The Ramona Pageant

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.

[SPOILER ALERT! If you plan to read the book, don’t read these captions!]
Ramona is twice an orphan. Her parents died when she was a baby, and later her foster mother dies. But while the foster mother is on her deathbed, she is promised by her sister, Señora Gonzaga Moreno, that she will take good care of Ramona. The play begins with Ramona as a teenager who lives on Señora Moreno’s huge rancho, in the Mexican territory of Alta California.

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.

Early into the play, the United States conquers California, during the Mexican War, and now Moreno finds her claim to her ranch being disputed by Americans. They carve it up and take much of her land away from her.

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.

Angry about losing her ranchland, Señora Moreno (right) hates Americans. But she’s a bitter woman anyway, who does not love her foster daughter, Ramona (left), and who treats her harshly.

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.

An Indian named Alessandro, from the nearby Temecula tribe, falls in love with Ramona and wins her heart. They want to get married, but Señora Moreno forbids the marriage. And she threatens to kick Ramona off the rancho if she ever catches her with Alessandro again.

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.

Ramona protests being forbidden from seeing Alessandro, and this is when Moreno confesses that she hates Indians, and that she has hated them ever since one of her children died as the result of an Indian attack. And then she reveals that Ramona, herself, is half-Indian and half-Scottish. This comes as a surprise to Ramona, who had always thought she was of Spanish descent.

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.

Ramona realizes that her foster mother’s bitterness and prejudice against Indians is why she has been treated so harshly by her. So she decides to elope with Alessandro. She and Alessandro marry and have two children, but they find themselves driven off Indian lands by white settlers. Finally they move into a mountain cabin, and are happy for awhile, until their baby gets sick.

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.

Alessandro steals a horse so that he can find a doctor to care for their sick baby. But the doctor arrives too late, and the baby dies. Soon after, a posse with the owner of the horse that Alessandro stole, tracks Alessandro down and shoots him dead.

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.

Now widowed, Ramona returns to the rancho of her childhood, with her remaining daughter, who is also named Ramona. She discovers that Señora Moreno has died, and that Moreno’s son, Felipe, now owns the rancho. But Felipe has always loved Ramona, and he proposes marriage. She agrees. They have several children, but their daughter Ramona remains their favorite. They all live happily ever after at their rancho, in the beautiful new state of California.

Categories: Reviews

38 replies »

  1. How cool! That is the way to see a play. Outdoors in the mountains. How fun for your sister to be acting in it next year. Sounds like an exciting play to watch. Glad you guys got to see it from your coveted box seats. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  2. How interesting! I am thrilled by River’s involvement and your chance to cheer her on. That makes it all much more inclusive and thrilling. I am proud of River’s younger brother for supporting her in her positive strides of life.

    Liked by 1 person

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