Today’s Family Picnic Day at the Homestead

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The weather this afternoon was about as good as it gets, with mild temperatures, plenty of sunshine and a light breeze and it was perfect for the first Sunday picnic event of the year at the Homestead.

My colleagues in the museum’s public programs area put a lot of effort and exercised a good deal of creativity in coming up with varied offerings for our visitors.  The west lawn adjacent to La Casa Nueva is a beautiful setting with Jim Cooprider, a local resident posessing a very impressive collection of phonograph records, spinning classic 1920s tunes; an area of games and activities; and a spot with maps where people could indicate from where came their family roots.

This poster design for today’s Family Picnic Day by my colleague Jennifer Scerra incorporates a great use of color and blending of the Temple family with visitors to our programs.

Over at the Workman House, a trio of actors including my colleague Gennie Truelock’s husband, Mike (who also portrays a certain well-known Christmas season character for us) put on a short play set in the 1920s called Proposin’.  The play is an adaptation of Anton Chekov’s famous The Marriage Proposal, but set in Oklahoma and involving three characters.

P. J. Hastings is a nervous, anxious young man who wants to propose to Jessie Hightower and goes first through Jessie’s formidable mother (played by Mike!), Mabel.  Before Hastings gets to the matter at hand, misunderstandings comedically abound about property disputes, crazed relations, and the value of Hastings’ dog.  It takes a while for the antics to get resolved to the happy ending that is the engagement of P. J. and Jessie

The south porch of the Workman House was a great setting for the performance of Proposin’, a play set in the 1920s and featuring Mike Truelock, seen at the top of the porch stairs, husband of my colleague Gennie Truelock, and a pair of other actors.

There were two thirty-minute performances with the first given before an audience of about fifty persons and the cast did a fantastic job with the comedy, which includes some audience interaction.

Family was a major theme of Proposin’ and it was also for a new type of house tour that we’ve now offered a couple of times at La Casa Nueva.  This visit to the Temple family home, built between 1922 and 1927, looked at the various ways the residence can be interpreted: as a monument to California history, as a memorial to Laura Gonzalez Temple who died shortly after construction started on the building, and as a family home generally.

A scene from Proposin’ with two of the trio of actors.

Focusing on specific elements of the house that concern the Temple family, their romantic perception of California history, and the remarkable architecture and uses of rooms, the tour involves some interaction through questions and group discussion that enables a different approach to how to explore history at the Homestead.

The tour I shadowed was led by Gennie Truelock and she did a great job utilizing story-telling techniques, asking questions and eliciting responses, and moderating the group discussion at the end.  This last stop involves a visitor reading a 1923 letter from Thomas W. Temple II, the eldest of the four surviving children in the family, to his father Walter, not long after Laura’s death.

Gennie Truelock leads a group of visitors on an exploratory tour of the Temple family’s motivations for building their remarkable Spanish Colonial Revival home, La Casa Nueva.

The missive pleads with Walter to hire an architect to take what the family started and put those ideas into a finished form that would be a credit to the Temples.  Whether this letter directly led to the hiring of Roy Seldon Price, whose design for the Spanish Colonial Revival home of film studio head Thomas Ince, or not, Price’s work on the building between 1924 and 1927 transformed it in many ways.

The tour takes in some notable features of the home.  Outdoors, there are a few important ones.  The first is the Mission Walkway, which surrounds the structure and has the names and founding dates of the California missions on its walk.  Another is the plaque dedicating the home to Laura in late December 1923 on the first anniversary of her passing.  Finally, there is the remarkable front entrance with his carved plaster door surround featuring grapes, wheat, oranges and the Spanish royal coat-of-arms.

Gennie pointing out the reproduction oil painting of William Workman, adding that the original can be seen in a 1930s B-movie western called Song of the Gringo, starrting singing cowboy Tex Ritter (father of television star John Ritter.)

In the ornate Main Hall, the massive triptych stained glass window showing a mission and ships bringing supplies; the painting of William Workman hanging on a wall with lamps held by chains from the beaks of the eagles found on the Mexican flag; and examples of fine plaster and wood carving and Mexican hand made and painted tiles are highlighted.

The Living Room contains some remarkable stained glass windows of Thomas Temple and his sister Agnes, dressed in Mexican costume and taken from photographs of the two dressed up for the fiesta held each September at Mission San Gabriel.  This evocation of the family’s Latino heritage is directly contrasted with an original 1928 pamphlet for Temple City, founded their father, but which baldly stated that the town was restricted to whites only, albeit “of a desirable class.”

The scene on the west lawn of La Casa Nueva as visitors enjoyed their picnic lunches, played games, did crafts, heard 1920s phonograph records and more.

In the Library and Music Room, other elements discussed are windows in the former showing authors admired by the Temples, including Miguel Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, scenes of which are also depicted, while French doors in the latter contain portraits of famed classical music composers from northern and central Europe from Bach to Beethoven to Wagner.  It is in the Music Room that the group sat in a circle and discussed the question of how the house could be a monument, a memorial, and a family home and where Thomas’ letter was read.

It was great to see a nice sized crowd at today’s Family Picnic Day, especially because, given that it is the Memorial Day weekend, we were not sure what the attendance would wind up being.  More importantly, we offered visitors many ways to interact with the site, whether more passively through their picnics, the activities offered on the West Lawn, and through the performance of Proposin’ or with more depth and interactivity as with the exploratory tour of the Temple family’s motivations in building La Casa Nueva.

This great idea developed by my public programs colleagues asked guests to put pins on maps of the world and the United States indicating from where their families originated.

Much appreciation goes to my colleagues in the Homestead’s public programs section for their thoughtful and creative planning and execution of the event, our dedicated volunteers who helped in many ways and to our guests for supporting what we do.

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