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Avalon Theatre, Catalina Island

Avalon Theatre, Catalina Island

Architects: Sumner M. Spaulding, Walter I. Webber

First Opened: 29th May 1929 (92 years ago)

Status: Open for special events

Website: www.visitcatalinaisland.com/things-to-do/catalina-casino/movie-theatre/ Open website in new window

Telephone: (310) 510-0179 Call (310) 510-0179

Address: 1 Casino Way, Avalon, Catalina Island, CA 90704 Show address in Google Maps (new window)


The Avalon Theatre is one of the two main components of the Catalina Casino Building, built by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. and opened in May 1929. The 1,200-seat theatre was designed for movies however has a full stage, orchestra pit, and dressing rooms allowing for stage productions. The theatre still retains its Page theatre pipe organ in almost original condition.

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Detailed Information

The Catalina Casino Building in 2021
The Catalina Casino Building in 2021

Although originally advertised as the Casino Theatre, the Avalon Theatre name was established less than a year after the theatre’s initial opening in May 1929.

The theatre and surrounding building were designed by architect Sumner M. Spaulding and Walter I. Webber. Interior design, including the theatre’s fabulous Art Deco murals, was by John Beckman.

Beckman had previously worked on the elaborate lobby artwork of the Fox Theatre in Fullerton and many aspects of the interior decoration of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. In later years Beckman would become a set director in the movie industry, working on films like The Maltese Falcon (1941) Link opens in new window and Casablanca (1942) Link opens in new window.

The Casino Ballroom
The Casino Ballroom

Wrigley’s budget for the building was originally $500,000 however it swelled to $2 million during construction, in large part due to a concentrated period of working around the clock to have the building ready to open for the Summer season of 1929.

The building has never housed any gambling; rather the casino name derives from the Italian term meaning “gathering place”.

The movie theatre occupies the first four floors of the Casino building and was designed in an atmospheric style. Rather than featuring realistic landscape sidewall murals, the auditorium got stylized Art Deco murals depicting the history of Catalina Island, California, and the progress of Man. The normal atmospheric “blue sky” ceiling was exchanged for a silver-top dome but still featured twinkling stars. The entire auditorium was, and continues to be, lit entirely by reflected light bounced off the ceiling.

The Art Deco Atmospheric Auditorium
The Art Deco Atmospheric Auditorium

The auditorium murals have been described as “an Art Deco confection” and combine Greek mythology with early California life and the history of Catalina Island itself. The murals feature leaping deer, charging steeds, and sailing ships. On the left sidewall mural towards the rear of the auditorium there is a group of five monks: four of the monks’ faces were painted as self portraits by the artists who painted the auditorium murals. The fifth monk, whose face is hidden, represents John Beckman who designed the murals.

It is said that the theatre was the first in the country to be fully fitted for both silent and sound motion pictures, however this claim is made by several movie theatres even in just California.

Beneath almost every seat in the theatre was a hat shelf, the perfect place to hide 1930s head gear. Many of the hat shelves remain beneath the seats, a hidden testament to long-ago fashion.

Art Deco murals are a major feature of the exterior ticket lobby and were designed by John Beckman
Art Deco murals are a major feature of the exterior ticket lobby and were designed by John Beckman

The exterior ticket lobby features nine massive stylized Art Deco oceanscape murals designed by John Beckman. The murals were originally intended to be executed in Catalina Island tile however due to time and budget constraints were painted onto the concrete exterior in 1929. The Catalina Island Company has since commissioned a tile version of the central mermaid mural which is installed above the central box office.

The acoustics of the theatre have often been praised, and it is said that acousticians journeyed from the US East Coast to analyze the acoustics of the theatre in preparation for their designs of Radio City Music Hall in New York.

The theatre boasts a 4-manual, 16-rank organ built by the Page Organ Company which is played for special events. While the vast majority of the organ is original it has not been maintained and it’s estimated by independent theatre organ experts that only 25% of it is currently functional.

The theatre’s Projection Booth retains many of its original features, including two Brenkert carbon arc projectors and a working Brenograph
The theatre’s Projection Booth retains many of its original features, including two Brenkert carbon arc projectors and a working Brenograph

The theatre’s Projection Booth retains its original stage and movie presentation equipment in the form of a Brenkert carbon arc followspot, a Brenograph, and twin Brenkert 35mm projectors. Additionally a 35mm Century projector with Xetron console and platter system is still in place along with the theatre’s modern Christie digital cinema projector. The original dual lighting controls remain in place in the booth.

The Ballroom: above the theatre is a 29,000sqft (2,964sqm) ballroom, whose floor is cantilevered off the outside walls of the building and overhangs the theatre auditorium with a clearance of about 5ft (1.5m) in the center.

The Casino Ballroom, above the movie theatre
The Casino Ballroom, above the movie theatre

At the time of opening in 1929 the space was the largest circular ballroom in the world. The ballroom dance floor was carefully constructed of maple, white oak and rosewood that rest on a layer of felt and acoustical paper. The felt and paper are installed over a subfloor of pine that floats above support beams on strips of cork. Such careful attention was given to the dance floor to ensure a smooth and comfortable dancing experience for the building’s many visitors.

It is claimed that events can be held concurrently in the ballroom and theatre with no sound leakage between venues.

At the end of 2019, the Catalina Island Company ceased regular first-run movie operations at the theatre citing increased running costs and declining attendance. It is understood that the Island Company are in talks with the City of Avalon to reopen the theatre for events, once the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have ceased. Tours of the building recommenced in May 2021.

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How do I visit the Avalon Theatre?

The Santa Catalina Island Company offers two tours of the Catalina Casino: “Discover the Casino” and “Behind the Scenes”, at 40 minutes and 90 minutes respectively. The “Behind the Scenes” tour contains everything in, and builds upon, the “Discover the Casino” tour. If you have the time you’d be well-advised to take the full “Behind the Scenes” tour. Both tours access the Avalon Theatre and the Ballroom and its outdoor terrace, although all tours are subject to daily operations.

“Discover the Casino” tours run Fri-Sun at 10:30am and 2pm (Adults $19.95, Senior/Military $17.95, Child $17.95). “Behind the Scenes” tours run Fri-Sun at 12pm and 3:30pm (Adults $29.95, Senior/Military $27.95, Child $27.95). Tour booking and further information is available on the Visit Catalina Island website Link opens in new window or by telephoning (310) 510-0179 Link opens in new window.


Upcoming Special Events
Catalina Film Festival

Catalina Film Festival (24th to 25th September 2021, Various Times)

Catalina Film Institute Hosts Its 10th Annual Catalina Film Festival!

Voted by filmmakers as one of the top 50 film festivals in the world on the FilmFreeway.com Link opens in new window, the Catalina Film Institute celebrates IMAGINATION - EDUCATION - DESTINATION with year-round film workshops, industry panels and inspiring events.

Catalina Film Institute’s Annual Catalina Film Festival features almost 200 films, nightly events and entertainment. The “Long Beach Launch” is the mainland Pre-Party Wednesday and Thursday, aboard the iconic Queen Mary. Before Friday and Saturday charter boats depart from the Queen Mary Terminal for a magical weekend on Catalina Island.

Although the Catalina Film Festival runs 17th to 26th September, events at the Avalon Theatre inside the Catalina Casino take place on 24th and 25th September only. See website for schedule.

Click here to go to the event website. Link opens in new window

Further Reading

Online

Historic Photos & Documents

Files displayed in this section may be subject to copyright; refer to our Copyright Fair Use Statement regarding our use of copyrighted media.

Photos of the Avalon Theatre

Jump to Photo Section:

  1. Auditorium
  2. Auditorium: Closeups
  3. Public Areas
  4. Wrigley Room
  5. Backstage
  6. Dressing Rooms
  7. Projection Booth
  8. Exterior Ticket Lobby
  9. Exterior Ticket Lobby: Closeups
  10. Exterior
  11. Ballroom & Promenade
  12. Ballroom: Closeups
Auditorium

The auditorium murals have been described as “an Art Deco confection” and combine Greek mythology with early California life and the history of Catalina Island itself. The murals feature leaping deer, charging steeds, and sailing ships.

Auditorium: Closeups

The auditorium murals have been described as “an Art Deco confection” and combine Greek mythology with early California life and the history of Catalina Island itself. The murals feature leaping deer, charging steeds, and sailing ships. A painting of Venus surmounts the Proscenium Arch.

Public Areas

A curved promenade runs the entire width of the rear of the auditorium with three doors leading into the rear of the auditorium, plus a concessions stand at one end.

On the mezzanine level between the movie theatre and ballroom there is circulation space which includes retiring rooms such as the Ladies Power Room, and the Marine Bar which was originally a soda fountain. The mezzanine level also contains historic displays about the building.

Wrigley Room

The private room adjoining the Projection Booth was used for entertaining VIPs and in addition to sumptuous Art Deco decoration it also features a window looking out into the auditorium so that movies can be viewed in private.

Backstage

Although primarily designed as a movie theatre, the theatre boasts full-height scenic flying capabilities, dressing room space, and an orchestra pit plus band rooms. The theatre’s original lighting switchboard is still in use.

Dressing Rooms

Both large and small dressing rooms are arranged around the curve of the building and auditorium. Shown here are a large Chorus Room and an individual dressing room.

Projection Booth

The theatre’s Projection Booth retains its original stage and movie presentation equipment in the form of a Brenkert carbon arc followspot, a Brenograph, and twin Brenkert 35mm projectors. Additionally a 35mm Century projector with Xetron console and platter system is still in place along with the theatre’s modern Christie digital cinema projector. The original dual lighting controls remain in place and operative in the booth.

Exterior Ticket Lobby

The exterior ticket lobby features nine massive murals designed by John Beckman. The murals were originally intended to be executed in Catalina tile however due to time and budget constraints were painted onto the concrete exterior in 1929. The Catalina Island Company has since commissioned a Catalina tile version of the central mermaid mural which is installed above the central box office.

Exterior Ticket Lobby: Closeups

The exterior ticket lobby features nine massive murals designed by John Beckman. The murals were originally intended to be executed in Catalina tile however due to time and budget constraints were painted onto the concrete exterior in 1929.

Exterior

The Casino Building was the largest and most prominent building in the City of Avalon when it was built in 1929, and remains so over 90 years later. The height of the building is equivalent to 11 stories.

Ballroom & Promenade

The Casino Ballroom occupies the upper portion of the building and has a promenade which affords fantastic views of the City of Avalon and the Pacific Ocean. The ballroom was initially described as having an “umbrella”-shaped ceiling. The central lighting fixture has lamps of varying colors, and the central silver-and-gold feature can be rotated for effect.

Ballroom: Closeups

The Casino Ballroom occupies the upper portion of the building and has a promenade which affords fantastic views of the City of Avalon and the Pacific Ocean. The ballroom was initially described as having an “umbrella”-shaped ceiling. The central lighting fixture has lamps of varying colors, and the central silver-and-gold feature can be rotated for effect.



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