Treading The Boards and Take It on Faith: The Pilgrimage Play, Hollywood, July 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

For over forty years, the Pilgrimage Play, the creation of Christine Wetherill Stevenson, presented the story of Christ to large crowds at the Pilgrimage Theatre and then the John Anson Ford Theatre, in a canyon off Cahuenga Pass near the Hollywood Bowl.  First presented in summer 1920, just after the First World War, the local analog to the famed German Oberammergau, which covered the last days of Jesus, was definitely a product of the times, as will be shown below.

Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a press photograph of two actresses, Gertrude Oakland and Gretchen Brown, who played “women of Jerusalem” in the play in the tenth season of summer 1929.  A typed caption noted that “the play is perpetuated by a foundation established in the will of its author, Christine Wetherill Stevenson of Philadelphia.”

Los Angeles Times, 31 May 1920.

Stevenson, born in 1878, was an heiress of the Pittsburgh Paint Company and harbored dreams of having plays performed in an outdoor theater.  She realized her ambition after coming to Los Angeles, where she became a student of Theosophy at the Krotona Institute, she produced performances of The Light of Asia, a play about the Buddha, in a canyon in East Hollywood.

Sparked the success of the venture, Stevenson sought a permanent open-air theater and helped establish the Theater Arts Alliance, of which she was elected president.  A site, known as Daisy Dell, was chosen on the west side of Cahuenga Pass early in 1919 and an option was secured on 60 acres.  A rupture among Alliance members, however, concerning its direction led Stevenson to leave the organization.  The Daisy Dell site became the location of the world-renowned Hollywood Bowl, but Stevenson pressed on with her own idea.

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Times, 29 June 1920.

She found a new site nearby in what was called El Camino Real Canyon, a little ways up and across Cahuenga Pass and Stevenson quickly had a 1,000-seat theater erected for her pet project, The Pilgrimage Play.  A Los Angeles Times article from 31 May 1920 noted the “scene of mystifying activity” as crews raced to finish the wood structure and other elements in what was deemed a “natural amphitheater.”

A “dumbfounded reporter” marveled during the rehearsal of the play, which was intended “to be made an annual event to which people from all [over] America will make pilgrimages.”  It was not to make money or seek publicity, but to overshadow the Oberammergau in popularity and impact.

Times, 29 June 1920.

A “National Pilgrimage Play Committee” was led by an Episcopal bishop in Pennsylvania and included well-known stage actor George Arliss; the former editor of the Ladies Home Journal; more religious leaders; the wife of actor Otis Skinner; and, of course, Stevenson.  After the opening performance in late June, Times theater critic Edwin Schallert (whose son, William, was a character actor known, among other roles, as the Admiral in the 1960s spy spoof Get Smart) raved about the play.

Schallert marveled at the “pageantry of light and color as magnificent as the purple glow of early summer flowers against the changing California skies,” while he stated that “the scriptural history of the savior and His teaching and miracles . . . [was] spoken by actors who lost their individuality as twentieth century people . . . and who fell under the spell of the inspired word just as the audience in turn gave itself to the emotion of the supreme tragedy.”

Times, 21 July 1929.

The initial performances, given in July 1920, proved to be so successful that the run was extended for the year and went on to be an established tradition.  The Times claimed “that the Hollywood canyon will become known throughout the world as a permanent artistic and religious shrine.”  Stevenson, however, did not live to see the play become enshrined as a mainstay, having died at just age 44 in 1922.   A large cross was placed on the hill above the theater in her memory.

For the “tenth jubilee season,” English actor Ian Maclaren (1875-1952) was cast for his fourth year as Christ.  Maclaren was known for both stage and film work, including his major role in the 1930 World War I film Journey’s End (a stage reading of which was given at the Homestead last year during our commemoration of the war’s centennial).

Times, 22 July 1929.

Mary Worth played Mary and, among the supporting cast and appearing as Judas Iscariot was an unknown 22-year old thespian, Gale Gordon, who went on to television fame as Mr. Wilson, the perpetually agitated neighbor of Dennis the Menace, and as the equally perturbed employer in The Lucy Show, opposite Lucille Ball.

In all, there were 125 cast members, including over 80 who had speaking parts.  Two weeks were given over to rehearsals in an unusual sectional format, because of the size of the cast and the limited time to practice, led by Phil Whiting, who worked as an assistant director for eight years and took the helm after the death of Garnet Holmes.

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Times, 22 July 1929.  Note the worldly fare advertised in other theaters with the ad for the play, despite the moralistic preaching of the paper’s editorial from a week later below.

It was also noted that, while Stevenson sought great authenticity in costuming by acquiring clothing from the Holy Land, by 1929, “the originals are used as models and will be placed in a special museum in the near future.”  Tonight’s highlighted photo, however, stated that Oakland and Brown “are garbed in a[u]thentic costumes which were brought from Palestine by Miss Stevenson.”

A description of the play from the Times of 21 July noted that “nonsectarian interpretation, as expounded by the four gospels, features the presentation, and for this reason the story is universal in its interest.”  Moreover, “it is written in twelve episodes with a prologue of prophecy and an epilogue of promise,” being “the spiritual beauty of Christ’s life on earth, rather than the tragedy, that is emphasized throughout.”  The six-level stage allowed for striking tableaux, such as the angel Gabriel’s foretelling of the coming of Christ, the performance of miracles, and the Last Supper.

Times, 28 July 1929.

Particularly striking in establishing the context of the presentation of The Pilgrimage Play is a remarkable editorial from the Times of 28 July.  Referring to “salacious and humanistic plays” from New York that only “suffer the inevitable depression that follows an orgy of exploiting for gain the sordid and seamy side of life,” the paper intoned that The Pilgrimage Play began its tenth season by “breathing the spirit of the Redeemer of mankind” in its setting “among the eternal hills of Hollywood.”

The setting was declared “a sanctuary in the very heart of the capital of filmdom,” with movies not given the moralistic thumping of those depraved theatrical performances of “The Great White Way.”  The editorial, however, did offer that the play was a rebuttal to “the aspersions of the foreigner brought against modern Americans—that they are given over to jazz, sensationalism, sex stuff and the records of crime.”

Times, 29 July 1929.

The response, cried the paper, was “that answer can be found in the reverential attitude of the audiences that with unflagging interest” came in droves to see the performances year after year.  The piece also mentioned the record-shattering length of performances of John Steven McGroarty’s “historical drama,” The Mission Play, held at San Gabriel since 1912 and which was enthusiastically supported by Walter P. Temple, the largest single contributor with Henry E. Huntington of the Mission Playhouse.

The Times claimed that these two religious works demonstrated that:

It is in such ways that California and the West fling out the banner of pure and clean and wholesome Americanism and challenge the scoffers and traducers of America’s theatrical taste to match it with the stinkpot and cesspool plays of sophisticated Europe . . . [New York plays were] degrading our native drama with the prurient offerings of petty craftsman who chief equipment  was indecency and foul language, [but] the stock companies and theatrical producers of Los Angeles and up and down the Pacific Coast were staging only such comedies and dramas as appeal to the instinctive decency of the average well-bred American family.

Indeed, the editorial went on, “conservative performances are the best payers in the long run” and “New York theaters are struggling against the nausea left behind by an epidemic of unwholesome radicalism.”  The “withered exotics” of the Big Apple’s theatrical scene was being confronted by a Los Angeles scene in which “the average American tastes predominates.”

This press photo from the museum’s holdings and date stamped 30 July 1929 shows actresses Gertrude Oakland and Gretchen Brown as “women of Jerusalem” for the play.

The Pilgrimage Play, along with its kindred Mission Play, “tells the story of true American sentiment by striking a still higher and holier response from the aspirations of a people that is still essentially Christian.”  The editorial concluded with the claim that

The things most acclaimed in the building of a city are seldom the things most deserving acclamation.  Los Angeles and Hollywood, among the criticised of cities, have given the world the Eastern sunrise service, the living Christmas tree, the symphony under the stars, the Mission Play, a noble portrayal of the life of Christ—and in these possibly have revealed the secret of their growth and greatness.

Even though Hollywood could just as well been the subject of the tongue-lashing delivered upon the New York stage, the economic might of the movie industry probably contributed to the muted tone here.  In any case, the prominent conservatism of the Times reaches a particularly notable climax in this piece.

The play went on to mount performances season upon season until 1961, and inspired a 1949 feature film, but, despite the Times’ unabashed enthusiasm of supporting an overtly religious play to counteract the decadence of the Roaring Twenties, times changed slowly.

Times, 25 October 1929.  This was one day after the stock market crash in New York ushered in the Great Depression.

After an October 1929 brush fire, one of many during the hot Santa Ana Winds season and a day after the Great Depression was launched by the crash of the stock market in New York, destroyed the Pilgrimage Theatre, a new one, made of poured concrete to combat fire, was built on the spot in 1931.  When the venue became a Los Angeles County one in 1941, it was determined, over twenty years later, by the California Attorney General that public funds could not be used to support a performance that specifically catered to a religion.  So, in 1964, the Pilgrimage Play ended its long run, but the complex, renamed after powerful county supervisor John Anson Ford and now known as The Ford Theatres, continues to present live performances of music, dance and theater today.

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