One of the most iconic structures on the entire island of Catalina is the Catalina Island Casino. Even if you have only see photos of Catalina, you have seen it – the round, majestic looking building standing guard over the harbor in Avalon. I’m here to tell you that the inside is every bit as magnificent, and well worth the price of admission to investigate its secrets. It’s also on one of my top 10 things to do on Catalina list.
When I first heard the name “casino” I must admit that I assumed it was a gambling house. Not so – and never has been (though I suppose we can’t rule out any friendly wagers among their famous patrons). In this case, “casino” comes from the Italian, though there is nothing small about this place.
Opened in 1929, the Catalina Island Casino has been restored to highlight its original beauty, while keeping many of the original pieces in place. The lamps are the original Tiffany pieces. The floor of the famous ballroom has never been replaced. In fact, you can almost picture yourself among the throngs who used to dance, court and swoon here.
When you approach the casino, you will see a path that veers off to the right toward the water. Here rests the Catalina Island Museum. There is a small entry fee (which is further discounted if you buy a ticket to one of the casino tours), and we would have happily paid it just to watch the movie. It tells you the tales of how development on the island began, and stories of the famous residents and visitors like Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, and Charlie Chaplin, as well as the entire Wrigley family (and the Cubs training camp once housed there), of course. You will learn more about the mysteries, scandals and discoveries on the island, as you walk through the museum rooms.
Back on the main, lower level, you will see the art deco box office that not only sells tickets to the tours, but also to the movies that play inside the restored Avalon Theatre. This huge space (which seats more than 1,100) is a gorgeous place to see a film. From the stunning murals painted by John Gabriel Beckman to the plush seats, the whole experience feels like luxury. Add to it the live pipe organ music that plays an hour before the Friday and Saturday shows, and you may just feel yourself transported to another time.
The ballroom is upstairs, and is only accessible to the public as part of the tours. You can choose the Casino Walking Tour (only 40 minutes), or the more extensive Behind The Scenes Casino Tour (approximately 70 minutes). If your group for the Casino Walking Tour is small (and our group was), you will get to spend more time on the exhibits, on the intro film, and in the grand ballroom itself (which was being prepared for the big New Year’s Eve celebrations when we were there).
As you can imagine, I was casually dressed in a sweater, jeans and hiking boots for the tour. But for at least 10 minutes, I wished I was wrapped in finery – for the fantasy of dancing with my sweetheart to Benny Goodman never involved hiking boots. Still, it was easy to lose myself in the beauty of the place. And the views from outside the ballroom weren’t bad either!
Our tour guide was Rebecca, and not only was she knowledgable with regards to the history (as you can imagine), she was also delightfully engaging. And she gave us each discount cards to visit other spots on the island that were part of Visit Catalina. Bonus points!
Even though it cost us a little bit of money, I’m thrilled that we took the time and opportunity to learn more about the history of the island, and to indulge a little in the beauty of the Catalina Island Casino.