casino at the end of the road curving around the harbour. There has never been any gambling here, with the name instead derived from the Italian term for ‘meeting place’. The large circular building which measured 130 feet (the equivalent of a 12-story high house and the maximum height allowed under the then LA building code) houses a 1,184 seat cinema on the ground level and a grand circular ballroom on top.
The Approach to the Casino
Opened on 29 May 1929, the Avalon Theatre is one of the few Art-Deco cinemas in Southern California to not only have survived but also to operate continuously to this date. Approaching it on foot along the harbour (the island mainly has golf carts for transport) the majestic building projects confidently out into the waters of the Pacific Ocean on what used to be known as Sugarloaf Point.
Stepping up between the columns to the cinema’s single box office window behind an elaborate iron grille one is struck by the towering reliefs painted above it of sea and island motifs. Immediately above is the giant art nouveau mermaid tiled mural panels (above), the work of John Gabriel Beckman, who decorated the entire Avalon Theatre, having made his reputation designing Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. This is a cinema that was designed to impress – and it does.
Step through the grand entrance doors and the modernities of the island melt away as you are transported back in time to the early part of last century. The warm and plush vestibule gently curves around the auditorium for half the circumference of the building. Remember that this is a cinema that was designed to accommodate almost 1,200 people in a single sitting, which today would be the equivalent of a third of Catalina Island’s permanent population (3,728 at the 2010 census).
It is difficult not to stop and admire everything from the walnut wood panels to the fixtures and fittings, including the air vent grills, the Tiffany lamps (left) and the discreet sign illuminating the entrances to the cinema. (right) The furniture and rugs may be slightly faded and mute, but the still contribute to the sense that you are in a theatre from a different age altogether. This place simply oozes charm.
Even the concessions counter is enjoyably retro with a good selection of popcorn, drinks and snacks, all reasonably priced – USD $4.00 for a regular popcorn or USD $5.50 for large, with Coke and candy similarly low price. There is also a small selection of memorabilia to buy. The staff seem to have worked there for a long time, but seem all the friendlier for that. There is no alcohol or hot food service, but this was a cinema that opened in the Prohibition Era, so were they to introduce such offerings it would only break the spell.
But it is the cinema itself that is the main attraction. This is a cinema that could thankfully never be subdivided into cramped multiplex auditoriums, or even refitted for immersive audio. Yet the audio is also what makes the cinema so unique and historic. It was the first cinema purpose-built for ‘talking pictures’. Its design was such that you can stand on stage and speak in a conversational voice and still be heard in the back of the auditorium. The design was studied by acoustical engineers in the the early 1930s and then informed the construction of the Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
A Place of History – With Blockbusters
The films that play are mainstream releases shown about a month after their premiere. The ticket prices are USD $15 for adults of USD $13 for children and Seniors (or USD $10 on Tuesday concession nights). There is also only one screening each day, always at 7:30pm – apart from animations, which also have a Saturday matinee showing.
The night I visited it was screening “Miss Peregrin’s Home for Peculiar Children”, which seemed an almost uncannily appropriate choice of film for this peculiar venue and island. The films are listed on the cinema’s home page, which is well run in terms of staff helpfully responding in the ‘Comments’ section, though social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) is the wrong century for this cinema.
Sadly it was not a Friday or Saturday which is when there is an hour of live music played before the film on the cinema organ (to the left of the stage), a Page 4-manual, 16 rank theatre organ, built by the Page Organ Co. of Lima, Ohio. It is the largest one that the Page Organ Company ever built and one of only five such organs anywhere in the world that has survived to this day.
It is no small irony that the first cinema built for sound has an organ, but no prestigious theatre at that time could be without one. Plus silent films were still being made in 1929 and for some years later. The stunning Page pipe organ is very much the crown jewel of the Avalon Theatre and as well as playing each Friday and Saturday it gets good use at the theatre museum’s Silent Film Benefit each year.
The cinema had around 80-90 patrons on the Tuesday night I was there. The projection and sound were both first rate, though it’s been a while since I went to a cinema with such a long throw. The slight ambient light reflected from the silver white ceiling and even the polished wood stage floor in front of the screen did not distract, because this is how you created cinema ambiance 90 years before Dolby Cinema.
Many patrons stayed until the end of the credits (despite no Marvel-style ‘East Egg’) possibly to marvel at the ceiling, with its scenes from life on the island and the surrounding sea. A Los Angeles Times article details the restoration effort in 1987 to return the Casino’s mural and paintings to their former glory, which involved the original artists John Gabriel Beckman, who lived to see his effort re-appreciated 57 years on:
Beckman, 88, who is still working as an art director, also attended the unveiling. He had designed the murals inside and outside the Casino after completing decorations, murals and the color scheme for Grauman’s Chinese Theater during the mid-1920s. “I remembered that we had intended for the exterior murals to be done in Catalina tile,” Beckman says. “It would have taken two years. To meet the deadline for the opening of the Casino in ’29, we painted the murals right on the concrete.” The Depression followed, and Beckman moved on to art directing.
Look for the Franciscan monks on the left side of the curved theatre wall. They are the five artists who carried out the painting work and instead of their signature, painted themselves into their art; with one of them deciding to have his face hidden.
Perhaps those of us last to shuffle out also got stuck admiring the original red velvet seating, which will never get replaced with recliners, but has thankfully been re-upholstered. The staff, however, were unfailing polite and patient in not rushing the last few patrons out of the cinema as they set about closing it. They were aware that this was a tourist attraction of historic significance and not just any end-of-shift popcorn sweep-up operation.
Walking back from the cinema to the hotel – or the island’s only bar open late during off-season – it was impossible not to look back and admiring the building that seems to be calling you back. Avalon was the mythical island of the King Arthur legend, and the name seems very appropriate when looking at the picture palace that is the Catalina Casino.
Returning in the Daytime
Many visitors come to Catalina island just for the day and few stay more than one night. Unless you go trekking inland there is little more to see, except to enjoy some galleries, souvenir shops and a restaurant that serves excellent seafood lunches with a glass of crisp Californian Sauvignon Blanc. However it would be remiss to leave the island without taking one of the guided walkingtours of the Casino and seeing and learning more about it.
A guided tour takes you around the cinema and up to the ballroom, which you reach by walking up two ramped walkways that were copied from Wrigley Field, the Chicago Cubs stadium, which similarly does not use stairs. Along the walk there are photo exhibitions of the history of the island and the Casino, including Big Band conductors and film stars from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Why did it all die down after that, we asked our tour guide. “Rock ‘n’ roll,” he replied, because once the Beatles and the Rolling Stones arrived, the glamour of the Golden Age of Hollywood suddenly seemed dated.
However, coming to the top of the Casino you are struck by the impossibly large round ballroom. With an 180-foot (55m) diameter dance floor space and without any supporting columns, it is the largest circular ballroom anywhere in the world. It comfortably holds 2,000-3,000 people (!) and the New Years Eve parties that go on till this day are apparently spectacular. (Note to self: find an excuse to be back in Los Angeles for Celluloid Junkie business, first week of January.)
You finish the tour by stepping out through the large French doors and onto the ‘Romance Promenade’, which is the open balcony that circles the entire building with views of the sea, the town and the island. It is easy to understand why the Casino on Catalina received the Honor Award from the California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, as “one of the outstanding architectural accomplishments.”
The next time you go to Los Angeles we urge you to take 24 hours out of your no-doubt busy schedule to stay a night on Catalina and experience a piece of Hollywood glamour that has been preserved as if in a time-warp from another era on this magic island.
Celluloid Junkie selects the CJ Cinema of the Month based on our own independent survey. We always pay for our own tickets and popcorn and visit the cinema in a ‘mystery patron’ capacity in most cases. Whenever possible we take our own photographs of a cinema in lieu of corporate stock photos. Thus, sometimes you get authenticity at the expense of focus. Our impressions may be subjective, but we always try to be fair and factually accurate in everything being presented about one of the cinemas we have chosen.
PS: The toilets, you ask? It wouldn’t be a CJ Cinema of the Month if we didn’t poke out head in and discovered a remarkably large, tidy and marbled bathroom. There might not be any scented candles or linen towels, but it feels no less luxurious for that, not least because it has a large ante-chamber where you can picture men adjusting their tie or women tucking up their silk gloves, back in the days when people dressed up to go to the cinema.