by Marie Wilson

Santa Catalina

In 1919, chewing gum giant William Wrigley, Jr. bought Catalina Island and had a mansion built atop one of its highest hills, providing a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean. This was the Californian island I travelled to recently for the Catalina Film Festival. The Wrigley Mansion still stands with its magnificent view but is now a bed and breakfast.

Wrigley was also the man behind what are now called the Wrigley Lofts on Carlaw Ave. in Toronto. In the early 20th century, he commissioned the building of those two beautiful Beaux Arts buildings (now the Lofts) and since The Canadian Chewing Gum Co. Ltd. was located nearby, the neighbourhood of Leslieville became known as the “Chewing Gum Capitol of Canada”.

But long before the duelling gums of Leslieville, Catalina was inhabited by Native Americans who called the island Pimu. Spain claimed it in the 16th century. Later, it was transferred to Mexico then finally to the US. While the Pimuvit mined and traded the island’s vast soapstone supply, the territory was later used for smuggling, gold digging and otter hunting. Wrigley made its primary trade tourism. Since the 70s, the island has been administered by the Catalina Island Conservancy.

The 2018 film festival was held in an Art Deco jewel of a building which Wrigley had built in 1929. Called the Catalina Casino, it houses a theatre and a ballroom but no slot machines or roulette wheels: “Casino” is Italian for “gathering place” and that’s the meaning of its name. If you want a nice glimpse of its circular exterior – surrounded on three sides by the sea – watch “Chinatown”: it’s there when Jake Gittes arrives on the dock for his visit to the Albacore Club.

The awards ceremony was held in the Avalon Theatre in the Casino amidst beautiful murals. My screenplay “Sideshow Bandit” was up for Best Screenplay, the whole reason I was on this unique island.

I imagine that island resident Norma Jeane Dougherty would have taken in a few flicks there when she lived on the island in the 1940s with her first husband. By the 50s, she’d escaped that life and become Marilyn Monroe, while Catalina had become popularized in a song called “26 Miles” (its distance from the mainland). From 1921 to 51, the Chicago Cubs (Wrigley’s team) went for spring training there, except during the war years when their ballpark became a simulated warzone for training marines and other war personal.

At this year’s festival, Richard Dreyfuss was presented with the Stanley Kramer Social Artist award, and I couldn’t help feeling like I was in the presence of a fellow Canuck – all because Dreyfuss rose to stardom in the quintessential Canadian film “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz”.

Back on the mainland, we visited Venice Beach where tents dot the wide expanse of golden sand and squatters sell their crafts and psychic readings amidst the hurly-burly of the boardwalk. Many of these folk look like they just wandered out of the Summer of Love – it was a truly anachronistic journey for me. And then I found the last remaining building from that amazing opening shot in Touch of Evil (58). Sweet. (I think that is supposed to be Janet Leigh looking out of the window.)

In downtown LA, I was delighted to explore The Bradbury Building – a most extraordinary structure built in 1893 after its architect consulted a Ouija board. This beautiful, light-filled building took much of its blue-print inspiration from a popular novel of the time called “Looking Backward”, which was set in the year 2000. How appropriate then that the Bradbury should end up being dressed for the toymaker’s house in the neo-noir “Blade Runner” (82).

The five-story central court is surrounded by a magnificent tiered maze of yellow-and-pink bricks, cast iron, marble, tile, terra cotta and, polished oak. It’s topped with a skylight that covers the entire ceiling. Bird-cage elevators are still in operation but one can also climb the open wrought-iron staircases. Today, most of Bradbury belongs to the Internal Affairs Division of the LAPD, which suits its history of appearing in many films noir, including “DOA” (49) and “M” (51).

6 thoughts on “Santa Catalina

  1. Kim Atkinson

    Thoughtfully written Marie!
    Wowed me with all famous folks and places you connect in this piece.
    I admire your dedication to writing and can only imagine the timeless hours of research and crafting of words you poured into sharing your Catalina experience. I learned alot!
    I think it’s really groovy how all the connections are cleverly tied together like in a Robert Altman movie … It’s perfectly executed.

  2. Marie Wilson Post author

    Thank you so much, Kim – especially for appreciating all the time & research & craft that goes into a piece! The Altman comparison is also sweet.

  3. Shirley Connell

    I really enjoyed this, Marie. Very interesting history, and your perspective colours it beautifully. Always a treat! The accompanying photos are great!

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