Back in 1884, the author Helen Hunt Jackson penned the novel, Ramona, while touring various locales in Southern California. It became a popular American classic, has enjoyed more than 300 printings, and has been adapted for film five times. Ramona has also been adapted for several plays, and one such play has been performed outdoors, in April and May, nearly every year since 1923.
This play is called The Ramona Pageant. The Ramona Pageant is considered to be the longest running outdoor play in the United States. It takes place in Hemet, California at the Ramona Bowl. This is a natural amphitheater, nestled in a small valley near the site of a former Indian village. Actors perform on a steep hillside and valley floor, while the audience observes from stands located on the opposite hillside.
The Ramona Pageant has only missed being performed in the years 1933 (due to the Great Depression), 1942 (at the onset of our involvement in World War II), and in 2020 (due to Covid-19 restrictions). It is California’s official State Outdoor Play, and is a celebrated tradition of Southern California. My grandfather performed in this play back in the 1930s. I’ve seen a photo of him posing as an Indian, in the rocks of the steep hillside.
Several notable actors have starred in The Ramona Pageant, including Victor Jory, as Alessandro, from 1933-1937, alongside his wife, actress Jean Inness, who played Ramona.
Raquel Tejada played Ramona in 1959, at age 18. She married her high school sweetheart, James Welch, within days after her final performance. The marriage didn’t last, but Raquel Welch’s love for show business has lingered for a lifetime.
Actress Anne Archer also broke into show business, with her role as Ramona, in 1969. But there are many other’s who’ve gone unsung, performing at this spectacular. The cast and crew are populated by 375 members, most of whom are local residents of the Hemet area. Also, many horses and mules appear in the play. And a family of traditional Mexican musicians, the Arias Troubadours, have provided the sound track for the play since 1924.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I traveled to Hemet and watched the play for our first time. It was the 99th anniversary of The Ramona Pageant’s first performance. My sister, River, assisted as a stage hand, and a friend of hers was a member of the cast. But we sat well away from this action, way up in the comfortable shade of box seats.
We loved it. It was fun being part of an audience that cheered for the heroes and booed at the villains. Next year will be the pageant’s 100th anniversary, and my sister has volunteered to be a cast member. At age 69, she will be the one who rides onto center stage, sweeps someone up onto the back of her horse, and gallops away. So naturally we’ll have to go again, in order to watch all this horsing around. Who knows, perhaps like Raquel, this will bring her big break in show business.