Never having been to Santa Catalina, the ear worm I’m now fighting in my head is, what else, the Four Preps’, “Twenty-six miles across the sea, Santa Catalina is a-waitin’ for me/ Santa Catalina, the island of/ romance, romance, romance, romance.” What is it about islands?
This blog happens to be dedicated to another island movie palace, The St. George Theatre in Staten Island, which I helped to run for one magical entirely exhausting year, 1976. Staten Island, one of NYC’s five boroughs, is a far cry from Santa Catalina, but hey, an island is an island!
There are some pretty fascinating island movie houses in places I’ve been. Take for example the Fishers’ Island Cinema on its own isle, nestled in Long Island Sound and snuggled between New York and the Connecticut shore. A writing group I belong to does a retreat off-season at Fishers each fall. We always pass the cinema on our way to the retreat, but I’ve never been to a movie there, because it’s always closed by September. Not many people winter on Fishers, ferry service being what it is. I understand the F.I. Cinema was built by the army in 1932 when that remote locality was at least half military base. These days, summers only, the cinema serves whoever’s occupying the windswept houses on bluffs and beaches, and a tiny year-round population.
On Chincoteague, a more famous island off the coast of Virginia, and a wild place if ever there was one, ponies run in the surf. The Island Roxy is the only surviving movie house on Chincoteague, where once there were three; and like the theater on Fishers, it’s closed off-season. The Roxy started its career in 1945. When the movie based on Misty of Chincoteague, the classic horsy child’s book, premiered, none other than that pony led the parade down the main street. In fact, Misty’s hoof-prints are set in cement in front of the Roxy, to commemorate the occasion.
No doubt island movie theaters are special, as islands themselves are. If theaters everywhere are in a struggle, in this age of streaming, then island theaters may serve as a kind of microcosm of a theater’s demise — or triumph.
The Avalon (Santa Catalina) has a rich history, so I’ll focus on it. After ninety years of steady exhibition, it ended its movie-house career on New Years Eve, in a quiet last showing of an unremarkable movie, with about 40 people in the audience. Because it’s in Southern California, home of Hollywood, it likely won’t be torn down or boarded up. Rumor has it that it will stay in the market place for special bookings, somewhere on the pattern of The Theater at the Ace Hotel in L.A.; but it can’t count, as it used to, on regular walk-in business. If it were so unfortunate as to not be near L.A., the Avalon might not survive at all.
Here’s a description of its interior, quoted directly from its Cinema Treasures entry:
A truly classic movie palace, situated in Avalon on Santa Catalina Island, just 22 miles off the coast from Los Angeles. The Avalon Theatre opened on May 29, 1929 with Douglas Fairbanks in The Iron Mask. It is located in the Casino Building, built by chewing gum magnet William Wrigley Jnr, and is located beneath the Casino Ballroom. The building was never intended for or used as a casino, but for dancing (which in the era of the ‘big bands’ attracted the likes of Benny Goodman — the 'King of Swing' to play here to 2,000 capacity dancers. The outer lobby of the building has eight ‘Atlantis’ inspired tiled mural panels, the work of John Gabriel Beckman, who decorated the entire Avalon Theatre in an Atmospheric style. There are painted murals on the side-walls depicting a noble savage hunting deer with a bow & arrow, as a few Franciscan monks arrive by galleon surrounded by stylized hillsides. The rear wall has painted murals of birds and monkeys.
Above the rounded proscenium arch is a re-creation of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”, whilst on the asbestos safety curtain is painted “Flight of Fancy Westward”, depicting a primitive surfer boy riding the crest of a wave, superimposed on a background of the map of the island. The silver leaf ceiling is made to glow in shades of pink and violet by colored lights hidden behind a low wall surrounding the auditorium.
The Avalon Theatre is equipped with a Page 4 manual 16 rank theatre organ, built by the Page Organ Co. of Lima, Ohio. It is still in working order and is played regularly at film performances on weekends only. Films played daily every evening of the week and were a mix of first run and classic silent movies. The complex is still owned by the Wrigley family who keep the building well maintained.
Love the surfer boy on the safety curtain!
That Page organ was in action for the last show, on New Year’s Eve, as described by The L.A. Weekly:
About an hour before the nightly 6:30 p.m. screening, organist Jon Tusak sat down...and began pumping out a free-flowing, almost jazzy instrumental mash-up of “If I Only Had a Brain,” the always poignant “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and other tunes from The Wizard of Oz. As Tusak kneaded the keys and pulled the organ’s stops, birds in the walls and ceiling of the theater chirped along excitedly in a merrily demented sing-along.
Since the Avalon is atmospheric, the birds were preceded by, “tiny lights inside the constellations decorating the vast universe of the Avalon’s high, expansive white ceiling.”
Although I’ve never been to the Avalon, the lush Cinema Treasures description of its interior makes me feel like I have.
And what about those Beckman murals of Atlantis? All the islands I’ve cited here, with the exception of my own Staten Island, are tiny, while Atlantis, which may or may not have existed thousands of years ago in the Atlantic Ocean done in by a giant flood, was, so they say, an island continent before it sank.
Now Atlantis is probable myth, cited by Plato as an allegory, but I’ll take it as an operant metaphor for the demise of movie theaters everywhere, each one an island, sinking below our bad habits of just staying home and binge-watching.
Whether you’re on an island or not, go out to the movies. Do it now!
1. For a fascinating treatment of how the Atlantis allegory was taken up in the 19th century by various adventurous thinkers, check this out.
2. Avalon, BTW, was also a legendary island, in Arthurian legend, the place where the sword Excalibur was forged. Told you islands were special!
3. Thanks to The L.A. Weekly, cited above, and to my friend and colleague, Robin Locke Monda, whose link to the Weekly’s, “The Last Picture Show: Southern California’s Most Beautiful Movie Theater Closes,” got me thinking about islands.