Old Friend Lives On in Avalon as Old Ben Enters the Bronze Age

Times Staff Writer

After 11 years sitting proudly on the rocks at the end of the Cabrillo Mole pier, facing a scorching sun, stiff sea breezes and pounding rains, Old Ben was beginning to look a bit weathered.

So a new Old Ben has taken his place.

Old Ben is a statue, a reminder of the original Old Ben, a large, playful sea lion that captured the hearts of Santa Catalina islanders as he swam ashore each day from 1898 to 1920, when he is presumed to have swum out into the ocean to die.

The new replacement statue is made of bronze and is expected to last a lot longer than the former concrete version.

Seventy-five-year-old Stanley Rosin recalls, as a young boy, seeing the real Old Ben pull himself along Crescent Avenue, the main beachfront street.

'A Surprise and Delight'

"Old Ben became quite a pet of everybody's," said Rosin, a retired hotelier. The sea lion let people pet him, Rosin said, and "was a great surprise and delight to everybody."

Resident Kurt Becker, 83, agrees. "He was a real character. He would come right up to people, and they would feed him."

As a tribute to the fabled sea lion, Rosin sculpted the original concrete statue in 1975. Now he has had the new bronze statue made from his original mold by students at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert.

The new statue--Bronze Ben, as some residents have begun to call him--will be dedicated on Sunday, to coincide with a weekend family reunion commemorating the arrival of Rosin's father on the island 100 years ago.

Rosin said he erected the original monument as part of a national effort by cities to take note of their heritage during the country's bicentennial. The idea was supported by a citizens group called Avalon Beautiful, which was looking for a symbol for Santa Catalina Island similar to the Mermaid of Copenhagen, the Danish tribute to Hans Christian Andersen's fairy-tale character.

Rosin said there was never any doubt about where to place the statue: "He's ideally located at a promontory where most seals would go. The statue is very natural-looking. People who lived on the bluff above the pier said they would hear real seals barking at it to come out and play."

Although Santa Barbara Island is the largest rookery for seals among the Channel Islands, the south side of Catalina has its own Seal Beach, where large families of seals congregate.

"The seal is typical of the island," said Becker, who runs a gift shop here.

Open to the Public

Sunday's dedication is open to the public, but there won't be any city participation.

"We didn't want to impose on a private observation," said City Manager John Longley, who added that he thinks Bronze Ben is "great."

Rosin said his father, Bernath, emigrated in 1882 from Hungary to New York, but didn't like the life style there. He headed west and ended up at Lake Elsinore in Cleveland National Forest, where he opened a grocery store.

Wealthy sportsmen who frequented Lake Elsinore would stop in the store and "chew the fat over pickles and crackers," Rosin said. During one of those sessions, Rosin's father learned of the great fishing and serene life on Santa Catalina.

That was enough for the elder Rosin. He packed his bags and moved to the island in 1886 and opened a cigar store, the first of many businesses he operated there, including the Hermosa and Catalina cottages.

The family moved off the island when his oldest child turned 13 because there was no high school on the island at the time. None of the Rosins ever returned here permanently, but Rosin and other members of his family visit every summer.

Rosin, who lives in Palm Springs and is Bernath's only surviving child, said the reunion will try to recapture the ambiance of 1886, with family members dressing up in turn-of-the-century swimwear and feasting on traditional Hungarian dishes of chicken paprikash and goulash.

Rosin said he expects 42 family members for the reunion. But so far, there is no word on whether a big old sea lion will be lumbering ashore to join them.

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