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Big-T & the Bada-Bings


By Joya Balfour

Each 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 performed—literally—on every street corner and club on Crescent Avenue, the main street running through town.

This 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.

The 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!

Twelve 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.


To learn more about
Catalina events
visit the links below.

To 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.

Before, 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...

Behind in your reading?
Check out past ATOMIC features.

Dear Dottie
1999 Articles List
2000 Articles List
2001 Articles List
2002 Articles List
2003 Articles List
2004 Article List
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