It isn’t 26 miles across the sea. It’s 20 miles.
The subject of Catalina naturally takes me to Eddie Haskell who you definitely can’t trust (the character not the actor). OK, OK let me back up. In the 1950s when our family still had a TV the big show for us was Leave It To Beaver. The show featured a character named Eddie Haskell who was super solicitous of parents using obsequious greetings overflowing with compliments. But once out of range of the adults he was a thug who torments Beaver and got everyone around him in trouble though always skating himself.
So there I was maybe 9 or 10 years old getting off the ferry at Avalon in Catalina when I saw Eddie Haskell on the pier waiting to depart. Now to me this was like running into Marilyn Monroe and, amazingly, she once did live on Catalina.
Back to Eddie. The actor playing Eddie, Kenneth Osmond, became typecast as a punk and had a hard time getting a job on TV so he became a policeman with LAPD. He was a beat cop and was once shot five times while chasing a suspect. His vest took most of the lead and he continued on the force for 18 years. Now here’s the weird part. Rumors started circulating that he was actually the Kiss frontman Gene Simmons. That rumor faded quickly but the idea that John Holmes (aka Johnny Wadd), a hardcore porn actor famous for his larger than life manpart, was actually Osmand proved a stickier rumor to shake. Even though Osmond was much shorter than Holmes and didn’t even look much like him the rumor persisted and grew to the point where the LAPD Department of Internal Affairs asked Officer Osmond drop trou, for a formal inspection. This may be the most appropriate use ever of the expression: ‘What a buncha dicks!” Osmond was so tired of the rumors that he actually complied. Today this would justifiably be considered sexual harassment of the most bizarre kind.
By 1965 our family was forced out of TVland forever. This happened, amazingly at the closest point of Catalina to the mainland across the water in Palos Verdes. I was a sophomore in high school and I came home to discover that where the huge console TV that had stood in its exalted corner was just a rectangle of dust and a cat toy. My mother was coming in from the back yard and, barely controlling my hysteria, I implored, “Was it broken? When would it be back? Can we borrow one?” She said no; she thought we watched too much TV and so she dragged it to the very real cliff behind the house and pushed it onto the rocks below. I couldn’t believe it but I went down to the beach and there it was smashed like the Golden Calf! I came back in tears and recall saying, “At least you could have sold it.”
My sister came home and there was a good deal of screeching and door slamming. Then ‘The Old Man’ came home. This was my mother’s second husband who I avoided whenever possible. To his credit he stuck it out for nearly ten years but there was more yelling and door slamming so he packed up and left. My sister skedaddled to join the Air Force. The Vietnam War was going on so I was grateful she took my place.
So there we were in a house beside the sea. Just my mother and me and an orange cat named Louie. And no TV. A few months later (no grass grew under this woman) my mother met some Venice Beach slickster and asked me if she if I would mind if she moved out with me and in with him. I said, “Sure, not much going on here; but what about me?” She was very polite and she said she would continue paying my expenses so I could stay in the house and finish high school. I was 15 and this seemed reasonable to me. Shortly thereafter the cat ran off. This caused me some heartache. I really liked that cat.
Fun side note: My mother’s new beau, Emanuel, (and eventual husband) was a small time actor and high school teacher at Beverly Hills High. He had all sorts of habits that I judged to be unacceptable. He drove a 1952 Cadillac hearse and installed an old airplane window in the car to straighten his wonky spine. He dressed all in black including a Beatnik turtleneck and he was into health food. I saw one of his movies and he was hysterical though the film was not supposed to be a comedy. Today he’d be the sort of friend I would definitely have but then I thought he was so much gum on my shoe.
And he was a slick character for sure. My mother was always a fount of too much information and after they took him away she told me this story. It seems this very hairy Spaniard decided it would be sensual if they installed black satin sheets in the love shack. Feels groovy, no doubt. Then he thought it would elevate things by shaving his entire body to better canoodle in the sheets. Oh-my-god, mother! So once he got himself all smoothed out like a newborn rat he took a running leap at the bed and kept going, through the sheets and onto the floor beyond, twisting his back so badly that they called an ambulance.
As he was leaving the hospital a few days later he told my mother that one of his female high school students had been tossed out of her house and he proposed that she come live with them to help take care of him. She changed the locks.
Where was I? Oh yes, Catalina. Catalina is a fun place to visit (in normal times) with lots of restaurants and small inns but by far the best way to go is by small boat. I’ve been going there on boats since the early 60s and as recently as last year I stopped there when my sons and I motored from San Francisco to San Diego. The scuba diving is world class and son Tyler even jumped from the summit to the beach in a paraglider a few years back.
The island used to be the home of Indians for over 7,000 years but the Spanish took it during the Mission Period and then the island was more or less abandoned until James Lick bought it in the 1850s.
When Lick died William Wrigley Jr. bought it. He also owned the Chicago Cubs and they used the island for spring training for many years. People know Wrigley from the chewing gum company but in the 1880s the Wrigleys were in the soap business. Gum was just becoming a thing and Wrigley included a stick of gum as a free gift with a box of soap. The gum proved so popular that they dropped the soap and went full tilt into gum. Wrigley is still the leading gum company and during the current Covid plague there has been a huge spike in gum sales. In my family my kids weren’t allowed gum or TV or satin sheets for that matter. It wasn’t that we were strict, just picky. Our kids could rob liquor stores (not that they ever did but there was no rule against it), fall down cliffs and crash cars but absolutely no gum!
Catalina was visited by about a million people a year until recently and has been the setting for a good number of movie and TV locations. The company making a 1933 film imported a herd of buffalo and ended up leaving them behind.
Eventually the herd grew to to an unmanageable 600 but is now down to about 150. Now and then folks are gored by the buffalo (hey, I could say bison but I’m 73 and grew up with Westerns so I say buffalo dadgumit!).
Catalina is a place where not much has happened except for two famous deaths. One was the time back in the 1970s when a cameraman was filming a scheduled explosion in the gravel quarry at the south end of the island. He captured some spectacular footage of the explosion and the rock soaring skyward then falling to earth. Unfortunately for him he was way too close and the clip ends with him being buried under the rock.
The other is the 1981 drowning of Natalie Wood who was a huge movie star then. She was aboard a yacht with her husband Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken. Tabloids still mention this incident 40 years on. And I guess I just did as well. Like I said not much happens on Catalina. If you want adventure go to New Guinea. If you do, take cash and a bulletproof vest.
Up to form as always! Thank you.
Hi James, I’ve been following your blog for ages -this is your funniest yet! Keep ’em coming!
Always look forward to the adventures and history
That whole area including across from Pales Verdes
there’s some connection for me
Another gem. I learn something every week. Tuesdays are much better than they used to be.
Long time listener, first time Reply-er. Since you mean to quibble with The Four Preps–sticklers for accuracy that they were (or are, as Prep #1 is still singing)–I mean to quibble with you: As I understand it, the SS Catalina traveled elegantly from Banning’s Landing (now a community center, named after Phineas Banning, “Father of the Los Angeles Harbor”) in Wilmington to the wharf in Avalon.
When I build that route in my chartplotter it says that’s 26 nautical miles if you cut across the San Pedro breakwater; 27 nautical miles if you don’t. I recommend that you don’t.
A crow might fly from its perch on the wreckage of your TV at the tide line to somewhere a little west of Goat Harbor on Catalina, and that’s about 20.5 statute miles. But the SS Catalina needed to go a little further.
Please take this in the spirit in which it’s intended, which is one of great devotion to your great storytelling.