ramona play hemet

The Biggest Play You’ll Ever See

On a hillside in Hemet every spring, a couple of professional actors, a few horses, and an entire community bring a slice of California history to life.

Kent Black Arts & Entertainment, Current PSL, History

ramona play hemet
Steve Alvarez with the Red Tail Spirit Singers & Dancers, the Spanish and Heritage dancers and musicians, and the Arias Troubadours, who have performed in the play since 1924.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY RAMONA BOWL

Editor’s Note: The Ramona Outdoor Play has been canceled for this year due to the COVID-19 virus. This article was written prior to its onset.

The Ramona Outdoor Play starts with a bang. A very big bang.

On a several-acre hillside in Hemet, several actors dressed in period Mexican military uniforms of the 1840s detonate a replica 19th-century cannon, marking the first momentous event in this two-plus-hour extravaganza: the handing over of California to the United States by Mexico. (To be clear: There is no cannonball, and the weapon is not aimed at the audience.)

Just as you unclench your buttocks, pull your fingers from your ears, and settle back into your seat in the 5,300-person audience facing the hillside stage, a thundering clatter of horse hooves signals the arrival of two Mexican officers on horseback. Following them are six members of the U.S. Army, led by Kit Carson, who ride in to accept the surrender of the state. Though audience members are sure to take in important details of the natural amphitheater — the corral, multi-room “hacienda,” indigenous dwellings, massive rock outcroppings, crisscrossing trails, and flower gardens around the front of the “set” — it’s difficult to appreciate the scale of the production until people and horses appear, and you realize you’re witnessing an outdoor play, the likes of which have not been seen since the Golden Age of Spanish theater when actual military ships fought in the battle scenes.

“It’s completely unique,” says Dennis Anderson, a retired San Jacinto College theater professor who has been directing the play for the last quarter century and, as a young man growing up in Hemet, also appeared as an actor. “Part of the draw is experiencing California as it used to be, but the real draw is the experience of outdoor theater. People come here because [there are] cowboys and Indians riding horses, cannons firing, and live music. For years, people have asked us to put it on at night, but we’re purists. Lighting creates an artificial environment and we want to keep the action pure, so the audience can really see Old California.”

The story is an Old West Romeo and Juliet. Ramona, a half-Native, half-Scottish orphan is the ill-treated, adopted daughter of Señora Moreno, a snobby, prejudiced landowner. Ramona falls in love with Alessandro, the son of the chief of the local Temecula tribe. Dona Moreno condemns their love, and they run away to marry.

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY RAMONA BOWL

Steve Alvarez leads the Red Tail Spirit Singers & Dancers.

The original story was written by Helen Hunt Jackson and published in 1884. Jackson was from the East, wealthy, and well educated. (She was a classmate of Emily Dickinson at Amherst and the two corresponded throughout their lives.) In 1879, Jackson attended a lecture by a Native American chief in Boston who described the exploitation of his tribe by greedy land speculators who forced the removal of his tribe, the Ponca, to Oklahoma, where they lived in poverty and near starvation. Jackson became an activist for Native rights at a time when most European Americans were still reeling from the Battle of Little Bighorn. Undaunted, she enlisted allies among politicians and ministers and tirelessly advocated for the purchase of new and better lands for reservations. On a visit to California, she was told that only a few years earlier, an American wanted some land that was owned by a Soboba Indian in the San Jacinto Mountains above Hemet. His solution was to simply ride to the man’s cabin and shoot him dead. He was never arrested or tried. And he took the land.

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY RAMONA BOWL

Ramona Cowboys with Padre Gaspara played by Randy Dawkins.

Hunt returned to New York and wrote Ramona in about three months. Her aim was to write a book that would stir emotions and empathy the way Harriett Beecher Stowe had done with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Though she died the next year, the book later went through 300 printings and sold more than 600,000 copies, and The North American Review named it one of the most ethical books written in the 19th century.

It may have faded away as another literary curiosity, if not for an unusual theatrical impresario named Garnet Holme. An English emigrant to California in the early 20th century, he was the poor man’s D.W. Griffith, a specialist in outdoor pageants, outsized spectacles with multitudinous casts in natural settings. At the time of his death in Larkspur, Marin County, California, in 1929, he was most well known for staging Drake on Mount Tamalpais. It was an historical reenactment of the English explorer’s arrival on the Northern California coast. However, six years earlier, he adapted Ramona at the behest of the city’s chamber of commerce. Enlisting the town’s populace, he created the Ramona Pageant with a huge cast and a natural amphitheater almost within walking distance of downtown Hemet. Holme’s adaptation was used until playwright and screenwriter Stephen Savage created a new version in 2014. No doubt, Holme would be delighted to know his pageant is the longest-running outdoor play in the United States.

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PHOTOGRAPH BY FREDRIK BRODÉN

A historic banner used to promote Ramona Outdoor Play.

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PHOTOGRAPH BY FREDRIK BRODÉN

A headdress and hat from the costume department.

The pageant used to be an indelible part of growing up in Southern California. For most fourth-graders, field trips were meant to augment their year-long study of California history. There were three principal destinations: The mission of San Juan Capistrano, Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles, and a performance of Ramona. “We still get the fourth-graders,” says Anderson, who says the Thursday before the opening performance is reserved for fourth-graders from all over Southern California. “The boys go crazy when the cannon goes off or the cowboys ride in, and the girls shout when Ramona and Alessandro first kiss.”

One of the most important parts of Holme’s Ramona legacy was involving the entire community in the production. It was a fairly common practice with 19th century traveling theater troupes to augment productions. The professionals would star in the lead roles while local townspeople would take the roles of spear carriers and ladies in waiting. However, Holme took it a gigantic step further. 
In the sleepy ranch and farm community of Hemet, he had a robust ethnic mix with which to fill out an Anglo, Hispanic, and Native American cast.

The Ramona Outdoor Play (the former title, The Ramona Pageant, is now more of a nickname) has gone dark only twice: in 1933 during the height of the Depression and 1942 during World War II. It also runs over one of the shortest seasons: six performances on three consecutive weekends from mid-April to early May. It’s actually a huge commitment for a volunteer army. The cast has to be able to commit to nine consecutive weekends of rehearsal before the show’s opening — and that’s not counting costume fittings. Plus, countless volunteers run the concessions and parking lot. “Without our volunteers,” Anderson says, “we’d be done.”

Since the play was first staged in 1923, the challenge has not been filling theater seats, but enlisting enough “actors” to fill the three-acre set. (The entire operation — parking lots, gift shop, costume and make up rooms, rehearsal hall, and corrals — consumes 160 acres.) “In terms of atmosphere, we need as many people as we can get,” Anderson says. The average cast size is about 380 people. Traditionally, the only two paid professionals are Ramona and Alessandro [currently played by Kayla Contreras and Eli Santana, respectively], though the director points out, “There are some people who have held their roles for 20, 30 years. The lady [Kathi Anderson] who plays Senora is my wife. She’s a trained stage actress, and she has held the role for 12 years. The lady who had the role before her had it for 22 years. We have one family, the Arias Troubadours, who have been performing in the show since 1924.”

PHOTOGRAPH BY FREDRIK BRODÉN

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PHOTOGRAPH BY FREDRIK BRODÉN

Detail view of a fresco painting by Milford Zornes.

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY RAMONA BOWL

Raquel Welch (Ramona), Maurice Jara (Alessandro), and director Ralph Freud in 1959.

Cast members come from all over Southern California, though most are Hemet residents. Because of the demanding physical nature and extreme terrain, “The cowboys have to be real cowboys,” Anderson says. “They come from all over the area and bring their own horses.”

Though some of the lead actors from the early days were well known in their time, most names would not be recognized now. However, in 1959, an aspiring actress and model from San Diego got her first acting gig playing Ramona. Her name was Raquel Tejeda. She later changed it to Raquel Welch. And then, a few years later, a graduate of one of the Claremont colleges decided to audition for the role. Her name was Anne Archer. Anderson says that Archer was at a film festival a few years ago, and during an audience Q&A session, credited Ramona with launching her acting career. She literally left Hemet to go to New York.

Star power may not be a requirement, but athletic ability and the stamina of an Olympic competitor certainly is. At last year’s performance, Alessandro actor Santana was often required to sprint 40 or 50 yards at a time to connect with his cast mates. Some of that running was up the steep, narrow trails on the hillside. In two hours of performing, he must have covered several miles. Adding to the challenge, he needed to hit his mark and say his lines without choking for breath. The acting was good, but the effort was extraordinary.

While the tragic love story of Ramona and Alessandro drives the narrative, the pageantry is one of the most entertaining aspects of the experience. It is, after all, The Ramona Pageant, and Holme and every director right to Anderson (who has been doing it for 24 years) knew that one of the best ways to tell California’s cultural history was through music and dance. Hispano-Californio culture is well represented by traditional music and dances, as are local Native tribes. Though the production’s patron is the Soboba Band of Luseno Indians, there are intertribal dances that represent a mix of traditions. “Our hoop dancer [Terry Goedel] is a world champion and his daughter [Tara Kingi] was recently named a world champion in hoop dancing. [Goedel] has been doing it 23 years now and he does an amazing hoop dance. He’s so flexible, so fit. I hate him!” Anderson jokes.

Ramona’s producers have never sought public funding to underwrite this extravaganza, though they were fortunate this last year to acquire the support of a private donor who has enabled them to restore many of the older buildings. One particularly exciting project was the restoration of an enormous fresco painted on a gift shop wall in the 1930s.

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY RAMONA BOWL

Anne Archer as Ramona and Frank Sorrell as Alessandro.

At one point, it was partially painted over and then covered up by cabinets. It’s a stunning piece of historical art that has been meticulously restored. However, despite generous donors, ticket sales have declined in the last couple decades and, as a result, the production operates, in Anderson’s words, “like a lean, mean machine.”

A case in point is the costume department. It’s located a short drive from the main entrance on the other side of the hill. The rather spare, almost forlorn, California-revival structure contains both rehearsal space and make up rooms, as well as the huge costume inventory. “Most of the Spanish dresses are from the 1940s and ’50s,” Anderson says, “so we are constantly mending and repairing them. Period costumes are very expensive, so it’s a big deal when we add a few new ones each season.”

Because there are no off-stage wings of the “set,” every cast member — whether human or horse — must enter the stage by hiking over the hill. First, the actors get into costume and make-up. (With 380 people in the cast, there are a lot of faces to paint and clothing to adjust.)

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PHOTOGRAPH BY FREDRIK BRODÉN

Fiesta costumes for some of the hundreds of cast members.

Then, they take their places at the bottom of a road that leads to a small ridge overlooking the amphitheater. From here, they traverse the main road leading down to the hacienda or one of the many trails crisscrossing the couple of acres that make up the very vertical stage right. Because there is no lighting to cue the actors, stage managers communicate with mobile phones. It should be a logistical nightmare, an exercise in controlled chaos that cannot possibly end in anything but disaster.

“We have new people coming in to help all the time, but we have a core of people who make it work,” Anderson says. “[If something goes wrong], I can’t say cut, we can’t bring down the lights … there are no lights. No curtain to bring down. All this is going on, but the audience can’t see all our people with their headsets hiding behind rocks and orchestrating the play.”

Anderson seems bemused that year after year, the people of Hemet get together and pull off this minor miracle. It’s reminiscent of the scene in the movie Shakespeare in Love when Geoffrey Rush’s Phillip Henslowe placates Tom Wilkinson’s financial backer Hugh Fennyman:

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY RAMONA BOWL

Eli Santana plays the role of Alessandro in the return from Temecula scene.

Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theater business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Fennyman: So what do we do?
Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Fennyman: How?
Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

Tickets and information: ramonabowl.com

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PHOTOGRAPH BY FREDRIK BRODÉN

The Ramona Bowl in Hemet.