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FAMILY

Homestead History Lesson

Event will take visitors back 150 years to before and after California became a state.

May 04, 2000|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The first time that actor Roberto Garza affixed a beard to his chin and adopted the swagger of Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, it was just another acting job. He didn't know anything of Pico's history--that he was born a Spaniard at the San Gabriel Mission on Cinco de Mayo in 1801, that he became rich as a Mexican businessman during the Gold Rush or that he died a poor American at age 94.

But Garza became enthralled with Pico, the man whose name still graces numerous Los Angeles streets and structures, and now is an authority not only on Pico's history but also on the history of California.

On Sunday, he will join other "living history" actors for the Homestead Museum's "New California: Celebrating Our Sesquicentennial," a family event that will take visitors on a journey back 150 years to examine life just before and after California became a state.

But what makes the Homestead gig particularly exciting for Garza is that Pio Pico's remains are buried on the museum property, a rancho formerly owned by friends of Pico's. The core of the 6 1/2-acre museum is the family's two homes, the Workman adobe (1840s) and the Temple mansion (1920s), which will be open for tours throughout the day.

"This will be my first time performing at the Homestead," Garza said. "Now that I know so much about his life, some of the places I go give me goose bumps."

Although she may not have such a personal connection to the Homestead Museum, Lotta Crabtree is another important personality who will be portrayed during the museum's "New California" event. Judith Helton will play Lotta as an adult, but in keeping with the "Sesquicentennial" theme, she will "reminisce" in character about Lotta as a 5-year-old. It was 1853 when Lotta and her mother left their New York City home, traveled through Panama and into San Francisco to meet up with Lotta's father at his boarding house in Grass Valley.

Lotta began singing for the miners as an 8-year-old, and as an adult she became the highest-paid performer in America, said Helton, an actress who has portrayed Lotta in one-woman shows since 1983.

"Most people nowadays have never heard of Lotta Crabtree," Helton said. "But she'd be the equivalent of the biggest rock star today."

When Lotta died in 1924, Helton said, she left $4 million to charity.

Tales of Lotta Crabtree will be in two 30-minute shows, at 2 and 4 p.m.; Pio Pico will take the spotlight at 3 p.m.

Hands-on activities planned throughout the afternoon will give visitors a feel for what California life was like 150 years ago, when the Mexican American War resulted in 600,000 square miles of Mexican land going to the Americans. As the Gold Rush raged in the north, men like Pio Pico struck it rich by raising cattle to feed the influx of miners. Mexican landowners, however, struggled to retain ownership of their land. Pico held on to much of his land and built the Pico House in 1869, the first hotel with indoor plumbing (it still stands on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles), but he eventually lost everything.

Other activities on Sunday will include miners' games (under the tutelage of the Lively Arts History Assn.), adobe brick-making and opportunities to practice roping skills. Artists from Barnsdall's Junior Art Center will share the art of Mexican tin paintings.

Company F's 3rd U.S. Artillery will demonstrate musket loading and firing and will man an encampment depicting soldiers during the Mexican American War. They will fire their cannons on the hour. Other ongoing entertainment includes Mariachi Sol de America and Dogtown Filharmonik performing songs that were popular during the Gold Rush era.

BE THERE

Homestead Museum, 15415 E. Don Julian Road, City of Industry. Sunday, 1-5 p.m. $3; students and seniors $2; 12 and younger, free. Information: (626) 968-8492 or http://www.homesteadmuseum.org.

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