by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Last Sunday, after occasional thoughts about whether to go, the trip was finally made out to Hemet to see the Ramona Pageant, which happens to have just completed its centennial run of entertaining thousands of visitors each year with its mix of history, myth, and romance centered on the bestselling 1880s novel by Helen Hunt Jackson and which sought to bring broad awareness of the plight of southern California’s indigenous people through the love story of Ramona, a half-native, half-Latina woman, and her Indian husband Alessandro.
It was a warm mid-afternoon when the performance began and, while it was said that there were fifteen persons treated by first responders the previous day, the only emergency that was noticeable was when a man collapsed, perhaps due to sunstroke. By the play’s end, the sun had dipped low enough behind the hills that a cooling shade brought some relief and it wasn’t too much later that it got pretty chilly.
This is not a review of the show, but anyone who has the courage to act in front of a large audience, whatever their ability, deserves kudos for taking that challenge. The musicians, singers and dancers added greatly to the atmosphere and, for this observer, the highlight of the performance came after intermission with an extended combination of music and dancing, including the crowd-pleasing hoop dance, by Native Americans.
As for the plot and its purported fictionalization of historical events, there have been quite a few tweakings, rewrites and other modifications over the 100 years of the play’s run, most recently in 2015, which included spoken narratives throughout the performance, original music based on that of the 1880s and a larger contingent of native performers.
Moreover, the setting is perhaps as more important, if not more so, than the acting, music or dancing. Established in a remarkable locale amid steep hills with enormous rock outcroppings, the “stage” is in an environment that feels particularly immersive, especially if the imagination fixates on any number of scenes focused on the replica of the Rancho Camulos adobe house, the native dwellings on the opposite hillside, or the main characters.
One of these is Father Salvedierra, who was portrayed by Robert Leibovich, great-great-uncle of my son’s girlfriend and who is retiring after nearly three decades of performing in the pageant. It certainly added to the experience to have a bit of a tangential connection to the play, including spending a little time talking to Robert just after it ended as well as at dinner, which included his sister, nieces and other family members. One thing he pointed out is the fact that a Jew, born in Uruguay and a fluent Spanish speaker, was playing a Roman Catholic priest and missionary!
The Homestead’s collection has a fair number of Ramona-related artifacts, including some of one of the many reputed houses attributed to her, this one in San Gabriel; two editions of Jackson’s book; a pair of pieces of sheet music related to the first two film versions of the play, dating to 1916 and 1928; two 78rpm phonographs of the latter, performed by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and by the film’s star, Dolores Del Río; and a citrus crate label from San Fernando for the “Ramona Memories” brand.
The featured object for this post is a souvenir program for the pageant from the sixth season in 1928, though, unfortunately, when it was received in the mail a decade ago, the adhesive flap from the envelope was placed directly on the front cover, causing it to be damaged vertically almost from top to bottom and torn in the lower right corner. Despite this, the rear wrapper is in decent shape and the condition of the contents is quite good.
Printed by the Hemet News, the program includes a few facts on a frontispiece, including the note that the pageant was a non-profit project operated by the Ramona Pageant Association with the towns of Hemet and San Jacinto and that the play was officially sanctioned by Virginia Calhoun, an actor who developed a stage version of Ramona in the early years of the 20th century with Johnstone Jones, a Los Angeles attorney who later was hired by Walter P. Temple to write his family’s history—an effort that was halted by Jones’ failing health.
A foreword claimed that California was the locale of “distinctly original” presentations of drama, such as with the Hollywood Bowl, the Pilgrimage Play in that Los Angeles neighborhood, the Pasadena Community Playhouse, and something of a close kin to the pageant, the long-running Mission Play at San Gabriel. With these outdoor venues, it was asserted that they “are symptoms of a growing popular indifference to the standardized products of a commercialized statement, and a reincarnation of the drama as an artistic expression by the people and for their enjoyment.”
To that end, the Association and local residents “are doubly moved” to produce the pageant, first, because of the purported connections of the area to the story told by Jackson, and, also “because Nature has conveniently furnished exceptional facilities for its telling.” It was considered essential that “everything connected with the production of this outdoor drama be marked by the absence of the usual circus ballyhoo of theatrical enterprises, and that an increasingly sincere standard of taste, of beauty, and of esthetic values may be maintained.”
A “Historic Ground” section began with a brief discussion of Tahquitz, an evil spirit in the tradition of southern California Indian tribes including the Cahuilla and whose home was said to be a peak near Mt. San Jacinto. The account stated that “despot that he was, he was true to his race and has all but faded from the picture with the vanishing copper colored men and women and children who once roamed the land.”
It was speculated that Tahquitz, from his vantage point, would have seen Coronado searching for the mythical golden city of Cíbola about 1540, as well as Coronado landing at what became the harbor at San Diego two years later, In 1774, Juan Bautista de Anza passed very near the spirit’s cave dwelling when establishing a trail from Sonora in northern México to Monterey in northern California, while, over more than a half-century, he “must have watched with interest” as the California missions were founded “and wondered, perhaps, what it was all about.” None of these, it was asserted, was “of more poignant interest than the delightful romance of the beautiful Indian maiden, Ramona, and her unfortunate lover, Alessandro.”
Under the subheading of “Love and Sacrifice” it is claimed that
The story of Ramona is one of the greatest love narratives of the world and, unlike most of the great romances, does not end with marriage, but continued through many years of married life until the death of the faithful lovers. Never had the flame of self-sacrifice and devotion burned brighter than in the lives of Ramona and her ill-fated husband, Alessandro. Love conquered death and by its victory has brought immortal fame to the unhappy lovers.
It was added that “the time in which they lived was desperate; suspicion and jealousy was rampant, the Indian was pushed farther and farther back ad justice denied him.” There was reference to “the Money Power [which] thrust its evil hand, and many were crushed by it, amongst them Ramona and Alessandro.” The decline of native people was said to be a “pathetic history” and was given a personal representation through the “two poor creatures who loved through wrongs, injuries and false accusation, and in doing so found strength” while “the sun sinks of the Indian, the Spanish civilization, and on the true love of Ramona.”
Moreover, it was stated that Jackson “wrote the greater part of her immortal story” in the Hemet area and that “she found many of the characters and stirring incidents” for her tale while it was further averred that “old-timers in this valley recognize many of their former friends and neighbors” in her work. It was added that “the original Ramona died here in May, 1924” and visitors to the Cahuilla reservation could see her grave, though some accounts suggest that Ramona Lubo, the “real Ramona,” died in late July 1922.
The “On Historic Ground” subsection further observed that Jackson came to the Golden State “to look into conditions among the Indians, which, with each passing year, had grown worse.” A prior post here discussed her role in a report on the plight of the native people of southern California, issued in 1883 not long before Ramona appeared. While traveling through the region for that investigation, it was added, she stayed at the home of Mr. and Mrs. J.C. Jordan, said to be the inspiration for two characters in the play.
Mrs. Jordan, who died in 1909, was said to have related that the author told her of the desire she had to write a novel about the local natives that the public would embrace and was quoted as saying, “if I could only write such a story as Mrs. [Harriet Beecher] Stowe wrote of negro slavery” in her 1852 work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. With Mrs. Jordan telling her the tragedy of Ramona and Alessandro, the account went on, it was observed that the latter was actually Juan Diego, who “used to get spells; no, not crazy spells, just devilish.”
It was further stated that Ramona was an Indian and that “she being the adopted daughter of a rich Moreno family was all imagination,” but that Jackson “drew on the Lugo family in the vicinity for the Moreno family of the novel.” As to the crucial part of the play about the sick child of the couple, Mrs. Jordan vouched for this saying that she tried to care to the ill little girl and noted that the story of Juan Diego’s killing was also “close to the facts.”
In her telling, Juan Diego was under “one of his spells” when he stole a horse that “belonged to Sam Temple (Jim Farrar in the story), who lived here until his recent death.” Temple, no relation to the Temples associated with the Homestead, was from Tennessee and died in 1904, and the story that he killed Juan Diego was related by a doctor who grew up in the San Jacinto area and who added that it was his gun that Temple used in the shooting.
In the trial that was held at a San Diego County District Court, the doctor’s father represented Temple, who claimed self-defense saying the Juan Diego had a knife and advanced toward him forcing him to shoot and kill him, while the prosecutor was Chauncey Hayes, son of the late Benjamin I. Hayes, the long-time district judge at Los Angeles. A transcript from the proceeding was reprinted in the program and it noted that, because “no one has appeared to prosecute,” meaning, apparently, that Hayes did not show, “the prisoner [was] discharged, as it appears that no offense has been committed under the law.”
As to the origin of the pageant, it was noted that the goal of the Association, composed largely of members of the Hemet-San Jacinto Chamber of Commerce, was “the preservation of the history and romance of this the Ramona country” and that any profit was immediately put into use for the following year’s production. Attendance climbed six-fold from the 3,000 persons who saw the work in 1923 to 18,000 four years later, while it was added that the venue was chosen because of its excellent acoustics.
When it came time to having the play written, the hiring of Garnet Holme, said to be the “greatest authority on the outdoor drama on this continent,” was effected. Holme, a native of England who was then in his mid-fifties, was formerly the director of pageants for the national parks system and chair of the drama department at the University of California at Berkeley. Notably, it was made clear that
The management wishes it understood that all reference in this program to the original characters and the historical background has only to do with that part of the novel using this section as a locale, and it is the desire of the management to in no way slight those other sections of California which are intimately associated with the story of Ramona.
Even still, while acknowledging the use of fiction and composite characters on top of “the bare facts of every day life of a half-century ago,” the Association recorded that local residents “do most emphatically claim that much of the material for the story was gathered in old San Jacinto,” not the current location, by Jackson and “that much of the book was composed there,” while many characters were based on “residents of this section in those pioneer days.”
Much of the program, naturally, dealt with a synopsis of the work, which was much more localized than today’s version which brings in the American seizure of Mexican California, the wrangling for land by Anglos under a land commission. Otherwise, the telling of the basic story centering first at the Rancho Moreno, the plan of its owner Felipe to marry Ramona and his mother’s decision to tell Ramona that she was part-Indian in order to sunder the romance, Alessandro’s wooing of Ramona, their marriage and settlement among his people, the death of their daughter and the killing of Alessandro by Farrar, are fundamentally maintained now.
With respect to the actors, Ramona was played by Dorise Schukow (Doris Schwuchow) who was born in Chicago in 1904 as one of two daughters to a doctor who worked for the city and a housewife. The family relocated before 1920 to Los Angeles and within a couple of years Dorise appeared in local theater before securing the titular role in the first pageant in 1923, recurring in the part each year thereafter, except the second, and continuing for a decade.
Schukow, who was married twice, was found dead early in October 1935 in a closed garage next to the exhaust pipe of an idling car and, while it was first believed the death was accidental, her physician husband, George Dazey, was tried, but acquitted on a murder charge five years later. Incidentally, the most famous actor to play Ramona was an unknown 19-year old San Diego resident named Jo Raquel Tejada, who had the role for one year, 1959, but later went on to great fame as Raquel Welch and who just died a few months ago. Another well-known actor, Anne Archer, played the titular role in 1969.
Playing Alessandro was Victor Jory, a native of the Yukon gold country of Canada but born there in 1902 to American parents. After serving in the Coast Guard, Jory studied acting at the Marta Oatman acting school before appearing in the pageant several time in the early years of the piece. Jory went on to a lengthy Hollywood film career, appearing in over 150 films, as well as many television programs and some stage work, before his death in 1982.
Much of the rest of the cast included local community theater thespians and residents, while José Arias provided the music from the first days of the pageant and was a very well-known leader of a “Spanish orchestra.” The Arias family continues to provide music for the pageant today, while one of the main female dancers, Desiree Corral, is a granddaughter of a founding Arias orchestra member.
Other contents in the program include a “Directory of Landmarks” for indigenous and other historical sites, a description of Gilman Hot Springs, and another of the Soboba Hot Springs, operated by John G. Althouse. One of the many visitors to the latter was Walter P. Temple, who stayed in an “Indian Hut” shown in the program and who built a copy of the structure as the Tepee adjacent to La Casa Nueva, one of the more distinctive features of the Homestead.
Finally, there are a couple of poems by Earl M. Dunbar, including one simply titled “Ramona” and which includes the lines
Some say she did not even live,
Or living, was but simple maid
Of Indian culture, primitive
As those who dwell in hill and glade.
What matters it? Her story wakes
The deep emotions of the soul
To pity for the heart the aches
Through sacrificial love’s control . . .
Her hopes, her fears, her trials, her joys,
Are part of life’s sweet, stern romance.
We all are puppets—all are toys
Of overmastering circumstance.
She is an epic of mankind,
For all who love must suffer pain;
Yet loving all, like she, will find
That faithful love is only gain.
For an interesting, concise discussion of the “Ramona Myth,” former pageant and Hemet city historian Phil Brigandi, also an authority on his native Orange County who died in 2019 not long after taking part in the Homestead’s commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the Portolá Expedition of 1769, see this article for The Branding Iron, the journal of the Los Angeles Corral of The Westerners. Historian Dydia DeLyser’s 2005 book, Ramona Memories, is also a recommended work about the Ramona tourist phenomenon.