by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Journalist, poet and playwright John Steven McGroarty (1862-1944) was a widely-known figure in early 20th century Los Angeles, though he is all but forgotten now. Born near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, he was a justice of the peace, county treasurer, and lawyer there before he migrated to Montana and worked in the legal department for the power Anaconda Copper Mining Company as the 19th century ended and the new one began.
In 1901, McGroarty, who was on his way to a newspaper job in San Francisco after losing money in a failed Mexican mining venture, was in Los Angeles, when a poem he wrote in honor of a recently deceased munition mogul was published in the Los Angeles Times. The following day, the paper’s powerful publisher, Harrison Gray Otis, called McGroarty to meet with him and offered him a job on the spot.
While McGroarty was a Democrat and his boss a devoted Republican, the writer wrote for the paper for the rest of his life and long had a column in the paper’s Sunday magazine called “Seen from the Green Verdugo Hills” named after the hills near the area, Sunland and Tujunga, where he lived for many years.
From 1906 to 1914, he edited West Coast Magazine, a dozen issues of which are in the Homestead’s collection. His 1911 book, California: Its History and Romance went through ten editions in just a few over that many years and Los Angeles: From the Mountains to the Sea, published in the early Twenties and featuring the common “mug book” of biographies paid for those who were covered by them, including Walter P. Temple and others in his family, was also popular. He wrote many other works, including volumes of poetry and further histories.
In later life, McGroarty, named California’s poet laureate in 1933, turned to politics and served two terms in the last half of the decade in the House of Representatives. He even briefly was a Democratic Party challenger to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, though no one had a chance of unseating the popular president. He retired to the home he built in 1923 and which is now a City of Los Angeles historic-cultural monument and a cultural center and remained there until he died.
McGroarty, however, was best known, locally and beyond, for his Mission Play, which ran for twenty years between 1912 and 1932 at San Gabriel, including in the grand Mission Playhouse, completed in 1927. One of the directors of the corporation that raised the funds and oversaw the construction was Milton Kauffman, the business manager of Walter P. Temple and Temple, along with Henry E. Huntington, was the largest individual donor to the project, committing $15,000.
The Mission Play was a three-hour pageant, influenced by the German Oberamerrgau, a passion play performed in the Bavarian town of that name since the 1630s. Its depiction of the California mission system from its establishment at San Diego in 1769 through the American seizure of Mexican California and its very favorable and highly romanticized view of the Roman Catholic missionaries who “civilized” and converted the indigenous people proved to be immensely popular. That interpretation of the mission system, however, is a world removed from many of today’s views.
There were well over 3,000 performances before a purported 2.5 million people and many local people, including Latinos, were used in acting roles and as musicians and dancers. Among them were the Zorraquinos, Juan and Juanita, the latter a niece of Laura Gonzalez Temple, who gained fame for their “Spanish” dances. A child actor, whose mother was in the cast in the late teens and who appeared in a minor role, went on to be a legendary film actor: Tyrone Power.
McGroarty wrote other plays, including Jan in the early 1910s (the Homestead collection had some unused tickets to it), La Golondrina, from the mid-Twenties, and Babylon, which was a failed production in 1927. His last play was Osceola, a tribute to the legendary Seminole Indian chief, and which debuted at the Mission Playhouse on this day in 1929. Tonight’s featured object from the museum’s collection is a program for what was subtitled, “An American Drama.”
As he prepared to debut the work, the author wrote about his protagonist in the 24 February 1929 edition of his “Seen from the Green Verdugo Hills” column. Titling this section of the column, “The Indians Have Their Own Great Heroes,” McGroarty wrote of being with some native people and stated “we were wondering if these descendants of the original Americans had come to the point where they could rouse themselves to a sense of pride.” The implication was the commonly expressed concept of the “sleeping” native, often used to describe the Spanish-speaking Californios, and it seemed as if the writer was assigning himself the role of doing the rousing.
Yet, he followed by observing “without this sense, no one race can really defend itself against the onslaughts of another.” He then cited the example of American blacks, noting that, once they expressed “a sense of race pride” that they were able to “stand his [their] ground” and be “felt as a factor in our civilization.” Similarly, McGroarty continued, the college-educated Osceola reminded his people of their heroes (King Philip, Black Hawk, Massasoit, Chief Joseph), but for the author, Osceola “was perhaps the greatest Indian of all.”
In particular, McGroarty lionized the Seminole chief by noting that “a wonderful thing he did was to teach his people in the Everglades [where they retreated after leaving Georgia during white incursions] to protect the runaway slaves from the plantations of the slave States.” This led President Andrew Jackson, a slave owner, to seek the destruction of the Seminoles, though the struggle lasted for seven years because Osceola possessed “magnificent military genius.” until he was died after being captured by subterfuge and imprisoned.
The playwright ended his piece by reporting that “the most sought-after books by American boys are books about the American Indians” which obviously engendered “a tremendous appeal to the imagination of youth.” He ended by opining that “it would be hard to find an American boy who is not familiar with the great story of Osceola,” though one wonders why girls would not know of the Seminole chief, as well.
Within a couple of weeks local newspapers began reporting on the impending production of McGroarty’s play, with the Van Nuys News referring to Osceola as “the Napoleon of the Seminoles” and noted that there were some “150 performers including many distinguished Indian, white and negro actors, singers and musicians.”
The Los Angeles Express reported that the idea was in McGroarty’s thinking since he was a child and that his intent was “to express in a powerful scenic and word-picture the highly dramatic beginnings of America as history’s greatest nation.” The playwright told the paper that he had two reasons for writing Osceola. The first was that he was an childhood idol, “an historic figure who has remained in my imagination all through my life” as the greatest of all American Indians. Secondly, he hoped the work would be an inspiration “at least [for] an approach to the long-hoped-for American drama.”
There was an ambitious aim, to free dramatic theater from the link to England, which McGroarty asserted, “is a heritage of the Spanish drama.” To him, “the life of a great American Indian would be the most consistent vehicle for the hope of an American drama, especially in view of the fact that we have never had a great Indian play.”
The Monrovia News Post added that, because Florida was still a Spanish possession at the time that the Seminoles split from the Creek nation in Georgia and went to the Everglades, “Mr. McGroarty is enabled in a prologue to the play to introduce some very beautiful Spanish music, singing and dancing,” though not like those in La Golondrina or the Mission Play. Additionally, spirituals and other songs representative of black music and dance were included as part of the role of the Seminoles in harboring escaped slaves.
McGroarty also gave talks, being a popular and sought-after speaker, to community organizations to promote his play prior to its premiere and made a point, such as in an address in Whittier, to ask for “support [of] the Mission Playhouse and pointed out that it is a non-profit organization and designed to play an important part in the development of the entire valley.”
Within several days of the opening, the Express reported that “every seat is sold, with many turned away” for the premiere and the paper’s theater critic, Monroe Lathrop, called Osceola “a serious review in the life of the Indian chieftain from which it gets its title,” as opposed to McGroarty’s last play, Babylon, which Lathrop referred to as a “travesty.”
After the first night, Lathrop was full of praise for McGroarty, calling the play “one of the most spectacular of his brace of stage pieces, and as it unfolds it throbs with the poesy and idealism which characterizes all his output.” Lathrop also was impressed with the variety of music and dancing, with the prologue “brightened” by “typical Spanish music and dancing,” while the “Negro spirituals and jubilee songs . . . divide interest with the Indian chants” and “add the value of melody to the sparkle of high spirits and costumery.” The rendering of the death of Osceola was with “frank tragedy” expressed through “reserved but blistering candor.” The critic felt that whatever the play lacked in technical elements compared to previous efforts, it made up for in “that pulse of honest emotion.”
Elwood Irwin of the Monrovia News Post declared that the staging and scenery represented “something new” compared to his prior California-centric dramas. He added that “the remorseless tragedy of the theme is excellently contrasted by Indian and Negro festivals.” While praising Richard Sterling’s performance as the adult Osceola, Irwin felt that, while the playwright’s admiration for the chief was clear, “the warrior should be a more stirring and vivid force throughout the play.”
The Times’ theater critic, Edwin Schallert, who collaborated with McGroarty on some projects, and referred to the performance as a “distinctive event” at which the capacity crowd “generously applauded” the performers and creator “and a decided interest was manifest in the arrival of a new stage creation” from McGroarty. The playwright came out after the second of three acts to address the audience and referred to Osceola as “the precursor of the Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln, though nothing was said about why this was felt to be the case.
Schallert referred to the “colorful blending of song, dance and pageantry” while referring to the staging and costumes as “exceedingly effective.” A second act scene of blacks singing spirituals came in “a glowing Belasco-like sunrise” and “evoked an especially unforgettable impression. While the tragedy of Osceola’s capture under a ruse by American military forces was “a fascinating and epic note,” the critic felt that “the drama is, in a sense, secondary to the stage effects and the music.
Overall, however, Schallert was impressed and said the theme “gives the play a value possible surpassing anything that McGroarty has done, apart from the Mission Play,” though he added that La Golondrina was also a highlight. Sterling rendered “a very excellent performance,” the dancers, including Juanita Vigare, were “splendid,” and “the negro song by Alvia Fobbs pleases.”
Osceola was to given a limited run, though the play was shown in September 1930 at the McGroarty Forest Amphitheater in the park named for the author next to his house in Tujunga. It does not appear the play received any other performances at the time or since, but it did receive ample praise by local critics and, with its blending of native Indian, Spanish, and black history, music and dance, did offer something that was highly unusual in late 1920s Los Angeles, even if such fare might seem overly romanticized, mythologized and simplified by modern standards.