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Holograms could soon help boost Catalina Island’s revival

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The Catalina Island Co. is working with Obscura, a San Francisco virtual reality firm, on plans to use hologram technology to turn the Avalon Casino into an “immersive attraction,” including virtual musical performances in the 20,000 square-foot ballroom.
(Christina House / For The Times)

Chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. opened the Avalon Casino in 1929 as a public showcase devoted to the first-ever movie theater for “talkies” and a ballroom with gleaming maple floors, jazz bands and panoramic views of the Pacific.

Now, Santa Catalina Island’s iconic landmark is poised to adapt to millennials.

The Catalina Island Co., which owns most of the land in this harbor resort, plans to turn the casino into an “immersive attraction” with holographic projection systems, robotic cameras and high-definition display technology.

The plan, being worked on in conjunction with the San Francisco firm Obscura, which specializes in experimental media such as virtual reality, is to bring Catalina’s landscapes and heritage to life with simulated underwater, aerial and historic tours, and life-size virtual performances in the 20,000-square-foot ballroom by musical acts including swing bands and rappers.

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Obscura engineers say they may devise opportunities to share martinis at the ballroom bar with illusionary images of Hollywood stars such as Marilyn Monroe, who resided in Avalon during World War II.

“William Wrigley Jr. would have been delighted to know that his elegant casino is a perfect fit for hologram projectors and mega-pixel technology,” said Randy Herrel, president and chief executive of the Catalina Island Co. “Our goal is that it remains innovative and relevant for new generations of visitors.”

The plan will not require alterations to the Art Deco structure’s interior, Herrel said.

The attraction is an attempt to burnish Catalina’s revival as an escapist destination, one in the midst of a building boom and enjoying cross-channel visits and sales tax revenue approaching record highs.

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It also would signal a bid for distinction within a target market — the coastal communities stretching from Santa Barbara to San Diego — dominated by powerhouse theme parks like Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood.

“The Island Co. would like to have it all done as quickly as possible,” said Travis Threlkel, Obscura’s founder and chief creative officer. “We hope to have the theater completed by early next year, with additional projects installed in phases.”

With the casino declining as an attraction over the years, Avalon residents say they welcome the change.

“As it stands, the casino is unable to fill its theater and ballroom with enough people to make it pay,” said lifelong resident Roy Rose, 79. “I see no negatives in this idea.”

As the island booms, Avalon is also moving to address some of the most pressing issues facing the two-square-mile community: inadequate housing for workers and a water supply so limited that saltwater is used to flush toilets and fight fires.

A well is being drilled into bedrock hundreds of feet beneath the Avalon golf course to try to reach potable water.

“We don’t believe we’ll have to go deeper than 500 feet” to reach the water, hydrogeologist Laura Roll shouted over the roar of diesel generators and screeching machinery at the drilling site last week. “We’ll get there within a week or two.”

Residents have high hopes that the $2-million project, scheduled for completion early next year, can produce enough drinking water to end rationing and allow development of several projects that had been mothballed by the drought.

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Those projects include a 100-room hotel conference center, 120 villas in the surrounding hills priced at least $1 million, 100 employee housing units and a Catalina club featuring three freshwater swimming pools, one of them large enough for 320 people.

Avalon currently operates under Stage 2 rationing guidelines, which call for the island’s 2,200 ratepayers to reduce water consumption by 25% and ban washing of streets, parking lots and driveways.

The city of Avalon and Southern California Edison, the island’s water utility, recently partnered to buy an additional desalination unit to avert 50% rationing.

The Island Co. is preparing to launch improvement projects that, as Herrel put it, “don’t require water to grow.” In addition to the casino enhancements, plans include hotel renovations, new campground facilities, an “eco-coaster” rail tour through canyon lands and an “aerial adventure park” of forest ropes, cargo nets and zip lines.

In a sign of changing times and perhaps of changing tastes, the Island Co. is trying to decide whether to scuttle Avalon’s 28-acre, nine-hole golf course. “The numbers of rounds played are flat or down,” Herrel said.

Gambling, at least for now, is out of the question.

“A group of Native Americans recently dropped by to propose a gaming operation,” Herrel said. “That plan is going nowhere.”

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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