Saturday, August 11, 2007

On Not Dancing at Avalon

When Glen Larson and Bruce Belland of The Four Preps wrote and recorded "Twenty Six Miles Across the Sea/Santa Catalina is awaitin' for me," neither of them had ever been there. The song shot to #2 in March of 1958, but Belland said he didn't make it to the island, bought in its entirety in 1919 by William Wrigley of gum fame, until 1961.

By 1958, though, the palatial Avalon casino, with its huge ballroom, had been going great guns for 29 years. The casino, which we can sometimes see on very clear days from Pt. Fermin Park in San Pedro, reminds me of the Pantheon -- a pantheon to dancing. People used to ride a boat over from L.A., dancing all the while, then dance up a garlanded walkway from the dock to the ballroom, and then dance up its ramps to the ballroom floor, where thousands of people could mix. And then they'd catch the boat back and arrive in time to turn up for work the next morning. Here's how it looked, empty of its revelers, when we recently trudged up those same ramps, wondering how women did it in high heels, and feeling every calf muscle. It's still a gorgeous, glimmering room, and you can step outside on a wide balcony and survey the whole harbor of Avalon.

Our tour guide said Wrigley, a tycoon of particular rectitude, declared many rules of behavior for the ballroom. No drinking, for instance. No smoking. And no "close dancing." Ballroom dicks used to walk around sweeping their arms between offending dancers to maintain propriety.

Gum was allowed.

Our guide asked if anybody wanted to dance, but nobody did. "You'll regret it when you get home," he warned. But the only place to get boogie-inducing courage was a bar way down on the beach, and the big glowing floor intimidated us -- not to mention all those other strangers, wheezing from the long ascent, in bermuda shorts and Hollywood teeshirts.

Big bands still perform at the casino -- which means, we learned, not "a place to squander hundreds of quarters on slot machines while drinking watered down rum and cokes," as I'd always thought, but rather, "a gathering place."

As a kid growing up in the Fifties who wasn't allowed to dance, and who still can't do much on a dance floor except shake my anarchic booty to old R&B, I find this all impossibly dazzling and exotic.


Anonymous said...


You need a six in that first line as in "Twenty Six Miles....."

Macy Swain said...

Thanks, anon. I knew that!