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Early Catalina Island

The Buffalo Of Catalina

by The Santa Catalina Island Conservancy

In December 1924, 14 buffalo were turned loose on Catalina island for use in filming the motion picture, "The Vanishing American," early the following spring. After the picture was completed, it was agreed that the buffalo could remain on Catalina and they were again turned loose to live off the land.

In October 1927, one of the buffaloes was shot at Little Harbor, and police officers questioned two boats of suspects, but were unable to link them with the shooting. It was also reported that four other buffalo had been killed the previous month, but apparently that report was never verified. During the following seven years, however, there were no further reports of killings and by 1934 eight of the original buffalo, plus eleven others that were born on Catalina, still roamed the Island. In the fall of 1934, nine buffalo were imported to augment the herd of 19, bringing the island population to 28.

The buffalo continued to thrive and multiply, and by 1969 it was estimated that there were approximately 400 buffalo on Catalina Island. Then, in December of that year, because it was felt there had been too much in-breeding and new blood would improve the herd, 15 bull calves, approximately eight months old, were brought to Catalina from Gillette, Wyoming. At that time a program was begun of culling the herd each year and periodically introducing new bulls.

The buffalo program on Catalina is managed by the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation and preservation of Catalina Island. The Conservancy's objective regarding the buffalo is to maintain a healthy herd of these animals in balance with the island's natural resources so that visitors to Catalina can see and enjoy them roaming free and thriving in a natural environment.


The organ in the Avalon Theater was built by the Page Pipe Organ Company, of Lima, Ohio, and installed in l929. This and one other in Fort Wayne, Indiana are the only two Page Organs in the United States today.

News of the arrival of the Casino organ was reported in the local newspaper in April of 1929. Installation involved placing 16 ranks of pipes (with 7685 pipes per rank) in ceiling lofts on either side of the proscenium arch and covering them with grillwork. The pipes are made of lead, tin, zinc and wood and were manufactured in Germany. The organ itself is made of wood and is above standard size. When all was completed (at a reported cost of $40,000) the organist had at his disposal a highly unified, four-manual keydesk with a bank of three curved stop rails and a complete range of sound effects

The Casino organ was used for movie accompaniment until sound was firmly established, but it is best remembered for the concerts given before films or during the afternoons. Leonard H. Clark was the first organist for the theater. Mrs. Mary Oswald was organist in 1933 and 1934. Sherwood Mertz, featured as "The Singing Organist," played during the 1935-1937 seasons. Miss Sybil Thomas was the Casino organist during 1938 and 1939. After World War II, free afternoon concerts were resumed from 1947 to 1950, with organist Gill Evans at the console.

Refurbishment of the organ was done by Building Superintendent Dale Fisenhut in 1958 and, without his love for this instrument, the organ would not, exist today.

In the Spring of 1979 The Los Angeles Chapter of the American Theater Organ Society, and six dedicated men spent many days and nights replacing leather and felt parts, repairing electrical connections, and otherwise refurbishing the instrument for the 50th Anniversary of the Casino.

Native Americans

People have been living on Santa Catalina Island for at least 7,000 years. Archaeologists excavating on a limited scale at Little Harbor on the seaward side of the Island have found evidence of increasingly complex material cultures. These earlier groups of peoples exploited the rich resources of the sea--from abalone and other mollusks, to small and large fish, and marine mammals such as sea lions.
The semi-arid Island offered limited plant resources, so the Islanders traded sea products and, in later years, steatite for their other needs. The Islanders made the 20-mile voyage to the mainland (and to the other Channel Islands) in well-crafted plank canoes. Steatite (an easily carvable rock that does not crack when put in the fire) from Santa Catalina has been found in both mainland and Island sites throughout Southern California.
Over the millennia, as peoples migrated through California, different groups of Native Americans would have made their homes on the Island. For several thousand years before European contact, the Los Angeles basin and the Southern Channel Islands (Santa Catalina, San Clemente, and San Nicholas) appear to have been inhabited by peoples of linguistic affinity--the Takic branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family.
At the time of first European contact, it is thought that the people living on Santa Catalina Island called their island Pimu and themselves Pimungans (or Pimuvit). They were excellent seamen and paddled their plank canoes skillfully across the sometimes treacherous channel to trade. After Spanish colonization, their apparently flourishing population declined drastically with the introduction of new diseases to which they had little immunity. As the mission system altered the economic landscape of Southern California, the Pimungans' trade and social networks were disrupted.
In the aftermath of this enormous culture shock, their society could no longer sustain itself. By the mid-1820s, the few Pimungans left had migrated or were moved to the mainland. The Pimungans, along with other Native American groups that were in the sphere of influence of Mission San Gabriel, came to be referred to in the European community as Gabrielinos. There are people living in the Southern California area today who have Gabrielinos among their ancestors.

Spanish Discovery

The Pimungans of Santa Catalina Island paddled out to greet the Spanish galleon that bore the explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo to their shores on October 7, 1542. Just 50 years after Columbus first sailed into the Western Hemisphere, the Viceroy of New Spain (Mexico) had authorized an expedition up the coast of California in search of a passage to the Far East. The Pimungans were invited aboard ship and gifts were exchanged. It is not known which cove the Spanish ship anchored in. Cabrillo, of course, claimed the Island for the King of Spain. The visit was duly noted in the ship's log and the Island was given the name San Salvador, after Cabrillo's ship. Cabrillo sailed on up the coast after about half a day.
Except for the possible occasional sighting of the yearly Manila Galleon sailing down the coast on its return to New Spain from the Philippines, the Pimungans were left in peace until 1602. On November 24, the eve of St. Catherine's Day, the ship of the second Spanish explorer, Sebastian Viscaino, sighted the Island. Viscaino renamed it Santa Catalina in honor of Saint Catherine. His party stayed a day or two longer than Cabrillo and explored a bit on foot before sailing on. An Augustinian friar with the expedition said the first Catholic Mass on Santa Catalina. Relations with the Pimungans were amicable, although the Islanders became distressed when the sailors shot some Ravens, which held a special place in their world.

Otter Hunters

The Pimungans began to feel the Spanish influence shortly after a series of Missions were built along the coast, starting in 1769, when Spain began to fear the encroachment by the Russians and English. No mission was built on the Island itself, but the Pimungans began to have other visitors. A staunch believer in the prevailing Mercantilist Theory, Spain did not allow its colonies to trade with foreigners. However, sea otter were plentiful around the Channel Islands and Russian and American sea otter hunters were eager to obtain their pelts, which brought high prices in China. By 1805, Russian, American, and Aleut otter hunters began appearing in Island waters in defiance of the Spanish government. The Spaniards did not have enough ships to patrol their territory, so the hunters were able to camp undetected and hunt.


Yankee and English merchant ships soon began to appear as well, having sailed all the way around The Horn of South America laden with manufactured goods. They knew that the government of New Spain did not keep the California outposts well supplied and that the Friars and townspeople would often trade leather and tallow and even otter pelts for manufactured items although it was against the law.
When New Spain revolted from its mother country and became Mexico in 1820, California became a province in the new country. The Mexican government allowed trade with foreigners but levied a tariff on all goods imported into the country. (As there was no property or income tax at the time, this was their primary means of raising revenue for running the government.) However, the Mexican government still did not have enough ships to patrol the California coast.
Smugglers would put part of their cargoes ashore at Santa Catalina and then appear at the customs port to pay duty on the remaining cargo. They would then receive permission to trade up and down the coast--which they did, coming back to Catalina to replenish their stock with undeclared goods. Several smugglers blatantly set up warehouses on the Island and were admonished and fined by the Mexican authorities. The trade was still leather and tallow (and otter skins while the supply lasted) for manufactured goods. The leather and tallow was taken back to the East Coast or England to be turned into manufactured goods and perhaps journey around The Horn again. By this time, the surviving Pimungans had left the island.

Mexican Land Grant

Santa Catalina Island was awarded by Mexican Governor Pio Pico to Thomas Robbins as a land grant in 1846, just four days before the United States invaded California. Robbins was a naturalized Mexican citizen who had been living in California for about 20 years and had performed various services for the government, mainly as a ship captain. Paying for services with land was customary, but ownership was provisional. To maintain his title, the grantee had to use the land. Robbins established a small ranch on the Island, but sold it in 1850 to Jose Maria Covarrubias, just two years after California became a part of the United States as the result of the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo.

Ranching, Mining & Military Occupation

In 1849, the news of the discovery of gold brought people from all over the world to California. The landowners in the former Mexican province had been promised that under the new American government they would retain title to their land grants, but they had to prove ownership. Cases often took years to resolve before the Land Commission.
With title in doubt, squatters often moved onto the land and laid claim by virtue of possession. On Santa Catalina Island, various squatters laid claim to different areas and began running sheep and cattle. Several coves still bear the names of these early squatters--Ben Weston Beach, Howlands Landing, Gallaghers Beach, Johnsons Landing. At the same time, in Santa Barbara on the mainland, men were buying and selling portions of the Island. The various sections were eventually purchased by James Lick of San Francisco and his title was confirmed by patent in 1867 (when it was finally decided that Robbins grant was legal).
In the meantime, Santa Catalina had its own mining flurry as the digs in the northern part of the State began petering out. Prospectors appeared on the Island in 1863 and actually found silver in some quantity, mostly at the Island's west end. In January of 1864, a company of Union soldiers from Fort Drum in Wilmington arrived on the Island to survey its resources and suitability as an Indian reservation. Native Americans in the northern part of the State were resisting encroachment on their lands and the commander of the Army of the Pacific hoped to be able to remove them from their homes and place them on the Island. The Secretary of the Interior, who had jurisdiction over Indian Affairs, did not approve the proposal, and the soldiers left the Island by September of the same year.
While in residence, the Army had evicted all questionable squatters and miners, leaving only those who were well established. When James Lick asserted his ownership in 1867, he evicted all squatters and miners who declined to enter into a lease agreement with him. For the next 20 years, Santa Catalina Island was inhabited by sheep, cattle, and a few herders. It was visited from time to time by fishermen, often Chinese or Japanese, and the annual crews of sheep shearers. As time passed, the lovely coves began to be dotted with tents in the summertime as the more adventurous mainlanders sailed across the channel to picnic on the shore and escape the heat of California's inland valleys. Santa Catalina Island was developing into a vacation destination. - Courtesy of the Catalina Island Museum

Catalina Island’s Hollywood History Santa Catalina Island has served as the location for the filming of over 500 motion pictures, documentaries, television programs and commercials over the past 90 years. Of those 500, approximately 300 were motion picture productions. Beginning as early as 1911 and continuing with great momentum through the Silent Film era and the introduction of sound to motion pictures, the Island served as location for more than 225 films.
Throughout this history, the Island has been transformed into the coast of North Africa, from Tahiti to the American frontier and back again. It has been mistaken for the lost continent of Atlantis and the home of that famous mechanical shark, Jaws. In short, Santa Catalina Island holds a unique place in the history of motion picture production as Hollywood’s exotic back lot.
During the 16 years of silent film production, many notable directors and actors frequented the Island and produced many classic films, such as Treasure Island (1918), Male & Female (1919), Ten Commandments (1923), Ben Hur (1925), Old Ironsides (1926) and The Black Pirate (1926). D.W. Griffith was one of the first directors to film on the Island. His feature Man’s Genesis was filmed on the Island in 1912. Many of the large studios followed Griffith’s lead and began utilizing the Island as the backdrop of their films. Universal, Lasky Film Corporation, Paramount, Fox, Metro-Goldwyn, and United Artists were among the many production companies.
One may wonder why so many production companies flocked to the Island during this period and the answer is quite simple. The Island’s unique natural beauty and accessibility were the major factors. Production crews and sets could be sent to the Island by barge and the vast, untouched mountains and beaches could be transformed into almost any place in the world.
The Island truly could be transformed. In watching many of the movies filmed on the Island, it takes a keen eye to recognize the locations and pinpoint exactly where a scene was shot as movies have been filmed all over the Island. Avalon, Little Harbor and the Isthmus were the most common locations used for many of the films. In fact, so many movies were filmed at the Isthmus that it came to be known as the Isthmus Movie Colony. One can stroll around the Isthmus today and imagine tall ships at battle in Catalina Harbor or the Tahitian Village constructed for the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty. In fact, the film production companies planted many of the palm trees found at the Isthmus today.
Another interesting and lasting impression of this unique history was the introduction of the North American Bison to the Island. Many believe that the bison were brought to the Island for the production of The Vanishing American, the film version of Zane Grey’s classic novel, released by the Lasky Film Corporation in 1925. However, in watching the film it appears that it was not filmed on Catalina Island. Perhaps the Island scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, but nonetheless a herd of North American Bison has been roaming the hills of Catalina since December of 1924.
The introduction of sound to motion pictures ushered in a new era of film production for Hollywood and Catalina Island. The Island continued to be a prime location for many of Hollywood’s best filmmakers. One of the first “talkie‿movies filmed on the Island was Condemned starring Ronald Colman in 1929. The following years saw such classic films as Island of Lost Souls (1932), Rain (1932), Treasure Island (1933), Captain Blood (1935), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), and Captains Courageous (1937) being filmed on the Island. The frequency of filming on the Island during this period introduced several of Hollywood’s screen favorites to the charms of Santa Catalina.
Many famous actors and celebrities were spotted on the Island and off the coast in their palatial yachts. The Hotel St. Catherine ran a weekly column in the local newspaper called “Lobbying at the Hotel St. Catherine.‿Each week, Harry Grattan, proprietor of the St. Catherine’s gift shop, would report his celebrity sightings. Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Joe Schenck, Betty Grable, Norma Shearer, Irving Thalberg, Richard Arlen and Johnny Weismuller were all frequent visitors.
Many celebrities and actors worked and played on Catalina during the 1930s. Some developed life-long love affairs with the Island and its surrounding waters. Charlie Chaplin and his wife Paulette Goddard were frequent visitors and loved angling for marlin and tuna around the Island. James Cagney and his wife were known to anchor their yacht Marian in Descanso Bay. Cecil B. De Mille, a prominent film director who filmed at least three pictures on the Island was quoted in The Catalina Islander as saying that Catalina is “the only place where I can get away to work amid real inspiration.‿
The onset of World War II changed life on the Island and in Hollywood significantly. The Island was closed to tourism and the use of the Island for filming was suspended. After World War II filming picked up again, although as aviation technology flourished in the private sector, it became easier to travel to an exotic locale rather than recreate it on Catalina Island. As a result, the use of the Island for motion picture productions decreased. This was not the end of filming on Catalina, though. The 1950s ushered in the world of television and a host of new producers and directors discovered the Island once again as an exotic, yet convenient location. Since 1950, more than 150 commercials, television programs and music videos have been shot on the Island, as well as countless catalogs and magazine shoots.
Although the film industry’s use of Catalina Island has slowed, it certainly has not stopped. Many memorable productions have been filmed on the Island in the last fifty years, including The Glassbottom Boat (1966), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Chinatown (1974), Jaws (1974), MacArthur (1977), Waterworld (1995), Multiplicity (1995), Apollo 13 (1995), and Amistad (1997). There are many other movies such as The Hunt for Red October (1990), Suicide Kings (1997) and The Thin Red Line (1998) that were partially filmed off the coast of Catalina as well. As a moviegoer, every once in a while you can catch a glimpse of Catalina on the horizon. Most recently, aerial shots of the Island were featured in Disney’s Pearl Harbor (2001).
Catalina has had a unique relationship with Hollywood’s filmmakers for almost a century. The Island has been immortalized on the silver screen hundreds of times and been transformed into a variety of locales. Today, she awaits the next cast and crew that will add another production to the already long list of memorable movies filmed on her shores.
-- By Jeannine Pedersen, Curator, Catalina Island Museum

Places With A History on Catalina Island

Catalina Island’s rich history can be seen in many of the buildings and landmarks that dot the town of Avalon.
Catalina Casino Building - The Catalina Casino is without a doubt Catalina Island’s most recognizable landmark. The round, Art Deco structure rises the equivalent of 12 stories, and is surrounded by the sea on three sides. During the day its white facade gleams in the sunshine, and at night it lights the harbor with a romantic glow. Built in 1929, the Casino ‿which is actually not a gambling hall but “place of entertainment‿‿played host to dozens of Big Bands through the 1930s and 1940s. Guests came by steamship to Charleston and later jitterbug on the huge parquet floor. They danced the night away to the music of Glen Miller, Harry James, Kay Kyser, and many others over the years.
The largest number of dancers ever in the Casino was 6,200 people dancing to the music of Kay Kyser, on May 8, 1940. Virtually every Big Band of that era played in the Casino Ballroom. Live broadcasts were carried over CBS radio from 1934 into the 1950s.
Although the Big Bands have long faded away, the Casino Ballroom still attracts crowds for celebrations of all sorts. Completely restored just a few years ago, the ballroom retains its original style—a lavish medley of rose-hued walls, black Art Deco reliefs, an arching fifty-foot ceiling with five Tiffany chandeliers, an elevated stage, raised seating areas around the dance floor, and a vintage, full-service bar in back. The outdoor balcony that encircles the ballroom overlooks the protected cove of Avalon Bay and Descanso Beach.
The Casino Ballroom is available for private functions, and is a very popular spot for weddings and special events. Visitors can also see the inside of the Casino Building on one of several daily walking tours.
The Casino Art Gallery, Avalon Theatre, and Catalina Island Museum are also located in the Casino Building, on the lower level. Open daily, the Museum boasts an outstanding collection of archaeological material excavated on the island, as well as historic photographs, displays, and Catalina pottery. For more information, contact the Museum at (310) 510-2414.
The Tuna Club -Founded in 1898, the Tuna Club is the oldest fishing club in the United States. The club’s main goals were to elevate the sport of fishing to its highest possible standard, and for the protection of the game fish of Southern California.
Located on the edge of Avalon Bay, the Tuna Club is a California Historical Landmark and is on the National Registry of Historical Places. Many notable dignitaries and personalities have been members of the Tuna Club, including Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Cecil B. DeMille, Charlie Chaplin, and Bing Crosby.
Green Pleasure Pier - Under the ownership of the Banning brothers who formed the Santa Catalina Island Company in 1894, Avalon flourished as both a tourist resort and fisherman’s paradise. By 1906, the beach was crowded with boat stands, launches, rowboats, people, racks of drying fish, and sea lions waiting for a handout! In order to relieve the congestion, a pier was built running parallel to the beach, but a storm destroyed it in 1908.
In February 1909, the Freeholders Improvement Association of Avalon applied to the War Department to build a pleasure wharf, which the Santa Catalina Island Company would construct and maintain. Permission was granted and the pier was completed in the same year. In 1914, the pier was transferred to the City of Avalon.
For many years, it has been Avalon’s official weigh station for sport fishermen. Seaplanes also landed at the end of the pier in the 1950s and 1960s.
Today, the Green Pleasure Pier is still a hub of activity. It is home to the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce’s Visitors Center, where you can get information seven days a week. You can also find tours, water activities, dive centers, and some great places to eat on the 407-foot pier.
Catalina Country Club & Golf Course - For 30 years, with only a brief break during the war years, William Wrigley Jr. brought his baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, to Catalina Island for spring training. The baseball field on Catalina Island was built to match the dimensions of Wrigley Field in Chicago. A clubhouse was also built to house the team’s lockers and provide a social setting for the players.
While only a plaque remains on the site of the field where the Cubs once played, the historic clubhouse still remains. Now known as the Catalina Island Country Club, the clubhouse is open to the public. It features a restaurant and bar and a great display of Chicago Cubs memorabilia.
Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel - In 1926, author Zane Grey built a home the hillside overlooking Avalon Bay. He spent most of his later life in Avalon writing and fishing. His home is now a hotel that still includes some of Grey’s original furnishings.
Inn on Mt. Ada - The Inn on Mt. Ada is a six-room private bed and breakfast inn and the only hotel on Catalina Island to be awarded the Four-Star Award by Mobil Travel Guide. Located on top of Mt. Ada, the inn boasts breathtaking views of Avalon Bay and the town of Avalon.
Built in 1921, The Inn on Mt. Ada is the former home of chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. The Georgian colonial style inn has been meticulously restored and furnished to represent the time that the Wrigley family lived in the house. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Chimes Tower - Built in 1925, the Chimes Tower was presented as a gift to the town of Avalon by Mrs. Ada Wrigley. Located up and across from the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel, the chimes have been tolling on the quarter of the hour between 8:00am and 8:00pm since 1925

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