Wrigley & Renton: Pasadenans on Catalina, Part II

This is the final article in a six-part series on “five Pasadenans who had a lasting effect on Catalina Island,” as documented by the late PMH researcher Sidney K. Gally in 1992.

After acquiring control of Catalina Island, William Wrigley, Jr. started a sprawling advertising campaign. The island’s slogan became “In all the world, no trip like this.” He produced booklets, folders, magazine and newspaper ads, and magazine articles in order to attract tourists. Wrigley’s philosophy on advertising would have made him a perfect fit for AMC’s television series Mad Men, as he once said “Tell ’em quick and tell ’em often. You must have a good product in the first place, and something that people want, for it’s easier to row downstream than up. Explain to folks plainly and sincerely what you have to sell, do it in as few words as possible, and keep everlastingly coming at them. Advertising is pretty much like running a furnace. You’ve got to keep on shoveling the coal. Once you stop stoking, the fire goes out.”

Wrigley and Pasadena-based contractor David Renton transformed Santa Catalina Island into a thriving modern paradise, as well as one of the most popular vacation spots in the state. The annual visitor count in 1919 was an estimated 90,000 people. By 1930, the island was greeting an estimated 750,000 visitors every year.

Wrigley’s island home was built by Renton on Mt. Ada—named after his wife—and overlooked the bay and town. Renton’s house sat on the opposite hillside. Renton undertook major development projects on the island. He produced a water system with dams, reservoirs, tunnels, and pipelines. He put into place a gas and electric plant, a sewage disposal system, roads, a country club, and a golf course. Renton also oversaw industrial projects on Catalina. He created rock quarries, mines and processing plants, furniture production, and a clay tile factory. Initially meant to supply the demand for the “Spanish Mission” architectural style that was sweeping California, these clay tiles are collectors items today.

The Chicago Cubs after winning the National League pennant. Bodziak, J., Copyright Claimant. Chicago "Cubs", National League pennant winners. United States, 1929. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007663785/.

Wrigley also used the island as a spring training site for the Chicago Cubs. He had bought a minority stake in the team back in 1916. Over the years, Wrigley increasingly purchased more stock, becoming the largest shareholder and majority owner. He fully purchased the Chicago Cubs from businessman Albert Lasker in 1925. As part of his development of the island, Renton built a baseball field and other facilities that the team could use.

The Catalina Casino, 2013. Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. The Catalina Casino, built on the site formerly known as Sugarloaf Point on Catalina Island off the coast of California. California Santa Catalina United States, 2013. May. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2013634824/.

The most renowned structure built under Renton’s direction was the Catalina Casino. Located on what had been Sugarloaf Point, the new Casino replaced a dance hall that Wrigley built soon after buying the island. This new structure was built in the Art Deco and Mediterranean revival styles. The building contained a movie theater designed specifically for movies with sound and a twenty-thousand-square-foot ballroom. Despite being called the Catalina Casino, the building was never a gambling facility. Rather, the Casino served the island as a civil defence center that was large enough to house the island’s entire population. The steel frame from the old dance hall was installed in a canyon above Avalon, where—thanks to Mrs. Wrigley—it became a bird park. At the time, Avalon’s bird park was one of the largest aviaries in the world, housing nearly eight thousand birds.

The former Avalon Bird Park, 2013. Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Bird Park Apartments on Santa Catalina Island, a rocky island off the coast of California. California Santa Catalina United States, 2013. May. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2013634911/.

William Wrigley died at the age of seventy in 1932. He was at his Phoenix, Arizona mansion when he fell ill. His body was returned to Pasadena where private services were held at the Wrigley Mansion. His pallbearers included David Renton and David Blankenhorn. He was interred in a custom-made sarcophagus within a mausoleum at the head of Avalon Canyon. His remains were moved later, however, and reinterred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Renton was involved in the building of the mausoleum, and said that “to have had a part in its construction—a memorial to one of America’s greatest men, my friend and chief—is an honor I shall ever cherish.”

Renton’s first wife, Elizabeth, died in 1935. He retired from construction in 1936, and one year later he married Isabel Blanche Cline. He lived at his cattle ranch in the city of Atascadero. He later returned to Pasadena when he became ill, and he died at his home on Los Robles Avenue in 1947. Renton is interred at Mountain View Cemetery.

- Grant Holt