“When California Was the Happiest Land in All the World”: A Pamphlet for “The Mission Play,” San Gabriel, 1923

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As I’m just now beginning my 34th (could it be?) year at the Homestead, it has only now occurred to me whether, given Walter P. Temple’s unabashed support for The Mission Play, the long-running passion play about the California Missions, the amazing triptych stained and painted glass window in the Main Hall of his Spanish Colonial Revival mansion La Casa Nueva was perhaps influenced by that local version of the famed Oberammergau.

The depiction in the impressive window is of a trio of Spanish galleons (albeit ones from very different eras) anchored at a harbor, perhaps San Diego or San Francisco, with a mission on a hill nearby, while a priest raises his hand in a blessing as supplies are offloaded from the vessels for the crowds of colonists gathered around him.

Los Angeles Times, 1 February 1923.

Even if there was not a direct connection between it and John Steven McGroarty’s very popular production, seen by some 2 million persons over near two decades, the two share a common trait—the romanticizing of the Spanish colonization of California. Moreover, Temple, who was actively building commercial structures directly across from the mission at the time, was not just a fervent supporter, but he was a financial contributor to the new playhouse completed in 1927, while his business manager, Milton Kauffman, sat on the board of directors of the association that constructed the edifice.

The featured object from the museum’s collection for this post is the program for the 1923 season, the twelfth, for the play and the front and rear panels feature a dramatic painting of a bald-pated missionary, a woman wearing a dark mantilla on her head, and an indigenous man pointing at the ruins of a mission structure. The work was done by Walt A. Lee (1888-1980), a Pasadena native who was a painter and cartoonist and one source noted that before the First World War he created oil paintings of actors for advertisements for films playing in local theaters.

Times, 1 February 1923.

Two panels include a map of three trolley trips—the Orange Empire, Old Mission-Balloon, and the Mt. Lowe/Mile High—offered by the Pacific Electric Railway streetcar system; another showing the location of the California Missions; and stamp-sized photos of each of the missions, with a pencil mark by four of them, apparently indicating which had been visited by the original owner of the brochure.

The remaining quartet of panels includes a half-dozen photos of dancers, Indians, and the “Soldiers of the King” in the performance, as well as the “Caretaker of the Mission” and “The Big Historic Grapevine. At the center is a masthead of sorts with the play’s title, a small photo of McGroarty, the cost of over $500,000 to mount the production, a panoramic photo of the cast on stage, and the days of performance.

Pasadena Post, 1 February 1923.  Note the article on the program at Walter P. Temple’s Temple Theater, which opened in Alhambra at the end of 1921.

At the bottom margin are quotes for eminences like Thomas R. Marshall, vice-president under Woodrow Wilson, the publisher of the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies’ Home Journal, prominent local minister Robert J. Burdette, and Princeton University’s Dr. Henry Van Dyke offering profuse praise for the piece. General Information includes when the play was performed, ticket prices and locations of offices for purchase, how to get to “Old San Gabriel,” and other attractions in town.

McGroarty’s brief explanation of “What the Mission Play Is” is also of note as he explained that it was “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 shores of America.” While the playwright noted that it was compared to the Oberammergau, he demurred, suggesting that it was very different because, “while it is vibrant with the same faith and lofty sentiment . . . it is joyous with color, the song and laughter, the dances of old Spain and the romance of the golden days of California.”

Burbank Review, 2 February 1923.

He described the three acts including “the heroic struggles and sacrifices of the Spanish pioneers” in colonizing efforts; the glory days of the missions “when California was the happiest land in all the world” and when the native peoples “had risen to the stature of white men” with “peace and gladness” reigning supreme; and, finally, “the sad but exquisitely beautiful story of the Missions in ruin.”

In the leading role of Father Junipero Serra, now controversially canonized, was a new actor to the play, Monroe Salisbury (1876-1935), born Orange Salisbury Cash in New York. Salisbury had a long stage career before moving into film with an uncredited part in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man, one of the first movies filmed in Hollywood, and then in several of DeMille’s subsequent productions. In 1916, he played the lead male role of Alessandro in the film version of Helen Hunt Jackson’s famous novel, Ramona, and remained popular through the end of the decade. After making a film in 1922, however, he retired from the screen and followed this with his appearance as Serra in The Mission Play.

Los Angeles Record, 3 February 1923.

As to the season opening of 3 February neared, the Los Angeles Times of two days prior observed, “Old San Gabriel is again on tiptoe with excitement attending Saturday afternoon’s reopening of John McGroarty’s wonderful pageant-drama of California’s early history.” Of the 100-something performers, it was added that there were “most of the old favorites and several strong new parts.”

The Alhambra edition of the Pasadena Post on the 1st reported on McGroarty’s “splendid address” to the Alhambra Kiwanis Club opening with the statement that the playwright called “the early history of California the most glorious and brilliant of any chapter of human history,” which does seem the acme of dramatic license! It went on to quote him as suggesting that, concerning the work of the Franciscan missionaries,

The great miracle of their accomplishment was not the conversion of a race of dirty, shiftless people to Christianity, but the education of a race like along the lines of useful endeavor. The Indians of San Gabriel carried timbers from the San Gabriel canyon to build the mission. They performed almost superhuman tasks in the erection of that beautiful building. It was a marvelous thing to have done. Pioneering in other countries is not to be compared with that in California, where they builded more permanently than Greece and more beautifully than Rome.

That latter sentence, too, is strikingly grandiose in its claims and McGroarty added, “the great things accomplished were done in the only way possible—by love . . . I believe that in our schools we should teach the children the love for California, the noblest state in the union.”

Record, 5 February 1923.

Not to be considered, apparently, were the views of the indigenous people and their descendants, but McGroarty, later poet laureate of the state, treated his audience to “his beautiful poem, ‘California,” which included the lines “California is not west; it is west of the west; it is just California.” Also included in the Kiwanis meeting were dances by the principals of that part of the Play: Juanita Vigare, a niece of Laura Gonzalez Temple, who’d just died at the end of December, and her husband Juan Zorroaquinos.

In its edition of the 2nd, the Burbank Review noted that “the noted romantic actor” Salisbury was the seventh actor to play Serra, following such stalwarts as the original portrayer, Benjamin Horning, Tyrone Power, Jr., and for the previous four years, Shakespearian thespian Frederick Warde. McGroarty accounted that “all these men were great in the part,” but added that “I feel now that Mr. Salisbury will be greater in some ways than any of those who have gone before him.”

Times, 5 February 1923.

Not only was the actor the same height, six feet, but he “has what I would call the Californian temperament” and the playwright pointed to the actor’s turn as Alessandro in the film version of Ramona as making the audience “instinctively feel that he will make a great Junipero.” Not only did Salisbury have excellent training and abundant experience, but “he has a wonderful voice and a most captivating personality.”

Beyond the new leading man, offered the Los Angeles Express of the 3rd, “the famous ‘fiesta scene’ has been elaborated until it is an entertainment in itself, and a number of new singers and dancers have been added as well as other personalities that carry on the fascinating romance of early mision days and the padres.” Overall, it concluded, “the settings and the story proves as vivid and engrossing as in former seasons.”

Post, 5 February 1923.

In its review of the 5th, the Los Angeles Record painted a picture of opening night:

The lights in the shaky wooden building, girded with beams, go out. A distant bell peals. A savage, the color of rust, glides through the dusk and the Mission Play, California’s pageant of her early history, starts on its twelfth year at the Old San Gabriel Mission . . . the hazardous rise, existence and decline of the California missions is lived again, wealthy with the uncommon color of olden times and enlivened with long forgotten melodies and picturesque dances.

Declaring that the play was “no dull recital intended to bring joy to none but a blue-nosed divine,” the paper went on to observe that Salisbury “makes his every word and action vibrant with actuality” and stated that “his low pitched resonant voice brings the person of the old missionary before the audience with uncanny perfection.”

Monrovia News, 8 February 1923.

The assessment of the Times, also on the 5th, was that “few changes have taken place in the production,” though the most important was the casting of Salisbury and it noted that “that he would bring a spirit of sincerity and devotion to the role was to be expected.” The story told by McGroarty was “handled with the reverence due” so that “Californians have ever loved it” while “tourists find in it the one thing they must see and know before leaving.” After complimenting the staging and supporting cast, the paper concluded that “on the whole, the play lives well up to the reputation of its eleven previous productions.”

The Pasadena Post from the same day offered that “none of the charm, the pathos or the fine religious fervor of the pageant-drama has been lost” with the revised play, stating that those who’d seen earlier productions “pronounced it good.” Salisbury “is fine” and was “possessed of a resonant voice, [which] he uses to good advantage in the several big moments of the play” so that “he was well received.”

As with other reviews, this one lauded the enhanced fiesta scene and added that “the Spanish songs and dances are as fascinating as ever. Given plaudits, as well, was Patia Power, recently divorced from Tyrone Power, Jr. and appearing again as Señora Josefa Yorba, whose “full, deep, rich voice is used with telling effect when she appears . . . in the concluding scene, [among] the ruined mission of San Juan Capistrano, and recounts the wrongs inflicted upon the missions and the mission-folk.” The paper ended by noting that Saturday evening’s crow was sparse, due to the weather, but felt that “the fine acting and sincere efforts of the players were deserving of better support.”

By the 7th, however, the Record reported that “the attendance is proving exceptionally large for the beginning of the season, while recording that Salisbury “has created a sensation” and was accounted “the best man who has yet appeared in the part” of Serra. Of the added singers, two were from the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York, while Roumalia Ena was a Hawaiian contralto and one of five musician sisters.

The Monrovia News of the 8th gushed that “the play is better than ever” while echoing the assertion of the Record about Salisbury leaving an indelible impression, adding that “it is unanimously agreed by all the old patrons of the Mission Play” that he was the best of the seven to play the featured part. In addition to the three new vocalists, the paper lauded dancer Juanita Ruiz, who came from Barcelona, and “is making a great hit with the audiences.” Finally, it reported,

Another noted addition to the cast is Tyrone Power, III. This is his first appearance on the stage. He is now twelve years old, and represents the third generation of great actors of his name. His grandfather, Tyrone Power, was one of the greatest actors of all time, and his father, Tyone Power, who once played the leading role in the Mission Play, is among the most famous of living actors.

The youngest Power, who was actually not yet nine years old, went on to become one of the great matinee idols of the latter part of the 1930s and into the 1940s.

The Mission Play continued to be performed to large and largely impressed audiences through the end of the 1920s, including in the new Playhouse, completed in 1927 and which still survives as a performing arts venue and which hosted a completely reconfigured version of the play in 2013. Walter P. Temple’s love of the play and his own romanticized approach to the decorative elements of his La Casa Nueva may very well have more in common than we think.

2 thoughts

  1. Thank you for this very informative article , my father played Pablo in the 2nd act of the play in the 1920’s and my uncle had a role in1918

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