Avalon Casino looms large over the town’s harbor. Like a monumental sentinel, it has welcomed millions of
visitors to the island since its construction in 1929. The sheer size of the building and its
attention to detail make it a compelling architectural landmark. Just as compelling, however, is the
history of its making, and an exhibition currently on view at the Catalina
Island Museum —
Fantasy Into Art: The
Avalon Casino Murals of John Gabriel Beckman — offers the pubic its first
glimpse into a story never before told.
tall as a 12-story building, men worked around the clock to construct the
Casino in just 14 months. But as
the building neared its completion, it was recognized suddenly that a critical
component of the building had yet to be addressed. The execution of the monumental murals intended to cover the
walls of the building’s two main focal points — its entrance façade and movie
theater — were not commissioned. With
construction running behind schedule, the murals now had to be executed while
the building was still under construction and before its opening, just a few
idea of the Avalon Casino originated with William Wrigley, Jr., the enormously
successful chewing gum magnate who financed its construction. But the responsibility of directing its
building was assigned to Wrigley’s trusted associate, David M. Renton. Renton’s hunt for an artist capable of
pulling off the nearly impossible took him to nearby Los Angeles, where he
quickly learned of the work of John Gabriel Beckman. The young painter was still something of an unknown, but had
earned a reputation after executing the murals in Grauman’s Chinese
Theatre. The murals had captivated
the entire Hollywood community since their completion only two years earlier in
1927. Renton was impressed, and
invited him to discuss the Avalon commission with Wrigley over dinner in his
Pasadena home. Beckman left the
dinner with a challenge: create a preliminary drawing so impressive that
Wrigley might grant the entire commission to him. Speed was of the essence; and a mere two days later, Beckman
presented Wrigley a painted sketch, which provided a conceptual rendering of the
Casino theatre’s interior.
painting presents a traditional conception: a pastiche of scenes inspired by
Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology cover the theater’s enormous walls and
ceiling. Not a revolutionary approach,
but the drawing demonstrated that the young artist had talent and, perhaps more
important, he had already distinguished himself by pulling off a monumental
commission. Wrigley made a
split-second decision. Beckman was
granted the commission on the spot, and he was given almost total artistic
freedom. But the directive was
clear: get the job done on time. By
the time Beckman arrived on the island and was able to work, he had 90 days.
now assumed an even more important role.
Beckman worked out every scene in a series of separate sketches. Often painted in watercolor, the
drawings reveal the organization of each scene’s composition, the narrative
thread uniting the scenes and the placement and pose of each figure. As each drawing was completed, it was
handed to a team of artists. They
would create large-scale designs based on the drawings, transfer each design to
the wall and then execute it in paint.
was a traditional and very efficient manner of working, and Beckman and his
team worked tirelessly to meet their deadline. In taped interviews conducted years later, Beckman revealed
that tempers often flared. But
much to the delight of a very satisfied William Wrigley, Jr., the Casino opened
on time, embellished with a magnificent ensemble of painted murals that
continue to delight today.
only twelve of Beckman’s original drawings for the project exist today. All are in the permanent collection of
the Catalina Island Museum, and the present exhibition exhibits all but one of
the drawings. These painted
sketches — seen together for the first time in this exhibition — serve as a
testament not only to the vision of the man who commissioned them but also to
the artist responsible for their execution.
Fantasy into Art: The Avalon Casino
Murals of John Gabriel Beckman
will be on view through June 17, 2012.
The Catalina Island Museum is Avalon’s sole institution devoted to art,
culture and history. The museum, its
digital theater and store are located on the ground floor of Avalon’s historic
Casino, and are open 7 days a week, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. For more information, the museum may be
reached by phone at 310-510-2414 or at its website: CatalinaMuseum.org.