John Wayne, better known as “The Duke,” was larger than life, symbolizing American values and ideals. His acting career spanned an impressive 50 years. Wayne was incredibly versatile, but is most famous for his leading roles in western films. Off screen, he frequently sailed his yacht to Catalina Island and befriended many local residents. While on the island, he was known to carouse with the likes of director John Ford, actors Ward Bond, Errol Flynn and Johnny Weissmuller, just to name a few.
“The Duke” is one of the many celebrities chronicled in the Catalina Island Museum’s current exhibition “Escape to Catalina: Hollywood’s Biggest Stars on Catalina Island.”
Although he was born in Iowa, he spent most of his childhood in the greater Los Angeles area. In 1916 his family moved to Glendale where his father worked as a pharmacist. This is where he earned his famous nickname. The family dog was a very large Airedale Terrier named Duke. Wayne never went anywhere without him. On his way to and from school, he passed by a fire station with his trusty dog by his side. The firemen took notice and it didn’t take long before they started calling him “Little Duke.” The name stuck with Wayne for the rest of his life.
After high school he attended the University of Southern California. He majored in pre-law, played on the football team under coach Howard Jones, and belonged to the Trojan Knights and Sigma Chi fraternities. However, a broken collarbone injury, suffered while bodysurfing, derailed a promising athletic career. He lost his athletic scholarship and was forced to leave the university.
In need of a job, USC coach Jones called in some favors for Wayne. As a result, director John Ford and actor Tom Mix hired him as a prop boy and an extra. It was during this time that Wayne established a longtime friendship with Ford. This relationship had an immense impact on what would become a legendary career.
Mix, Hollywood’s first Western megastar, owned a home in Avalon and Ford was known to sail to the island with an entourage of famous friends. It is quite likely that they were the ones who introduced Wayne to Catalina Island. In the years that followed, the island was the preferred getaway for “The Duke” and his family. They could be spotted at the Harbor Reef restaurant in Two Harbors, or walking down Crescent Avenue in Avalon.
Learn more about Wayne’s time on the island by visiting the museum’s Escape to Catalina exhibition. Photographs and colorful stories of the biggest stars of the 1930s and 40s on Catalina Island, along with a home video aboard Charlie Chaplin’s yacht are included in the exhibition.
The Catalina Island Museum is Avalon’s sole institution devoted to art, history, music and film. The museum, its digital theater and store are currently located on the ground floor of Avalon’s historic Casino and are open seven 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.
Photo credit: Catalina Island Museum