by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As has been noted here before, The Mission Play, John Steven McGroarty’s passion play, often compared to the German Oberammergau, ran for over 3,000 performances in front more than 2 million people at San Gabriel for twenty-one interrupted seasons from 1912 to 1932 and then two revivals in 1939 and 1941.
The work, which praised the efforts of the Spanish missionaries to Christianize and “civilize” the benighted indigenous people of California in a way generally alien to our modern understanding of that era, was a great favorite of Walter P. Temple, who gave some $15,000 towards the construction of a dedicated theater, the Mission Playhouse, for the work and whose business manager, Milton Kauffman, was on the committee that planned and built it.
The Temple family had many personal ties to San Gabriel and its mission, as well as with the play. Not only did Walter’s ancestors have frequent sacraments at the old stone church, dating back to the 1840s and the end of Mexican era, but he acquired land across from the site and, in the early 1920s, built three commercial structures and donated a lot for the city hall. He even transplanted palm trees from the mission city to ornament the gardens surrounding his Spanish Colonial Revival mansion, La Casa Nueva, the interior decoration of which is redolent with romantic allusions to the pre-American past in California.
Walter’s wife, Laura González (1871-1922), also was connected to San Gabriel as her half-sister María de la Luz González de Vigare (1862-1949) and her family owned the Ortega-Vigare Adobe, which may date as far back as the 1790s and which is a state historic landmark just a short distance south of the mission.
While Luz was born to Feliz González, a professional violinist and teacher, and Ramona Alvitre, a granddaughter of some of the earliest settlers of Misión Vieja, the Whittier Narrows community that was the location of the first Mission San Gabriel, Laura’s mother was Francisca Valenzuela, whose family were, along the Alvitres, the grantees of the tiny Rancho Potrero Chico, which was under 100 acres and which included that first mission location.
The González family lived very near the Temples, whose half of Rancho La Merced was basically across San Gabriel Boulevard from the Potrero Chico, and, despite their ages, Luz and Laura became very close. In 1890, the former married Jean Vigare, a native of France, and the couple at one time owned a 200-acre tract that extended from the mission south to about where Garvey Avenue is Monterey Park.
Their large family included daughter Juanita, who was born in 1893 and who, as with several of her siblings, became an expert “Spanish” dancer. From early on she was paired with Juan Zorraquinos, who was a few months younger. He was born of a Spanish father who died young and a mother, Mary Eakin, who was a native of Los Angeles, but after the 1869 death of her mother, Priscilla Ramsey Eakin, was adopted by Rita Guillen de la Osa.
Rita was a daughter of the well-known Eulalia Pérez de Guillen, the keeper of the keys at the Mission San Gabriel with significant responsibilities regarding the indigenous women there. Eulalia lived to quite an advanced age, though nowhere near the 143 years attributed to her when she passed away in 1878. Rita and her husband, Vicente de la Osa, were one-time owners of the Rancho Encino in the San Fernando Valley and their 1849 adobe house is a state historic landmark.
Mary Eakin married Juan Zorraquinos in May 1892 and the couple spent some years at Tehuantepec in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, which is where their son, often known as John William, was born. After the senior Zorraquinos died, the family was living in the San Gabriel area, where Mary raised her several children with the younger Juan becoming the talented dancing partner of Juanita Vigare.
When McGroarty was ready to bring his The Mission Play to the stage at San Gabriel in 1912, he immediately recognized the great talent, as well as the long local connections, of Vigare and Zorraquinos, who were hired to be the principal dancers for the work. Their intricate and vivacious work proved to not just be proficient but also very popular and critics often singled the pair out while they were frequently made a centerpiece of promotional and advertising material for the play.
When the couple married on 7 April 1915, during the fourth season, the Los Angeles Express reported that “they have been sweethearts since early childhood in the old pueblo of San Gabriel,” while the nuptial was the first among play cast members. McGroarty stood as Zorraquinos’ best man, while the play’s leading lady, the well-known actor Lucretia del Valle, whose grandfather Ygnacio and father Reginaldo have been the subject of prior posts here, was bridesmaid for Vigare.
It was also for the 1915 season that a new dance was introduced for the play and performed by Zorraquinos and Vigare (she kept her maiden name for professional purposes) and La Jota, a triple time dance that McGroarty referred to as the “Whirlwind Dance of the Fiesta,” became a central part of the play with the Roman Catholic newspaper, The Tidings, reporting in its 28 May edition that McGroarty found the dance as it was being performed “among the Mexican families who lived on the ranchos near the border.” Purportedly, he was told by them that an early Spanish soldier taught it to “a beautiful Indian maid at the first fiesta in California,” but this sounds very much like a convenient myth for the playwright.
The couple was so well-regarded by McGroarty that he used them jointly or Vigare individually for other of his works, including 1917’s Jan (the Museum’s holdings include some unused tickets for this work), a work promoting peace as World War One raged in Europe and America had just entered the conflict and which concerned a fictional European nation; 1924’s La Golondrina, another early California romance; and Babylon, a 1927 satire set in that ancient den of iniquity, but which was an analog for life in the Roaring Twenties, with Zorroaquinos and Vigare playing Babylonian singers and dancers, while young Amapola del Vando, a young San Gabriel dancer and actor, also had a role. For the mission’s 150th birthday in 1921, the couple, along with the Temple family and many other locals, played parts in a piece written by Lillian Burkhart Goldsmith.
The couple, who also toured on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit, also performed with McGroarty at other functions, including those hosted by women’s clubs in Los Angeles, Hollywood and other local cities, including as part of programs held in the Long Beach civic auditorium. In early 1922, the playwright penned an essay in the Express titled “Is Dancing in Mission Play Consistent?” He stated that he was frequently asked if dances were appropriate, especially in front of the missionaries and would the fathers have allowed such examples as those shown in the play.
McGroarty replied “I can quote both Scripture and history in our defense,” noting that the Bible refers often to dancing “with laudation,” while averring that “some of the early fathers of the Christian church contended that the angels in Heaven—and angels were created long before man—are always dancing.” He went on to note the universal presence of dancing among humans and claimed:
Certainly the Franciscan padres who bore the torch of civilization and Christianity to California a century and a half ago, and who were above all other things intensely human, would offer not the slightest objection to decent dancing. And they never did.
He added that no religious persons protested to him about the dancing in the decade since The Mission Play debuted and stated, “far from being objectionable to them, our dancing pleases and rejoices them.” Finally, McGroarty asserted “we dance in the ‘Mission Play’ as they danced in the old happy days of California.”
Not only this, he continued, “Juanita Vigare dances the self-same dance that her grandmother [Ramona Alvitre], as a girl, danced in the patio of San Gabriel a century ago.” Like his story about the origins of La Jota, however, this was an embellishment. Ramona Alvitre was born in 1840, though it may be possible that her mother, María Rita Bermudez, may have been the youthful dancer.
In any case, the purported historical antecedents of dances, much less the narrative of the play, being from “the old happy days of California” does not take in the perspective of the native peoples of our area, but only that of the Spanish. McGroarty ended his essay be proclaiming, “and I am happy to say that it is all very joyous and clean and that it suggests to the mind only happiness and magic and mystery of rhythm.”
In 1922, for the eleventh season, it was reported in the Express that the play passed its 1900th performance and that “is far and away the world’s record and the event will be made a gala night at San Gabriel.” The paper added that “the attendance has been unprecedented and shows no signs of cessation” with the season, slated to close at the end of June, possibly being extended.
Finally, it was stated that Juanita’s younger sister, Guadalupe or Lupe, joined the cast as a dancer, though she was also a talented vocalist. Another sister, Dominga, was long a member, as, briefly, was brother Felix (perhaps named for his grandfather) who was also a local star baseball player who played for the St. Louis Cardinals in the major leagues in 1927 as well as the Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League and was once called the “Babe Ruth of Arizona” after slugging two homers in a game while playing for a team there.
Four years later, for the opening of another season, the Los Angeles Times referred to “the indispensable Juan Zorraquinos and Juanita Vigare” who “will continue to dance their way into the hearts of the people,” as would their protege, Julita Ruiz, “the little whirlwind dancer” who would “again thrill with her marvelous performance.”
By the late Twenties, Vigare was in her late thirties and was no longer the lithe young dancer of the early days of The Mission Play. Still, much was made in February 1929 of the fact that “romance never dies in old San Gabriel, picturesque home of the Mission Play, where people and places are so imbued with romantic atmosphere that it dominates their days.” The piece focused on Vigare, stating that her family lived near the mission for generations and who “has danced her way through romance to fame.”
It was added that she was “a little girl” when hired for the first performances of the play, she was actually just about to turn 19, and “her dancing has drawn enthusiastic praise.” Not only this, it was reported that “since then she has danced in every performance but one and the historic production is now approaching a record of 2900 presentations in its own playhouse [the new facility opened two years earlier].”
The only day she missed was for her wedding to Zorraquinos in May 1915 and the piece went on that:
Juanita and Juan have become an outstanding feature of the play. Their dancing, amid the colorful scenes of the famed production, seems to improve with each season, like the wines made from the juices of the mother grapevine, which after 157 years [the mission actually was moved from Whittier Narrows about 1775, but who would have known that?], now spreads its tendrils over more than an acre [it was nowhere near that size, but, again, it’s the romance!] of trellis in the adjoining courtyard.
The Times ended by noting that the pair trained new dancers from San Gabriel, who, purportedly, “have been reared with the inducement ever before them that some day they will be chosen for a part in the Mission Play.” Yet, the paper noted, “Juanita and Juan lead the dancing and never fail to win spontaneous applause for their brilliant interpretation of the dances of Spain.”
In February 1930, the 3,000th performance of the play was presented before an audience including former President Calvin Coolidge and the ex-First Lady, Governor C.C. Young and more than 1,000 others. W.F. Newman of the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News opined that “one feels that its charm and beauty lie largely in the simplicity with which Fra Junipero Serra preached the gospel and taught the way of right living to the Indians centuries [?] ago.”
The work’s drama, music “and a sustaining quality of mellow grandeur” were highlighted by Newman, who added that the famed opera singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink sang some pieces, while McGroarty, serving as master of ceremonies, introduced “celebrated guests,” including Vigare, who was again featured for her incredible durability in missing just the one performance on her nuptial day. The piece ended with the statement that “it is possible that many more thousands will witness [the play] before the piece passes into oblivion.”
In fact, change came far sooner than anticipated. In April 1931, Zorraquinos was driving with a brother in Los Angeles when a crash occurred that ejected Juan from the car, with his head hitting the asphalt. He suffered a skull fracture and a broken knee cap and was unconscious for long periods. After the accident, he was not able to perform at the high level of previous years, though he and Vigare continued to direct dancers for the play.
In 1933, however, with the Great Depression so much worse after the waves of bank failures and skyrocketing unemployment of the previous year, The Mission Play closed after over two decades. The couple continued to dance on occasion and there were a couple of notable events prior that, including Vigare’s appearances for a special San Gabriel fiesta (with food cooked by the famous “Barbecue King,” José Romero, a Temple family friend) the 150th birthday of Los Angeles and a Hollywood Bowl historical pageant during the 1932 Olympic Games held in the Angel City. Also in 1932, Vigare appeared in another McGroarty play, The Gypsies, which also included R.D. McLean, a perennial actor portraying Serra in The Mission Play and other actors and performers from that work.
In 1939, The Mission Play was revived, but at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, not San Gabriel, for a fall run and it was reported in the Times that Zorraquinos and Vigare “got the biggest hand of any of the entertainers on opening night.” In early 1941, another season was presented at Riverside, whose Mission Inn impresario Frank Miller was a major supporter of the work, and the couple and their La Jota “still proves a triumph” while Vigare was credited with directing the dancing. The play then ended its run, though there was a revisionist version performed at the venerable San Gabriel playhouse several years ago.
María de la Luz González de Vigare died in 1949 at age 87 and her daughter Lupe Ballard and family continued to occupy the old adobe house, which was designated a state historic landmark the following year. Though it has long been out of family hands, the house remains hidden behind abundant foliage and a high wall on Ramona Street, a hop, skip and a jump (or a dance or two to boot) from the mission.
Years ago, I met with Lupe Ballard’s son Jerry, who told me he inherited from his mother and aunt the most remarkable collection of Mission Play memorabilia anywhere and he showed me a photo album that certainly seemed to verify his statement. Jerry died a few years ago, but his younger sister Gloria, contacted me a few days ago to say that it was time to donate this amazing material to the Homestead.
On Tuesday, I went to Gloria’s house and picked up the artifacts, of which I’d only seen a portion, and, to boot, there was also a gift of Laura González Temple’s guitar along with a late 1890s photo of her, Luz and some of the Vigare children, perhaps including Juanita, on the porch of the Ortega-Vigare adobe.
This fantastic donation has to be processed, but a few of the photos are included are to show just a brief indication of what is included. Over time, we’ll be sure to share more, so be on the lookout for future posts on The Mission Play and its history.