Memories of Catalina
Reprinted from the Catalina Islander October 14, 2016
It was many years ago when I first met Artelle. She was an elderly lady who ran the Credit Union where I had an account. She was over eighty years old at that time and I wondered why she was still working at her age. As I got to know her, I found that her husband had died and she had an adult son, still at home, who had some problems. The money she earned helped but it seemed equally important for her to be connected and involved in the world around her. She always took the time to converse with the customers and showed an interest in their lives.
One day prior to a holiday period she asked if I had vacation plans. I mentioned I was going to spend the holidays at my home on Catalina. It was as if a light went on in her eyes. “Catalina! I grew up in Southern California and used to go to Catalina all the time,” she proclaimed. She then asked me to come into her office and she told me about her remembrances of the island.
When she was in her late teens/ early twenties, Artelle and her girlfriends used to catch the ferryboat, the S.S. Catalina, in Wilmington and go to Catalina for the weekend. It was the late 1930’s and the main attraction was the big bands playing at the casino ballroom. There was no TV at that time but the music was broadcast on the radio all over the country. The boats also featured bands, dancing and entertainment on the passage over. Back then, the boats weren’t as fast as the express boats of today and the trip took about two and a half hours. She and her friends got “all dolled up” as she put it. “The ladies all wore fancy dresses and the men wore suits and ties and we danced on the boat all the way to the island,” Artelle stated. Then she mentioned with a sly grin that she and the girls sometimes had a few cocktails on the boat ride over.
When they arrived at the island there was always great excitement. It was like you arrived in a foreign country. Today we are used to a boat arriving almost hourly but back then it was just a couple of times a day and it was a big deal. Speedboats would jump over the boat wake as it approached, people came to the dock to sing and kids would dive for the coins passengers would throw overboard as the “Great White Steamer” docked.
Then it was off to the Casino to dance all weekend long. She could still remember all the big bands she saw. It was clear to me that sharing these memories allowed her to step back to a time and place she remembered with great fondness. I felt privileged to have heard a bit of Catalina history from someone who lived it. Artelle passed away a few years ago but I can’t help to think of her every time I go to the New Year’s Eve event at the Casino… it always seems like I just stepped back into the 1930’s.
Mark Marchetti-Author and Catalina resident