The Duke of Catalina Featured in New Museum Exhibition
Catalina Island Museum
For 42 years, Duke Fishman worked every summer as a lifeguard on Avalon’s beaches, and was well-known for strolling barefoot along the town’s Front Street, wearing little more than a skin-tight swimsuit and a Captain’s cap cocked jauntily on his head. He eventually became known as the “Duke of Catalina,” and he is just one of the many characters featured in the Catalina Island Museum’s current exhibition: Avalon: 100 Years of Bizarre, Fascinating and Colorful History.
Fishman was born in the Philippines to American parents, who moved to Hong Kong when he was just an infant. By the age of 5, Fishman’s parents had died, and he was forced to live in a Chinese orphanage. By the time he turned 18, he was living in the South Seas, earning a living as a lifeguard.
Fishman soon moved to America, arriving on Catalina Island in 1933. After a short stint at Avalon’s golf course, he found work as a lifeguard. He became a favorite of children, teaching them how to swim in the warm waters of Avalon’s harbor. He was marvelously effective at his job. He was credited with saving over 1,000 lives, and The Islander boasted in 1939: “No drownings have occurred in Avalon during Duke’s time, although he had many rescues.”
His outgoing and gregarious personality undoubtedly earned him a reputation, and he was acutely aware that as a lifeguard he was constantly in the public eye. He shrewdly made himself Avalon’s “Goodwill Ambassador.” The City of Avalon recognized his value and made him the town’s “Official Greeter.” He embraced the job. He ensconced himself near Avalon’s piers, showing off his bronzed, athletic body, and kicking off every visitor’s trip to Avalon with the affable and warm greeting of: “Hi, Naybor!” The impression he made was indelible, and he was soon not only Avalon’s most recognizable personality but its most rabid cheerleader. He often accommodated the scores of tourists milling about the town by taking their photograph and even led evening sing-alongs. He was known to serenade visitors frequently with his rendition of the island’s most famous song, “I Found My Love in Avalon.”
Of course, Fishman’s distinctive appearance was hard to miss. In 1949, he shaved his head and eventually wore a gold hoop earring in his left ear—both quite unusual for the day. He was rumored to have been the inspiration for the popular Mr. Clean character.
Taking full advantage of Avalon’s proximity to Hollywood and the stars that often visited, he worked as an extra in nearly 80 films and television shows. He appeared in Some Like It Hot starring Marilyn Monroe, Rosemary’s Baby featuring Mia Farrow and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with John Wayne. Local children and adults alike delighted in going to the theater and seeing Duke on the big screen, no matter how brief the appearance. He was popular with the celebrities that visited Avalon as well, befriending the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard, John Wayne, Mickey Rooney, Howard Hughes, Jack Lalanne and even President Gerald Ford. Many of them often whispered that Duke was as much a part of Avalon as the Casino.
In 1975, Fishman had open heart surgery. He had relinquished his lifeguarding duties but continued to relish his role as the town’s greeter. He stayed off the job for only six weeks, and loved to surprise people by proudly proclaiming his age. But he was now slowing significantly, and could be heard uncharacteristically complaining of feeling tired. Duke left Avalon every fall for his desert home, a small trailer in Palm Springs. In 1977, he left Avalon excited, telling friends proudly that the city had renewed his contract. Sadly, for the first time in over 40 years, Duke was destined not to return to the island, dying of a sudden heart attack in Palm Springs at the age of 71. In April of 1978, the ashes of the “Duke of Catalina” were brought back to Catalina Island and interred in Avalon’s cemetery.
Since his death, the position of “Official Greeter” has remained vacant.
Avalon: 100 Years of Bizarre, Fascinating and Colorful History showcases the events, individuals and stories that have shaped Catalina Island’s only city. The exhibition is on display through March 31, 2014.
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.