summer in early June a few thousand swing dancers descend on
Catalina: a small, picturesque island 22 miles west of mainland
Los Angeles famous for its quaint inns, breathtaking landscape
and clear waters. Avalon, the center of island population, buzzes
with the sounds of Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and Count Basie,
while Lindy Hop, Charleston and Balboa are performedliterallyon
every street corner and club on Crescent Avenue, the main street
running through town.
year's Swing Camp Catalina, put on by the Pasadena Ballroom
Dance Association, took place June 7-10, with hundreds of dancers
in attendance from around the globe. Equally as impressive as
the talents of the those who visit the event each year, however,
is the venue in which it takes place: The Casino Ballroom. Situated
on Sugar Loaf Point at the northern end of Avalon Harbor and
completed in the Spring of 1929 by architects Walter Webber
and Sumner A. Spaulding at a cost of $2 million dollars, this
Art Deco building was an engineering masterpiece and stood taller
than any building in Los Angeles at the time.
CATALINA'S CASINO BALLROOM
By Joya Balfour
Ballroom took its name from the Italian "place of entertainment,"
and does not actually have gambling of any kind. At the time
of its construction, America was immersed in the Jazz Age
and "swing fever" had taken hold, with large dance halls called
"casinos" popping up throughout the country. The Avalon Casino,
by far one of the most spectacular ballrooms in the United
States (and the largest circular ballroom in the world), drew
thousands of dancers who would come by steamship from the
mainland…dancing to Big Band music during the journey, then
walking from the docks to the Casino as band members played
along the promenade all the way to the ballroom!
stories high and 180 feet in diameter, the Casino holds a large
movie theater on the first floor with remarkable acoustic features,
gold- and silver-hued ornamentation and an immense hand-painted
mural depicting the geography and history of Catalina Island.
Above the theatre lies the Ballroom. At 10,000 square feet it
boasts an arched 50 foot domed ceiling that holds five Tiffany
chandeliers, rose-colored walls made up of full-length panoramic
windows, an expansive outdoor balcony, an elevated stage, and
spacious seating surround the circular dance floor. Sophisticated
mood lighting is also used to create a magical ambiance for
different tempos and styles of music.
accommodate the 6,000 dancers that would normally attend a Casino
dance in its heyday, the architects decided to incorporate a
ramp as a baseball stadium would, as elevators would take too
long to shuttle up and down, and stairs could easily cause dancers
to twist an ankle or wear out their calves. Yes, this ballroom
was built for dancers. The hardwood floor is constructed
over layers of foam, pine and cork, all of which is suspended
over five feet of air. It makes for a dancer's dream, and eliminates
all noise that could otherwise disturb the theatre below.
during and after World War II, the Casino Ballroom
was home to the best big bands of the swing era:
Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, The Dorsey Brothers,
Harry James and Artie Shaw, just to name a few.
Live radio broadcasts of the concerts brought national
attention to tiny Catalina Island and made it a
favorite locale of Hollywood filmmakers for years
to come. Today the ballroom is used largely for
weddings and conventions, but there are many special
events besides Swing Camp Catalina throughout the
year that bring great music back to the shores of
Avalon: Francisco & Stacey's Catalina Dance Adventure,
the annual Catalina Conservancy Ball, the Jazztrax,
Blues and Surf Music Festivals, and the Island Luau
among many others. Even those unfamiliar with its
rich musical past are enchanted each year when stepping
through the Ballroom's doors. Listen closely and
you'll still hear the echoes of big bands past,
as today's new crop of swing dancers help keep that
summer of 1942 alive...