by Paul R. Spitzzeri
While it has been mentioned in this blog on several occasions, this is the first post to feature an artifact connected with The Mission Play, the passion play by poet, journalist, historian and playwright John Steven McGroarty performed over 3,000 times before some 2.5 million people in San Gabriel from 1912 to 1932 and which counted Walter P. Temple among its most public supporters. Temple was, through his $15,000 gift, purportedly the largest individual donor, along with Henry E. Huntington, to the playhouse finished in 1927 for production of what was compared to the famed Oberammergau passion play in Germany. His business manager, Milton Kauffman was on the board of directors for the Mission Playhouse Corporation, which built the lavish theater.
Today’s highlighted object is the pamphlet promoting the ninth season, conducted from 17 January through 30 May. The brochure features a dramatic front and rear panel with an image of Father Junipero Serra with his right hand outstretched in a blessing, while the distinctive bell tower of the Mission San Gabriel and a friar in white and a figure in silhouette, likely a benighted Indian, stand in front of the tower. It was also noted that performanceswere every afternoon, save Mondays at 2:15, while evening performances on Wednesdays and Saturdays were at 8:15, while ticket prices were $1.00, $1.50, and $2.00.
Given top billing were Frederick Warde, playing Serra, and Mrs. Tyrone Power as Señora Yorba, the main female character. Warde (1851-1935) took on the lead role the prior year and it was widely reported that his assumption of that character greatly elevated the quality of the production. A native of England and trained as a Shakesperian actor, Warde came to the United States in 1874 and performed at the theater owned by famed American thespian Edwin Booth, whose brother, John Wilkes, was the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. While Warde was well regarded, is generally accounted for discovering a teenage Douglas Fairbanks and hiring him for his theatrical troupe, and worked consistently over the following quarter-centuury, his career waned by 1910, though he did try his hand at motion pictures and worked in film while playing Serra for several seasons of The Mission Play.
Mrs. Tyrone Power (1882-1959) was born Helen Emma Reaume in Indiana and was an “elocutionist,” perhaps meaning an actor, when enumerated in the 1900 census in Covington, Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. A decade later, she was described in the census as a “private school teacher,” apparently in the dramatic arts, but likely performed in Cincinnati. She met the renowned tragedian [Frederick] Tyrone Power (1869-1931), whose grandfather, Tyrone, was a famed Irish-born actor, whose father Harold was an actor and wine merchant and whose mother Ethel was an actress, and the couple married in 1912.
Shortly after the birth in 1914 of their first son, Tyrone Edmund Power, who became one of the most popular film stars of the 1930s and onward until his death in 1958, the family came west and settled in Los Angeles, where Tyrone, Sr., who still did stage work, moved into a film career that was more successful than that of Warde and the couple had a daughter, Anne. Meanwhile, Mrs. Power, who went by Patia, acted occasionally, usually with her husband’s company, but, by the time she was cast to play Señora Yorba in The Mission Play, it appears the marriage was foundering. When the 1920 census was taken, she, Tyrone, Jr. and Anne were enumerated on 9 January, just a little over a week from opening night, in a rented house in Alhambra, just a few blocks southeast from where Walter P. Temple and his family lived, and, of course, in close proximity to San Gabriel. After the season ended, however, and with her divorce finalized, she took her children back to Cincinnati, though Tyrone Jr., just after graduating from high school there, as an actor briefly reunited with his father before going on to great fame in filmdom.
Another panel of the pamphlet explains “What the Mission Play Is,” namely
a pageant drama presenting by means of both pageantry and stirring drama the sublime story of the founding of the white man’s Christianity and civilization on the western shore of America . . . it is joyous with color, the song and laughter, the dances of old Spain and the romance of the golden days of California.
As for the content, “the first act depicts the heroic struggles and sacrifices of the Spanish pioneers to gain a foothold in California when they founded that mighty chain of Franciscan Missions between San Diego and Sonoma.” The second act “depicts the Missions in their glory when California was the happiest land in all the world, when the Indians had risen to the stature of white men and when peace and gladness held the heart of California in a warm embrace. Alas, the conclusion of the play “tells the sad but exquisitely beautiful story of the Missions in ruin” thanks to the secularization of those institutions (which were, theoretically, only supposed to exist for a decade by which time those heathen aborigines were to be fully converted to Catholicism, civilized and transformed into farmers and good Spanish and Mexican citizens!) by the Mexican government in the first half of the 1830s.
From the 1884 publication of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona, which was intended to highlight injustices to the native people of California but instead gained its fame for the love story of the title character and her lover Alessandro, and the opening the following year of a transcontinental rail line directly to Los Angeles that ushered in both the Boom of the Eighties and a flowering tourist trade, a highly romanticized perspective of pre-American California, sometimes called the Spanish Fantasy Heritage, took root in the region.
The Mission Play was one of the more successful manifestations of that imagery and the assertions of the “glory” of the Missions; that “the Indians had risen to the stature of white men” when the vast majority perished of disease, alcohol and violence and their society was riven apart by the demands of “white men;” and that the period before 1830 was “when California was the happiest land in all the world” and “when peace and gladness held the heart of California in a warm embrace”, are just laughable by any modern historical standard. Yet, a few million attendees of the play over two decades were led to believe what McGroarty claimed, even as the pamphlet observed that of the hundred performers “are many native Indians and the descendants of the Spanish pioneers,” as if this bolstered the playwright’s perspectives.
A double panel in the center, in fact, showed photos of “Spanish dancers” among whom were Juan Zorroaquinos and his wife Juanita Vigare, a niece of Laura Gonzalez Temple, and of “Indians”, with nine men and boys shown in warlike poses, juxtaposed to the dancers, most of whom are smiling. For all of the emphasis on the “heroic struggles and sacrifices of the Spanish pioneers,” the role of the indigenous people was clearly subordinate and one-dimensional as the receiving vessels of the white man’s god and “civilization.”
The final panel accounts the production as “the world’s greatest and most successful pageant-drama” which “holds [the] world’s record for dramatic performances.” After showtimes, ticket prices and travel information via the Pacific Electric Railway, attendees were advised that “persons wishing to visit the old Mission at San Gabriel and to hear Spanish concert[s] and witness Indian lace makers, basket makers and pottery makers wt work before witnessing [the] play” shoujld take a car that got them to town more than half-hour before the play began. There were also “light lunches served [at] moderate prices, close to playhouse.”
There were also approving quotes from four luminaries, including Cyrus Curtis, the publisher of the very popular national magazines, the Ladies Home Journal and Saturday Evening Post; the late author and humorist Robert J. Burdette; Henry Van Dyke, English literature professor at Princeton and Presbyterian minister, poet, writer and ambassador to the Netherlands and Luxembourg under President Woodrow Wilson; and Vice-President Thomas Marshall.
The latter wrote that “I count the day I spent at The Mission Play as one of the happiest days of my life, while Curtis added “I lived in the joy and gladness of The Golden Age” when he went to see the pageant, stated as the greatest of all such dramas by Van Dyke. Burdette noted that “it was good for soul to see and hear” the play which was “a gladness for the eye and a joy to the heart.”
Another highly impressed attendee that year was the 30-year old daughter of famed British writer and creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle. Mary Louise Conan Doyle, as quoted in the Pasadena Post of 29 January, exclaimed
It is wonderful the spirit of the old days that still lingers around little San Gabriel—there is a gentleness and peace there that takes all the ‘rush’ out of life, leaving the mind calm to receive the message of the past, and for this reason the old mission houses are a precious heritage, as they stand for that peace and vision that there is such danger of losing in the stress of modern life.
All that the past means and has stood for is revealed in the Mission Play—its courage, its splendid achievement, its memory, living on in the hearts of the people. And one feels how great is the power of tradition, expressed in folk-drama of this kind.
Miss Conan Doyle, who spent much of the year on the west coast and had her photo taken by Albert Witzel, a well-known Los Angeles photographer, highlighted “the love . . . [with] differences of language and race overcome, when the old fathers gather those Indians around them like children, to share every joy and sorrow and risk, in sympathy with them!” She went on to proclaim that the audience was not just experiencing a play, “but that it is actual history and belongs to them.” She concluded her rapturous review by warning, “don’t let us go to the Mission Play with the idea that it’s all past and over, for surely essentially its spirit is in the present also!”
As for local press coverage, the Los Angeles Express of the 10th noted that Warde’s return for a second season followed a “masterful portrayal . . . last year [that] brought the classic drama to its highest pinnacle of perfection,” as if it was possible for a lower pinnacle! It stated that his return “is assurance for another phenomenal success for the historical pageant” as it added that hundreds of people were turned away as the 1919 season ended. As for Patia Power, the paper observed that she was also a Shakesperian actor of note, having performed opposite her husband in Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello.
In its 23 January edition, the Monrovia News reported that “carrying its own beautiful lesson to men, women and children,” the play opened to record crowds that McGroarty “says will not be equalled again,” (well, at least until the much larger playhouse opened seven years later.) Warde “gave a matchless performance” and “the feminine honors . . . went to Mrs. Tyrone Power.”
The paper added that there was new scenery and costumes, as well as lighting effects by “experts from one of the large motion picture studios.” Playing off the onset of Prohibition, which took effect on opening day the 17th, it went on that “special attention” given to incidental music, including a quartet of singers performing religious and “Spanish” songs, the News noted that a friend of the playwright exclaimed, “the music is intoxicating,” a sentiment deemed “not a bad compliment in these dry days of 1920.”
On the 22nd, the Express reported that throngs of attendees since opening day “has been far in excess of any previous year and the coming season is well established toward making a record.” Two days later, the Los Angeles Record added its own boost to the play, calling it “distinctly a California institution” while observing that “its fame has become international.” Adding to the allure was the fact that “the old San Gabriel Mission . . . is the mecca of tourists” and “no visit to Los Angeles is complete without seeing The Mission Play.” Obviously, the season was set and the inducements were made for the winter tourist, fleeing cold climes elsewhere for balmy greater Los Angeles.
This pamphlet is one of several artifacts in the museum’s holdings connected to the Mission Play and we’ll certainly look to highlight others in future posts, as the highly romanticized offering was not only very popular, but heavily supported by the Temple family, who had strong ties to San Gabriel. In fact, within a couple of years, Walter P. Temple purchased land directly across from the mission and cater corner to the playhouse and developed it with three commercial buildings and a donation of a lot for a new city hall—all of this in addition to his generous gift to the construction of the playhouse, which was the venue for a totally revamped presentation of the play in 2013.