Catalina Island: A Tale of Chewing Gum, Grave Robbing, and Movie Stars

On Sunday, Patrick and I finally made it over to the little island of Catalina. If you aren’t familiar with California geography, Catalina is a small island, roughly 30 miles off the coast of Long Beach, accesible by ferry from a handful of ports on the mainland. At just under 75 square miles, about 4,000 people call the island home, most of which live in Avalon, which is where most of the excitement on the island is.

I was rather unfamiliar with Catalina, with the exception of its stunning casino building (which I’ll touch on later) so our first stop was the Catalina Island Museum, which offers a generous history of the island, perfect for first timers, like ourselves. It serves as jumping off point to share the colorful history of Catalina and many of its unique tales.

Exterior of the Catalina Island Museum, a small, cream stucco colored building.

The island that we now know as Catalina, was untouched by man until roughly 10,000 years ago, when Native Americans from the mainland made their way to the island. It is understood that they called the island Pimu, and dubbed themselves Pimugnans. These natives were skilled fisherman, as well as carvers of soap stone. In 1542 explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo came upon the island, and claimed it for Spain, dubbing it San Salvador, after his ship. However, Cabrillo’s discovery didn’t draw any attention, and was more or less forgotten. Then, 60 years later, in 1602 Sebastian Vizcanio, arrived on the eve of Saint Catherine’s Day, and chose to name in her honor, giving it the name we now know it by, Santa Catalina. The arrival of the Spanish colonizers coincided with the downfall of the indigenous population, who suffered from new diseases brought by the Europeans, and by the 1830s all of the native population had either died or moved to the mainland, working at the recently established Spanish Missions or ranches.

The island experienced several owners, including the Banning brothers, who established the Santa Catalina Island Company. Like their predecessors, the Banning brothers were unsuccessful in turning a profit with the island, and in 1919, William Wrigley Jr., of chewing gum fame, purchased controlling interest in the company. Enchanted by the island, he had a home built, then began construction of hotels, a theater and ballroom, an aviary, and pottery factory, he purchased not one but two ships to carry passengers to his piece of paradise, and even brought over a baseball team to train.

Interior of the museum. Wall dedicated to William Wrigley Jr., including multiple black and white images of him.

But as mentioned before, the island had once been home to Pimugans, and it is in the early 1920s that one man, Ralph Glidden, uncovers their remains. Grave robber, amateur archeologist, con man, self-proclaimed professor, Glidden unearthed over 800 gravesites at over 100 locations from 1920 to 1922, and amassed one of the largest collections of human remains, opening up a “museum” that was housed in a tent, and decorated with the bones of the natives. He claimed to have found a princess housed in an urn that was surrounded by the skeletons of 64 children, and even giants with six fingers. He also claimed to have uncovered the “secret” history of Catalina, and written it all down. His “excavations” even received funding from prestigious Heye Foundation in New York, however that ended in 1924. Glidden relied on his “museum” for his income, but eventually sold his collection in 1962 to Wrigley’s son, Philip Knight Wrigley, for $5,000. And that secret history mentioned? Well, it added up to less than ten pages of “history.” Sadly, Glidden’s time on the island caused irreversible damage in understanding the history of Catalina’s natives.

Black and white photograph of the inside of Glidden's "museum" which is floor to ceiling covered in human bones.

Wrigley was never one to miss an opportunity to promote his island, and had floats in the Pasadena Rose Parade, and one of his more unique marketing ploys, the Wrigley Ocean Marathon. Inspired by Gertrude Ederle, who became the first woman to swim the English Channel in 1926, Wrigley offered a $25,000 prize to the person who could swim from the Isthmus of Catalina to San Pedro. On January 15, 1927, at 11:24 am 102 swimmers took to the water, covered in grease, plus graphite, which served as a shark repellant. Wrigley assigned a boat to each swimmer, and converted one of his ships to a hospital. It wasn’t until 3:06 am when 17 year old George Young came on shore that it ended. Everyone had forfeited with the exception of two women, struggling one to two miles off shore, including Martha Stager of Portland. Charmed by their “plucky exhibitions” Wrigley awarded each of them a $2500 consolation prize.

Display case housing a brochure from the Wrigley Ocean Marathon, with an image of a male swimmer on it, and a ribbon for an official.

Oversized check made out to George Young.

Oversized check made out to Margaret Stager.

Getting stuck literally in the mud led to Wrigley’s next business venture. In 1926 he and his associate D.M. Renton got their car stuck in the mud. In trying to remedy their situation, Renton discovered Catalina Island had unusually high quality clay. Ever the businessman, Wrigley had a factory built and created Catalina Clay Products, also known as Catalina Pottery. The factory produced the tile for the Avalon Casino (which I’ll talk about in my next post), and many other storefronts around Avalon. They also produced thousands of stunning and brightly colored dishes, vases, candleholders, ashtrays, and more. The island’s factory closed in 1937, but the company continued to produce items on the mainland until 1942. The items are highly collectable, and pottery is still a popular item on the island today.

Colorful Catalina Pottery, including pitchers, lidded dishes, and ashtrays.

Pottery wasn’t the only item to bear the Catalina name. The island also inspired a swimwear company, Catalina Swimwear. While not manufactured on the island, the company took its name, and logo, the flying fish fro the island.

Vintage swimsuits made by the Catalina Swimwear Company.

Constantly willing to try new things to bring people to his island, Wrigley welcomed E.H. Lewis’ idea for a pheasant farm in 1927. Lewis observed that Catalina’s climate was perfect for raising pheasant, and suggested the farm would produce excellent game. Soon Lewis lamented about raising birds only to have them killed, and expressed shifting gears from a pheasant farm to a true aviary for rare birds. Wrigley loved the idea, for it provided his island with a new tourist attraction, and a fresh marketing icon, and in 1929 the Catalina Bird Park opened to the public. Here Lewis became a pioneer in saving rare birds and in improving environments for captive birds.

Overall image of the Bird Park room at the museum.

A green, yellow, and black booklet for Catalina Bird Park.

Wooden cut out sign of a toucan.

The birds also served as perfect subject matter for Wrigley’s Catalina Pottery. The park eventually closed in 1966, selling its 650 birds to the Los Angeles Zoo.

Catalina Pottery tiles of various birds.

Not only was Wrigley a gum man, he was also a baseball man, owning part of the Chicago Cubs. Wrigley brought the Cubs to Catalina for spring training beginning in 1920, building them a baseball diamond and clubhouse, that would eventually become the Catalina Island Country Club. The Cubs’ stay on Catalina served Wrigley well, as the Cubs promoted Catalina, and Catalina promoted the Cubs. The Cubs trained on Catalina until 1952, with the exception of World War II.

Black and white image of the Chicago Cubs, jumping up to catch baseballs.

During World War II, Wrigley closed the island to tourists, as it became an extensive training location for the military, including the highly skilled and secretive OSS, who trained for counter intelligence, amphibious assault, explosives, and guerrilla warfare. The island was ideal because not only was the island isolated, its terrain was not unlike the areas of war in the South Pacific that the military would find themselves in.

For the most part, Catalina served as a vacation destination for Californians and out of state tourists alike, just as it does today. Wrigley made constant efforts to make sure those visiting were in comfort from the moment they boarded one of the two boats he purchased for the island.

Life ring from the SS Avalon. White ring with black text that reads "Avalon Catalina Island"

Cut out wooden sign featuring an image of a woman in a brown suit holding a camera. Text below reads "Courier will be pleased to snap your picture as you board the boat"

Even though Catalina was a tourist hot spot, it was also a place people called home. And before she was a movie star, Marilyn Monroe was one of those people albeit for a short time, in 1942. At age 16 Monroe, who was then just Norma Jean Baker, married James Dougherty, a Merchant Marine, who became stationed on Catalina, and the two made Avalon their home. Dougherty was soon shipped overseas, and Monroe moved in with is parents back on the mainland in Van Nuys. Shortly after signing her first studio contract and selecting the stage name Marilyn Monroe, she divorced Dougherty in 1946, moving on to become the Hollywood icon we know today.

Wall dedicated to Marilyn Monroe's time on the island. Black and white images of her in a swimsuit.

And speaking of Hollywood, of course Catalina’s proximity to Hollywood made it a prime filming location, beginning as early as 1912. Legendary escape artist Harry Houdini even spent time on the island, while filming Terror Island in 1919. Sadly, only two of the seven reels of the film, remain.

Wall dedicated to Houdini's time on the island, including black and white stills from the film, a poster from it, and a TV screen showing scenes from it.

One of the more notable films was the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton. Gable sought to win over Laughton and took him to a brothel, where Gable learned Laughton was gay. Gable was actually vocal about his dislike for Laughton’s personal life, and moment created a real life hatred that worked for their sparring characters on screen, earning them both Best Leading Actor nominations at the Oscars. The film won for Best Picture.

Sign that was used in the film "Mutiny on the Bounty" which reads "Christians Hut Trading Post"

Of course in addition to being a filming location, Catalina was also a getaway for Hollywood’s movie stars of the day, including Errol Flynn, John Wayne, and Humphrey Bogart, who all enjoyed sailing. In 1981 Natalie Wood famously disappeared en route to Catalina. Her body was later recovered, and her death originally ruled “accidental drowning.” For many years it has long been suspected that her death was not accidental, but rather murder. And in 2012, the Los Angeles County Coroner changed Wood’s death certificate, removing “accidental” and stating “drowning and other undetermined factors.”

Black and white photographs of Natalie Wood.

In the midst of the glamor of movie stars and tourists alike, William Wrigley Jr. passed away in 1932, leaving the controlling interest of Catalina with his son, Philip K. Wrigley. Philip K. Wrigley had worked to created the Catalina Island Conservancy in 1972, and in 1975 deeded most of the acreage to the Conservancy.

Perhaps one of my favorite items in the museum was the Bell Telephone switchboard, literally the last one of its kind to be in use. Avalon was the home of the last manual switchboard office in the United States, and it used this very switchboard for over 50 years, until 1978.

The switchboard, made of wood, and full of various lights and plugs.

Catalina is full of weird tales, beautiful locations, and so much more, and I feel as if I have just barely scratched the surface of it! Stay tuned for two more Catalina posts! Including one dedicated to the famed Avalon Theatre.

You can visit the Catalina Island Museum at 217 Metropole Ave., in the small town of Avalon on Catalina Island.

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