Treading the Boards in the Portrait Gallery: Actor Lucretia del Valle from the Mission Play, 1913

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The recent donation to the Homestead by Gloria Ballard of a treasure trove of historic artifacts relating to the very popular and long-running San Gabriel production called the Mission Play, of which several members of her family were dancers, including her aunt and uncle, co-leads and choreographers Juanita Vigare and Juan Zorraquinos, has some truly great photos.

These include images of playwright John Steven McGroarty, actors like Patia Power (mother of film legend Tyrone Power, who, at just four years of age, is in the photo with his mother and sister), groups of actors playing soldiers, missionaries and Indians, and, of course, the dancers with Juan and Juanita being most prevalent.

Los Angeles Herald, 6 November 1892.

There are also a couple of actor Lucretia Louise del Valle, who, from 1913 to 1917, played the main female lead, Josefa Yorba and one of these, by Los Angeles photographer Richard G. Matzene, is the highlighted object from that donation for this post. Del Valle came from a prominent long-standing Californio family and the Homestead happens to have portraits, from a donation by Temple descendant Ruth Ann Michaelis, of Lucretia’s father, Reginaldo (1854-1938), and grandfather, Ygnacio (1808-1880).

The del Valle family was best known in the 19th century for their ownership of the Rancho Camulos in eastern Ventura County near the Los Angeles County line as well as its association with Helen Hunt Jackson, author of the immense popular romantic novel, Ramona. While she hoped that her work would bring needed attention to the plight of California’s surviving native people, Jackson created a love story between the titular character and Alessandro that captivated readers, who ignored the larger social question.

Herald, 16 March 1910.

A different element of romance animated McGroarty’s play, which portrayed the Spanish missionaries, led by Father Junipero Serra (recently canonized, though not without local controversy, by the Roman Catholic Church), as heroic for their Christianizing and civilizing the benighted indigenous people of California. Still, del Valle’s connection to the two highly popular works of fiction is notable.

She was born in 1892 and, while she was the only child of Reginaldo, Lucretia’s mother, Helen White, the daughter of Caleb E. White, who farmed near Downey and then was a founder of Pomona, was previously married to Thomas J. Caystile, founder of the Los Angeles Mirror newspaper and an early co-owner of the fledgling Los Angeles Times. The couple had a daughter, also Helen, before Caystile’s death in 1884.

Los Angeles Express, 17 August 1911.

A half-dozen years later, Helen White Caystile, married Reginaldo del Valle, who’d returned to the practice of the law after spending the early 1880s in the California Assembly and Senate and then was in a Mexican land company was Thomas W. Temple, eldest child of Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple.

Lucretia got her first press notice when just a few weeks old as the Los Angeles Herald of 6 November 1892 reported that she “made her first appearance among the fashionable promenaders of Spring street yesterday afternoon and naturally attracted much attention . . . tough but a few weeks old, [she] bore herself with dignity and effect.”

Express, 15 February 1912.

The young woman had a year of college at the University of Southern California, but it was her study at the Egan Dramatic School (later the Egan School for Motion Picture Acting) that led her to her stage career. By early 1910, when she was just 17, del Valle was appearing in productions, including as a prologue speaker in a David Belasco comedy at the Burbank Theatre followed by a part in another Belasco work at that same venue.

The Herald of 16 March observed that the budding thespian “has many friends in Los Angeles who are overjoyed at the success already achieved in her stage work and who enthusiastically predict big things to come.” Her breakout performance was in novelist and playwright Rex Beach’s “The Barrier” and, in early 1912, when the company traveled to Phoenix for ceremonies celebrating the admission of Arizona as the nation’s 48th state, del Valle gave a toast at a function. In turn, manager of the theater company, Ernest Shipman, said of the actor and her rising profile:

I do not mean just a twinkling little light in the dramatic firmament, but a real star, something quite equal to David Belasco’s discovery of Blanche Bates or Frances Starr . . . we have been communicating with Eastern and already have arranged for her to appear in the stellar role of a new play next season . . . [It] will give her a chance of showing her wonderful talents. Yes, I am not exaggerating. Miss Del Valle is a great coming star.

The Los Angeles Express of the 27th featured Del Valle, noting that the company was touring in the South and that “she seems to be scoring a great personal success.” It quoted a newspaper in that part of the country as gushing that her role “was all that could be desired in technique, handling of the lines, scenes and situations. She played both the comedy and pathos of little Necia with equal grace.”

Express, 27 March 1912.

In late summer 1912, Del Valle appeared at the Boston Theatre in Long Beach with the Wiswell Stock Company and starred in another Belasco-penned production, “Du Barry,” playing the mistress of French King Louis XV who was guillotined during the Revolution in 1793. She then moved to the Lyceum in Los Angeles to take the leading role in H. Austin Adams’ “The Landslide” starring opposite Hobart Bosworth, who was also one of the great stars in early Hollywood films.

Just prior to the opening, Del Valle was featured in the Express in a photo collage that paired her with the great Ethel Barrymore and the short accompanying article noted that she was asked “how she liked the glare of the footlights and her reply was refreshing in its frankness” as she told the paper, “I love my work and naturally the appreciation of one’s audience is like the breath of one’s nostrils. My study in life is human nature, and the more I study the more I love it.”

Long Beach Telegram, 23 September 1912.

The actor went on to proclaim that “the world is peopled with splendid men and women and if the other side of the picture is turned why dwell on it? We would not appreciate the sunshine so thoroughly if we did not have the storm.” Tellingly, she said she could not understand women who did not see the value in marriage or other aspects of life outside their work. She concluded, “I love this big world that God has loaned us for a time. I love life and the many fine people who make it. Goodfellowship [sic] is a wide river and the tide is never so strong if we wade into it right.”

Whether this was concocted for publicity purposes or not, the conservative Times claimed that “Socialism Lures Lovely Lady From Bungalow” and it asserted that Lucretia’s father “heard that his young, lovely and ambitious daughter had contracted to appear in a socialist play” and thought it necessary to quote the former politician in a strange accent as saying, “Great hevings chee-ild, you a socialist, while I am even now engaged in a great political battle,” though it was not mentioned what this conflict constituted.

Express, 24 October 1912.

Lucretia was said to have blithely replied, “Pa doesn’t like it, but I don’t care,” but, purportedly, Reginaldo found a beach-front bungalow for his daughter, hoping she would not return to the Angel City and her engagement at the Lyceum. The story then went that the actor rushed back in time for the premiere performance and said,

Really, I just couldn’t stay down there, so far away from suffering humanity. I just had to come uptown and be near the poor things. You see, this play has made a deep impression on me and I must live it, as well as act it.

When the play’s manager allegedly asked her about the contradiction of living in luxury (the Del Valle home was on Figueroa Street across from USC) while professing to be “casting your fortune with the struggling masses” and asked “Is that your idea of socialism?”, she was said to have responded, “some people think that to live near a thing is to be part of it” and then blithely added, “and besides, I get lots better things to eat” at home.

Los Angeles Times, 31 October 1912.

It should be noted that the Times was bitterly anti-socialist, having been bombed in October 1910 by radical domestic terrorists at a time when deep divides in wealth brought about a rise in socialism, including a near victory by Job Harriman in the mayoral election of 1911 (if the bombing had not happened, he could well have won.) Whether or not del Valle was really a socialist or not, it was certainly interesting commentary.

In December 1912, however, del Valle became Señora Yorba for the second season of “The Mission Play,” directed by Benjamin Horning, who also appeared in quite a few motion pictures. In a photo caption in its edition of the 19th, the Times stated, “it is quite fitting that she should be cast for the role of a devout Spanish woman” and added, “she will bring to the part the atmosphere of the people who first settled in California,” never mind that the original settlers were the indigenous people.

Times, 3 November 1912.

The paper concluded, “with an inheritance of romance through her ancestry she should giving a living impersonation of a woman of the period” and “her successes in the past promise a true-to-the-life portrayal of this character.” Similarly, the Monrovia News of the 23rd claimed “she will give the part an atmosphere of the very people who brought Christianity and civilization to California” while adding “Miss del Valle is an emotional actress of high attainments and with only a years’ [sic] experience on the stage is selected as a star.”

Finally, in its 2 June edition, the Pomona Review provided some fascinating information about the actor and her costume, essentially using the same working as the Monrovia paper, but also stating that

The gown and jewelry worn by Miss del Valle have descended from her paternal grandmother [Isabel Varela del Valle] . . . the shawl elaborately embroidered with roses in colors, brought to California from Japan [actually, China], belonged to her great-grandmother [which, was not stated] and the wonderful headdress was worn in the early forties by her grandmother. The earrings and brooch of jet in settings of old gold and the heavy gold bracelet also came from the same ancestors. The high boots were worn by her grandmother when she was 18 and for some reason laid away in a mahogany chest after wearing them but once . . . [a half-century later] they fit this clever granddaughter as neatly as did the little slipper on the foot of the fabled Cinderella.

Del Valle played the role of Josefa Yorba in the Mission Play for five seasons, but, after finishing that of 1917, she went to New York to study philosophy and political economy at Columbia University. She also became deeply involved in the woman suffrage movement and the agitation for a constitutional amendment to give all American females the right to vote in national elections, which happened with the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919.

Times, 26 December 1912.

After just a short time, however, she married, to the great surprise of her family and friends, Professor Henry T. Grady, a native of San Francisco, who was chair of the political economy department at Columbia. Lucretia immediately quit acting and raised three sons and a daughter with her husband, who went on to a distinguished career.

This included 18 years at the University of California, Berkeley including as dean of the College of Commerce, service as Assistant Secretary of State under Cordell Hull in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, president of a shipping company, and diplomatic service as an envoy in Greece and Iran and as ambassador to India (the first after independence in 1947) and Greece.

Lucretia, also, became prominent in the Democratic Party, as California national chair and vice-president of the Democratic National Committee. When she died, however, at age 79 in May 1972, there was no mention whatsoever of her early years on the stage, including with the Mission Play. The photo featured here, however, is a reminder of the remarkable story of one of the “native daughters” of Los Angeles who achieved a level of attainment on the stage that should not be forgotten, even if the Mission Play celebrated a version of history long discredited.

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