As we all were in exactly the same boat, there was no stigma attached to this poverty. We didn't exactly date, because the boys couldn't have paid our way into a penny arcade. We simply met and tried everything the island had to offer—the hiking and exploring, the beaches, sneaking into the Casino to dance when one of our number did duty as ticket taker, canoeing and fishing. We concocted wonderful schemes for augmenting our spartan fare and sometimes rode the bus up the switchbacked old coach road to Mts. Black Jack and Orizaba to hunt wild pigs. We never saw a pig, and it was just as well, for our hands were our only weapons. Pigs just made good food conversation and a lovely long hike back. On the way we swung by the William Wrigley Jr. memorial at the head of Avalon Canyon and up to the Pacific divide, here we could see the sea on both sides of the island and look out over the Palisades to San Clemente Island rising brown and barren out of low fog like a ghostly ship at sea.
But our interest wasn't the scenic magnificence so much as the Wrigley fig orchard, where great luscious Smyrna figs, heavy with sugar, hung in fecund abundance. The only trouble with the figs was that a considerable population of wasps ardently defended the crop from our forages. When we plucked a fig, we were likely to pick an irked yellow jacket, also. The record of our guilt was writ plainly on our swollen faces and stung hands. A less painful source of provender was the small rock bass and perch we caught off the rocks above Lovers' Cove.
The big event of that summer, gastronomically and otherwise, was the coming of the film company of Mutiny on the Bounty (the Clark Gable-Charles Laughton one) to Isthmus Cove and Catalina Harbor, where they built the grass-thatched shacks of Tahiti and Pitcairn Island. A nicer thing couldn't have happened. Fletcher Christian's hut persisted for years thereafter as a yachtsman's bar, as did a native trading post constructed at the end of the dock. Polynesian villages, buried in towering palm trees imported full-grown from the mainland at enormous expense, looked exactly right at this enchanting isthmus of crystal-clear waters surrounded by plump, sun-burnished hills.
Now, in Hollywood it is no trick to gather together the wanted number of film extras to mill about anonymously in the background. On Catalina Island in the summer of 1935 it was something else again. Casting about for "natives," an assistant director took one look at our mahogany skins and our porpoise-like ease in the water and hired all of us school-kid employees of the Santa Catalina Island Company as Polynesians. As M-G-M's lease was big business, the company raised no objection. Each morning we boarded a fast boat at Avalon and whizzed to Isthmus Cove, where we wrapped ourselves in sarongs and descended like varmints in a chicken run on the long-plank buffet table laid out all day long for the picture company. We ate ourselves into an agreeable coma. Like husky sled dogs accustomed only to a scant diet of frozen salmon, once fed abundantly at this rich table we became bloated. The outraged assistant director took one look at us, girls and boys alike, and screamed in indignation:
"Your bellies stick out so far you all look pregnant!"
Thereafter some hold was placed upon our feeding, and we were forced to bestir ourselves in the accomplishment of the picture. The girls with long hair really had it made. Tahitian maidens all, we were plucked like so many hibiscus blossoms by the ruffian crew of the Bounty and fled screaming to the bow of the ship, where we dived overboard in long arcs into the clear sea below and came up giggling, our wet hair spread around us like seaweed. It was wonderful. They did this scene over and over again for a full week.
Franchot Tone sauntered around very aloof with zinc oxide on his sunburned nose, and Laughton was grumpy and hot and uncomfortable in his tight pants. But Gable was a born heller with a built-in libidinous twinkle in each eye. We discovered that if anything female stood within reach of him, he'd drop one great meaty arm around her shoulders. We palpitated to catch these electrifying moments on film. So we planted conspirators with Brownie cameras within shooting distance, approached within reach of Mr. G. with maidenly immodesty and waited for nature to take its course. Later, back in our cubicles in Avalon, we screamed ourselves into hysterical hiccups over these blurry snapshots as if it were the greatest joke in the world. However, not a girl among us failed to treasure them under her pillow until they became dog-eared and finally faded away.
When the movie emerged some months later, I watched with bated breath and pounding heart, just barely able to stand the awful suspense. Not one of us—not a single one—is identifiable in the finished film. There is a moment, just a bare flickering of the eye, as the Tahitians are swarming all over the newly arrived Bounty, when that girl way off on the left could be...but this is wishful thinking.
We went back to our old enthusiasms, gathering in the soft velvet nights on the cliff across the bay from the Casino to dance dreamily to the faint music of Ben Bernie and All the Lads. They just don't write music like that anymore. I Left My Heart in Avalon, Star Dust, Three Little Words, Let's Fall in Love, Aloha—they were the sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning drifting across a half-moon of dimpled light from the gleaming round gem of the Casino on Sugar Loaf Point. We pooled our money, nickel by nickel, and sent the oldest of our number off to the village liquor store. Our idea of a really wild evening was a pint of Old Quaker shared sip by sip and dancing to this poignant, ectoplasmic music. We necked tenderly, the way kids once did. I'm not sure whether it was malnutrition or the mores of the day, but we were strangely innocent. A modern teen-ager would upchuck with disdain, but we felt wicked, which is the important thing.
Sometimes we'd feed most of the pint to Billie, who drained it down like Coke in one long swig with absolutely no discernible effect except for willingness to sway into a graceful, trancelike hula. When the thin violins of Good Night, Sweetheart finally drifted over the bay we were devastated, heartbroken. We handed in our fishing setlines and wandered off toward home up the darkened canyon walls to dream on Gable's picture. We didn't louse things up by counting the hours or even the months of this idyll. It is enough to inherit the earth, even on a temporary basis.