The Age of Aquarius was in the air of Santa Catalina Island this Fourth of July weekend as Pattie Boyd, the former wife of both George Harrison and Eric Clapton, returned for the first time in 40 years for an exhibition of her photographs, including one of a grinning Harrison backed by the cliffs of Avalon Harbor.
It was July 1971, long after flower power had gained a toehold, long after one of Britain's most sought-after mod dollies had wed the quiet Beatle, and still years before her marriage to Clapton. Catalina Island was on the verge of being eclipsed as a top tourist destination by Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm and the San Diego Zoo.
Now, with the Boyd exhibit and a Beatles tribute band weekend — and a Marilyn Monroe exhibit later this summer — island leaders are hoping to captivate visitors eager to hark back to the patchouli-scented '60s and early '70s, to bask in sun and surf just an hour from the California coast.
In a 3,200-resident harbor community hit hard by the economic downturn, Boyd's visit was also intended to broaden the 58-year-old Catalina Island Museum's appeal and revitalize the local economy by offering visitors something new on the busiest weekend of the year.
"Yesterday and Today: The Beatles and Eric Clapton as Photographed by Pattie Boyd," which runs through July, offers glimpses into the intimate lives of rock 'n' roll superstars. It is the museum's first exhibit that does not focus on the island's heritage.
Boyd's promotional appearances included a fundraiser dinner at the museum and a book signing for her bestselling "Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Me."
"Avalon is trying to create a new heyday," said Steve Schreiner, great-grandson of William Wrigley Jr., who bought Santa Catalina Island Co. in 1919. "Step 1 in that process was upgrading local restaurants and adding attractions such as a new zipline from the highlands to the beach. Now we're working on Step 2, a cultural and social component at the museum."
For years, even local boosters derided the 2,700-square-foot museum as dull and predictable, with a penchant for dwelling on the Avalon of seven decades ago, when it was a storied getaway for movie stars and the early power brokers of Los Angeles.
"The museum was like a tomb," said Angela Teckenoff, a spokeswoman for the upcoming Santa Catalina Air Show and Festival 2012.
That changed with the appointment last year of a new executive director, Michael De Marsche, who had been the founding director of three museums, including the Cafesjian Center for the Arts in Yerevan, Armenia.
Since his arrival, the museum, which is on the ground floor of the island's landmark "casino" building, has added gallery space, installed a digital theater and expanded its gift shop. The museum's first exhibit under his watch featured photographs and memorabilia chronicling three decades of spring training by the Wrigley family's major league team, the Chicago Cubs.
De Marsche is now in charge of developing a 20,000-square-foot museum on a downtown parcel valued at $2 million.
Boyd recently discovered the photographs of Harrison deep-sea fishing off Catalina. They were taken a few weeks before his Concert for Bangladesh in New York's Madison Square Garden, which became a highlight of his post-Beatles career and the template for all-star rock concerts for charity.
On Saturday, after a boat tour around the island, Boyd gazed at those photos with her cornflower blue eyes. She broke into the slightly gap-toothed smile that made her stand out among the other models of her era and reflected on the image. "George looks more than relaxed; he looks happy."
She sighed and added: "We were all so young and beautiful."