“Spirit of the Savage Sensing the Approach of his White Conquerors”: Treading the Boards with a Program for the Mission Play, San Gabriel, 1913

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

For some two decades, over more than 3,000 performances seen by above 2 million people, The Mission Play, presented at San Gabriel, was viewed as a piece of entertainment that also educated its viewers about the heroic labors of the Roman Catholic missionaries who “civilized” and Christianized the indigenous people of this area starting in the late 18th century. Playwright John Steven McGroarty, who also wrote histories and poems (he was, in fact, the California poet laureate in later years) was lionized for both his skills as a dramatist as well as his approach to the history of his subject.

One of the biggest supporters of the play was Walter P. Temple who contributed $15,000 towards the construction of the Mission Playhouse, completed in 1927 and still standing today and whose business manager, Milton Kauffman, was on the board of the organization that oversaw the project. A recent donation by Gloria Ballard of a collection of Mission Play photographs, programs and other items, whose aunt Juanita Vigare Zorraquinos, who, with her husband, Juan, was a principal dancer and choreographer for the entire run of the piece, has been featured here previously.

Monrovia News, 2 January 1913.

The featured artifact for this post is not from that donation, but was acquired for the Museum’s collection over twenty years ago, and is a 1913 program from the second season of the Mission Play. The title here is that of the first act of the play and is very telling when it comes to the portrayal of the “heroic” missionaries trying to save the souls of the “savage” native people. The titles of the other two acts were “Specter of the Faded Military Glory of the Spanish Conquest” and “Spirit of the Ever-living Faith in the Cross of Christ.”

In addition to the interpretation of the history, there is also the obvious issue of the actors appropriating the identity of people of color, with Benjamin Horning, who doubled as the “dramatic director” and who went on to be an artist, playing Junípero Serra, who was canonized in 2015 but who remains a figure of intense debate during these particularly polarized times. Other missionaries were played by Anglo actors with names of Lynton, Morrison, Fenton, Marriott, Weil, Cox, Jelly, Pyke, Bouton and Rafferty. Captain Fernando Rivera y Moncada was played by Charles Wheelock and three Mission San Carlos guards by actors with the surnames of Rowe, Weatherby and Whiteman.

Los Angeles Express., 7 January 1913

There were very few native people and Latinos in the cast, with most of the latter being dancers, including Juanita Vigare and Juan Zorraquinos, as well as Ida Sánchez and the Castillo sisters, Sylvia and Carmen, while a pair of young boys playing native acolytes were the brothers, Manuel and José Ramirez. The indigenous people, who names were given in the program, were, however, mostly from outside the local area and the “General Information” section also made note that “Chief Sheet Lightning, a Sac and Fox Indian [from Illinois], is the Mission Play cicerone [guide].”

The most prominent person of color in the play was Lucretia del Valle, scion of a famous family and who recently took over the role of Josefa Yorba, said to be “of the Blood of Castile,” because being Spanish was far more prestigious than being Mexican, from Eleanor Calhoun, a native of California and a well-known stage actor who married a Serbian prince and was known as “Princess Lazarovich-Hrebelianovich.” An “Indian Mother” was played by Ernestine López, a San Gabriel native and schoolteacher, of whom we’ll share more below.

Los Angeles Times, 15 January 1913.

A synopsis of the play observed that it “depicts the rise and fall of the Franciscan enterprise in California, from 1769 to 1847” with focus on “the hardships of these pioneer missionaries, the obstacles overcome in bringing the Indians to the Faith,” the scene at San Carlos in 1784 which was presented “with fidelity the life of that period of California history” including “the interference of the military authorities with the work of the missionaries,” and, lastly, “a lamentation on the despoiling of the mission establishments, the scattering of the Indian neophytes, and a plea for the restoration of the Franciscan edifices.”

At the back of the program is an “artist’s impressions” of the work by artist J. Clifford Cowles, published in the Los Angeles Examiner of 2 February. Cowles compared McGroarty’s effort with those of O. Henry and Booth Tarkington and praised the playwright for having the courage “to ignore the commercial spirit of the present day” and provided a work with “powerful California atmosphere, original, inspiring, masterly.”

Express, 24 January 1913.

Writing that only a few could come away from seeing The Mission Play without shedding tears and that no one could leave the theater without being a better person for the experience, the artist added that the work was such that “what a grand opera it would make!” It was filled with “subtle poetry, the mystic soft glory of the afterglow of the past that mingles like a benediction with the stern heroic labors, the simple pathetic piety of the early Padres.” Moreover, Cowles effused that “the scenic effects in this play I have never seen equaled on this Coast” with the color schemes singled out as “true to the afterglows and twilight of California.”

The writer claimed that “a Jewish, or even Gentile, playwright would spring on us the conventional happy ending down to the present day,” so that “the descendants of the first converted Indians would undoubtedly be the affluent owner of department stores and trolley lines, buy his wife innumerable diamond dog collars, and in a ten-thousand-dollar motor car, roll blithely by the leprous villian [sic] begging on the King’s highway.”

News, 27 January 1913.

Instead, McGroarty concluded with his lamentation, presented largely by del Valle with Cowles adding, “it is mystery to me where this slip of a girl in a Spanish grandmother’s gown, keeps the deep, thrilling tone of a Rachel, but this voice is one of the haunting memories of the play, and, if I am not mistaken, it will make its owner famous.” Noting that “you may forget her words, but you will not forget her voice,” Cowles observed that there was “a peculiarity in Spanish women” in that, whatever the beauty of the singing voice, the one that was used in speech “is often harsh.”

With del Valle, however, “hers is especially the voice of a cultured Castillian, with a wonderful richness of tender cadence.” While her lines constituted a monologue and the tone not much changed, “here her art is apparent for, with all her superb modulation and feeling, there is melody and depth. She feels from her heart the injustice done her people.” He went on to suggest that “her voice vibrates with unshed tears, memories of the despoiling of their lands and missions, the pathos of their hopeless poverty” and that “she is the mouthpiece for generations of anguished women, covering as sacred the mortal wounds dealt their race.”

Express, 1 February 1913.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Cowles attended the 2 January matinee and told the paper “’tis a pity New York cannot see this production intact” and added his impressions about the design, calling it “superb” in the “beautiful massing of colors” in the first two acts. Beyond the visual, the artist stated that “the dramatic incidents and the poetical thought of the entire play affected me deeply,” while del Valle’s work made him weep. McGroarty was given praise for his effort, though, strangely, Cowles concluded that, while “without being very familiar with early California history,” being a New Yorker, he still “felt that every part was historically correct.”

Two weeks later, on the 15th, the Times, which heavily advertised the play, cited “the wife of a distinguished army officer of Washington, D.C.” who was so taken with the work that she opined that God guided McGroarty’s efforts “as we guide a child’s hand who is learning to write, as well as those of Horning , in a letter to del Valle, of whom she wrote, “and then out of the humble wing you came, [a] vision of faith, vision of holy, innocent womanhood.”

Express, 3 February 1913.

In its edition of 1 February, the Los Angeles Express featured Charles Bachmann, who was a replacement as Ubaldo, who was the first baptized Indian child from act one, a teenager in the second act, and was the elderly Mission San Juan Capistrano caretaker in the final act. With a rich baritone that was described as “magnetic,” the actor lent a “naturalness” and “simplicity” to his role. A brief biography noted that the actor was apprenticed at fourteen to a minstrel performer and had much stage experience, including with George M. Cohan. With regard to appropriation, readers were reminded that Bachmann recently played a Chinese character along with other roles on the boards of Los Angeles theaters.

The paper, a week prior, also highlighted the efforts of López, who was considered to have a promising future because she “has displayed considerable ability in the small part intrusted [sic] to her.” Notably, she had no lines but “she makes herself felt through the intensity of her pantomime of the fear and suspicion which the Indian mother feels when she sees her babe transferred to the arms of the white men” while the child, Ubaldo, is baptized.

Yet, this sentiment, which would just one of many of concern by the indigenous people as their lands were invaded and their society dismantled, was, again, characterized in that first act title as the “Sprit of the Savage Sensing the Approach of his White Conquerors.” The play, to reiterate, celebrated the Spanish missionaries with Indians as the vessels of the religion and civilization presented to them (violence, disease, alcoholism and other consequences, however, had no substantial place in the interpretation.)

López, it was noted, lived “in a fine adobe house” in the mission town and “has established the reputation of being one of the best translators of Spanish in the state,” including a recent history of California under Spain and México by Irving Richman. With the recent (1911) granting of the right to vote in local and state elections, López and her sister Guadalupe were credited for “winning votes for the amendment [of the constitution] among the Spanish-Californians of Los Angeles county” through an organization they established for the purpose. She was interested in pursuing a stage career, but she remained a teacher and, in 1914, married a contractor, John F. Greene.

As for the role of Native Americans, there were several articles in early 1913 newspapers pertaining to this. The New Year’s Day edition of the Express began an article by stating that “visitors . . . have been speculating if the Indians in the sun dance of the fiesta scene are real Indians or a counterfeit in the make-up of the aborigine.” McGroarty insisted to the paper that the natives “are genuine aborigines and not make-believes” and “come from six different tribes of California and the Southwest.” Notably, only one of those cited was from the Golden State and he was from the northern section, while others were said to be from Arizona and New Mexico, while another was a Chickasaw from Oklahoma (recall the Sac-and-Fox guide mentioned above, as well.)

The Express of the 24th raised the sun dance issue again, this time in response to a visitor question about whether it would have been allowed by the missionaries as part of a Catholic ceremony. It was averred that “not by force nor by arbitrary methods did they seek to win over the Indians” and added that “the historical records [though specifics were not mentioned] show that the Indian dances were celebrated on these occasions.”

Also asked was about which language was spoken in the prayer preceding the dance and the answer was that “last season a Cherokee Indian gave it in the Cherokee language, but this season a full-blooded Chickasaw . . . from the distant plains of Indian territory, offers it in the Chickasaw dialect.” Obviously, both of these native persons were from Oklahoma, so McGroarty’s use of “dramatic license” is a far cry from the authenticity or accuracy often credited to his work.

In the Times of 29 January, it was reported that this same Chickasaw, known as Chief Lux Oshy or Young Turtle, also provided “a new touch of color and realism” in his “wearing [of] a magnificent new war-bonnet of eagle feathers,” Beyond this, it was added

Mr. McGroarty had recalled from the history of California the story of the appearance of the great Indian chieftain before Sir Francis Drake, near San Francisco, in the year 1579, wearing a splendid headdress of eagle feathers.

Yet, the playwright and Horning were about to give up on trying to get a reproduction because of the impossibility of finding eagle feathers, but Young Turtle wrote to his uncle, Chief Lone Wolf back in Oklahoma, and eagle feathers were promptly secured and, it was reported, the prior day, Young Turtle took the stage “arrayed in the most splendid war-bonnet now in existence” and “makes a most gorgeous picture leading the aboriginal dancers through the ceremonial sun dance.” Incidentally, the tale of Drake landing in California, including at the bay bearing his name, is now considered a myth.

All of this purported historical accuracy and authenticity certainly drew the crowds, including large numbers of school children, teachers who demanded at a performance on 18 January “to pay their compliments to the artists,” and full houses of patrons generally. The press, including the Catholic sheet, The Tidings, pushed that narrative and promoted the tourism angle through postcards distributed to audience members and a lithograph made and distributed by the Southern Pacific Railroad for tourists riding the rails to California.

As greater Los Angeles became more increasingly one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States and with the automobile and bus more readily available to ferry patrons (including “theater parties”) out to San Gabriel, the romanticized narrative of “old California,” following the massively popular 1880s novel, Ramona (which was, reportedly, partly written at the Rancho Camulos owned by by del Valle’s family), had tremendous appeal.

The Mission Play closed in the early 1930s as the Great Depression worsened, though there were sporadic revivals in subsequent years. A decade ago, however, the Mission Playhouse mounted a reimagined version with more of the indigenous perspective provided. One wonders if other editions might be in the offing in the future, especially as our interpretation of the history of the mission period continues to evolve.

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