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Some 10,000 southern Californians locked up their houses last weekend, left their cars behind on the shore and headed out to sea to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday on a rugged, largely uninhabited island named Santa Catalina.
Why they went is, in some ways, a wonder. The sun is not so hot on Catalina as it is on the mainland, the beaches are not nearly so ample. The narrow streets of its single town are crowded with mainland tourists and, worst of all, there is not very much to do.
Yet Californians of every stripe have been coming to Catalina for decades. If they have a boat, they cross the 20-odd miles of water to put in at one of a dozen picturesque and isolated coves. If they don't, they take a steamer or a seaplane to Avalon, the only city on the island. Many of the tourists do not know or care that Catalina is a virtual fiefdom; that its lord is Philip K. Wrigley, the chewing gum man; that the island suffers acutely from a shortage of fresh water; or that—now that an economically feasible method for obtaining fresh water from the sea is in sight—the island may some day soon surpass Bel Aire and Beverly Hills as a fashionable suburb of Los Angeles across the way.
Meanwhile, for the yachtsman, Catalina is a South Sea island at his doorstep—and at the Isthmus, his particular haven, he will even find a backdrop made familiar by many movies filmed there. For the casual visitor, Catalina falls into two distinct parts—Avalon, and the rest of the island, known locally as "The Interior." The interior is difficult to get to except by tour bus. Avalon, on the other hand, is a pleasantly drowsy little shore town set in the mouth of a canyon. Stores and houses are close together for, on privately owned Catalina, land is precious. The architecture ranges from wooden frame to colorful Catalina tile. There are few cars because there is no place to drive them. Then the blue water and the white walls and the empty streets give Avalon the air of a Mediterranean fishing village, with a touch of New England.
On summer weekends, however, the Mediterranean atmosphere is heavily overlaid with Coney Island. Groups of bare-chested, bare-footed high school boys pad up and down Crescent Avenue, checking out groups of sun-suited, bathing-suited girls. Harried parents, clutching their kiddies and handbags and blankets, stumble through the sand to find a spot on the postcard-size beach. Women wander into waterfront stores to pick over the piles of straw hats and souvenirs. Jukebox music grinds out of the bars and pushes across the beach to the water's edge. A little boy asks a strange man to hold his ice cream cone and Coke while he looks for his mother. Out on the pier two kids fight over a fish they found in a garbage can, while elderly men, faithful kibitzers at their side, play gin rummy on green wooden benches. And Avalon's oldtimers, uniformed in faded denims and dark blue cap'n's caps, assure each other that the pesky tourists are getting worse every year.
High spot of any Avalon day is the arrival of the big steamer. When it docks at noon, up to 2,000 eager tourists, dressed in everything from bikinis to business suits, crowd off the gangplank. Most of them have been here before, and know just how to spend the four hours before the steamer goes back. There are bus trips to the interior, to the Bird Park, to the buffalo range and up along Avalon Terrace Drive. There is the seaside stroll to the Casino, where Miller and Goodman and Dorsey used to play, and to the take-off point for glass-bottomed boat trips through the undersea gardens. There is horseback riding and every kind of vessel for hire, from 50¢-an-hour paddleboards to $85-a-day fishing boats. There is golf at the neat, attractive Visitors' Country Club, "where your presence is your membership." For puttering around Avalon streets there are bicycles for hire, Vespa cars with wicker seats and creeping electric carts with tiller steering.
One of the few places in Avalon where the tourist cannot go is the Tuna Club, a sport-fishing sanctuary protected by years of tradition and a sign on the door saying MEMBERS ONLY. The Tuna Club regards itself as the last bastion of true sporting spirit in the world of salt-water fishing. Its rules prohibit the use of any other than linen line and explicitly limit not only the test strength of line but also the size of pole in each tackle category. Eight types of fish, all found in the Catalina channel, are sought for the club's special records: tuna, martin, swordfish, black sea bass, yellow-tail, white sea bass, albacore and dolphin. There is an elaborate system for awarding the club buttons and fame medals—the only way to become an active member is to catch a "button fish." In the early years the club presidency went to the man who caught the biggest tuna, the vice-presidency to the one who caught the greatest number, and so on down the line.
The first waves of Catalina tourists, 30 to 35 years ago, were southern California families out for a day in the fresh air. They packed a picnic lunch, climbed aboard their own boat or a steamer and headed for a spell of good old American fun. The war, which quickened the pace of life everywhere, changed the wholesome picture of Catalina tourism. In the postwar years, bars did the best business but the Casino, which formerly had drawn crowds of a few thousand, had trouble even staying open. "We got away from the family aspect," said Mayor Roy Taylor recently, astride a stool in his Chi-Chi bar. "The travel posters showed bathing beauties instead of families, and people started coming over for thrills. There was a lot of drinking and carrying on. It was bad for the island."
Emphasis on the family has now returned, carefully nourished by promotional literature and outdoor attractions. Alcoholic blasts are largely confined to the big weekends, and the bars thrive on moderation. The Avalon Music Bowl, unused for 33 years, has reopened under new management, and will once again put on front-line bands and entertainers five nights a week. One skeptic of this effort is Duke Fishman, squat, bald part-time actor and a lifeguard at Avalon Beach since 1934. "In the old days," says Duke, "the dance was the big event. We'd dress up, have a little to drink and then go up to dance. But the younger crowd now doesn't care about dancing. They walk around in shorts and bathing suits, and they aren't happy unless they've got a beer in their hand all the time."
Catalina has been the property of the Wrigley family since 1919, when William Jr., founder of the gum company, bought it for some $3 million. Before that the island was variously an Indian settlement, a Mexican colony and a way station for smugglers. It was discovered in 1542 by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese sailing from Mexico under the Spanish flag, then rediscovered by Sebastian Vizcaíno in 1602 and named Santa Catalina. For the next couple of centuries it was inhabited only by wild animals, primitive Indians and occasional groups of Spanish explorers. In the early 1800s the hunters and traders began arriving. Russian expeditions came down to hunt otter along the east, or windward, coast, and American fur traders swapped trinkets for skins with the Indians.