As a more or less typical Midwestern teenager in the 1950’s, I was often fascinated by what I saw of sunny California in movies or even on TV (although it wasn’t as colorful). It was a place that seemed almost magical, with a vibrant energy that was very appealing, and it was filled with exotically-named places — or at least they sounded exotic to me.
I also noticed the music. Although this was before the Beach Boys exploded onto the scene, there was plenty of good stuff coming out of California, and one song that really hit me between the eyes just happened to be about one of those exotic-sounding locales. It was “Twenty-Six Miles (Santa Catalina),” by the Four Preps. (Ironically, their music also inspired Brian Wilson, helping him later create the signature Beach Boys sound).
Santa Catalina, usually just called Catalina Island, is located off the coast of Southern California and has a long and varied history that even includes service as a Spring training location for the Chicago Cubs. (The Wrigley family owned the Cubs – and the island – for several decades, so it made sense.)
Although the island’s rich history includes a lot of colorful occasions, some of the most significant revolve around the Casino. The Avalon Casino was built in 1929, a huge Art Deco structure that was at that time the tallest building in the Los Angeles area. It was also known for many years as the location of the world’s largest ballroom, with space for 6000 dancers, and during the big band era it was often filled.
It would have been a familiar landmark for teenagers growing up in the area, and that included four guys from Hollywood High who’d formed a singing group. Glen Larson, Bruce Belland, Marv Ingraham, and Ed Cobb were four clean-cut guys who appropriately enough called themselves the Four Preps. Performing in a school talent show in the mid 1950’s, they were discovered by a talent scout for Capitol Records and signed to a recording contract.
Portrayed as a wholesome alternative to edgy early rockers, the group had modest success at first but began to gain notice. In addition to recording they made a few TV appearances along the way — including one on Ozzie & Harriet with a young Ricky Nelson, also making a move into pop music.
They didn’t hit it big until they recorded Belland and Larson’s tribute to Catalina, but it proved to be the key to fame and fortune — at least for a while. At one point David Somerville replaced Larson but over the next few years the group had several good sellers, including “Big Man,” and “Lazy Summer Night.”
Eventually the listening public moved on and the guys went their separate ways, but as individuals they ended up making pretty big impacts in a number of ways. Larson forged a career as one of the biggest TV producers around, and Belland became a much-admired songwriter whose compositions have been performed by everyone from Willie Nelson to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He’s also been a TV writer and producer.
Cobb became an award-winning record producer and Ingraham a busy actor, as did Somerville — in fact, all the members of the group have been known to catch the acting bug occasionally. You also might find them showing up once in a while as one of the groups on the oldies circuit, doing the good old songs.