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Who'll Love `Ramona' Now?

In its 83rd year, the pageant about defiant young lovers in early California competes for an audience with casinos, movie houses.

April 25, 2006|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

After 83 years of star-crossed love affairs, shootouts on horseback and family feuds, "Ramona" is showing her age.

The outdoor pageant, based on an epic 19th-century historical novel, starring a cast of hundreds, plus four-legged livestock, was once the hottest ticket in Hemet. For most of its history, there wasn't much competition.

These days, nearby casinos and newly sprouted suburbs packed with movie theaters have eaten away at the Riverside County production's audience.

Decades ago, crowds at the pageant -- which its director and a historian say is the oldest and longest-running such show in the nation -- used to swell to 36,000 over a one-month run. Now, for the first time, the city councils of Hemet and San Jacinto have chipped in, buying thousands of dollars in tickets to keep the sprawling drama afloat. They will be given to city volunteers and employees, area college students, city economic development departments, retailers and municipal agencies across Southern California.

And the show, thanks in part to $90,000 in city money, will go on.

This year's performance of the romanticized tale of racial strife in early California debuted Saturday, with its cast of twelve horses, three mules, 386 actors, Mexican musicians and magically appearing Native Americans.

"The bowl is magic," said Hemet Councilwoman Lori Van Arsdale of the Ramona Bowl, a 160-acre natural amphitheater outfitted especially for the play.

The striking stage and scenery include boulders, winding dirt paths, blooming rose bushes and craggy hills, lighted by the blazing San Jacinto Valley sun.

"You won't get a sunburn at the Ahmanson or the Mark Taper," said Hemet City Manager Steve Temple.

Many longtime Hemet residents have a soft spot for "Ramona," with entire families laboring over generations to launder petticoats, apply eyeliner or wrangle hundreds of school-age extras.

"Because we live in Hemet, it's our civic responsibility," said Vicki Simpson-Underwood, 45, who manages as many as 100 kids playing Native Americans lurking in rocky hilltop crevices during the second act. Nearby, her 3-year-old granddaughter Cheyenne Nauretz squinted, arms held aloft, as a volunteer coated her and her T-shirt and sneakers with liquid stage makeup using an auto-detailing spray brush.

"It's a tradition," said Daniel Martinez, 48, a Hemet electrician who has played narrator Juan Canito for three seasons. "There's not too much tradition left anymore."

His wife, cousins and uncles have all pitched in with the show, which runs from April 22 to May 13.

It's the newcomers to town -- 1,600 homes were built in Hemet just last year -- that have "Ramona" fans worried. The play, based on an 1884 novel by Helen Hunt Jackson, "should mean more than it does" to recent arrivals, said Pat Espinoza, 68, who took over the costume shop from her grandmother in 1975.

The novel "Ramona" spawned five movies, a song, tourist attractions and helped launch the careers of young Raquel Welch and Anne Archer, who both have played the title role in the pageant.

The Hemet Chamber of Commerce paid English actor and director Garnet Holme to write a dramatic adaptation of the novel in the 1920s hoping the grand performance would draw more residents to the San Jacinto Valley, said the play's artistic director, Dennis Anderson. The first performance was in 1923. The pageant has played for 79 seasons, missing some years during the Depression and World War II.

Some of the episodes in Jackson's novel are based on historical clashes between white settlers and Native Americans that took place near the bowl and in the Temecula Valley, said Anderson and "Ramona" historian Phil Brigandi.

The tale is of young lovers, one from a local tribe and the other from a Mexican hacienda, who defy their families to be together while the region is under siege from encroaching white settlers. It was "written to be an 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' for Indians," Brigandi said.

Vincent Whipple, the part-Navajo, part-Sioux actor who has played the lead role of Alessandro since the late 1990s, believes "Ramona's" narrative of ethnic persecution still resonates today.

"It's important for me as a native person to bring myself, my experience ... to the story," Whipple said. The play allows viewers "to reflect back on history and look at the mistakes that were made," some of which echo Whipple's family experiences, he said.

The Romeo-and-Juliet-in-the-Wild-West love story, and its message of tolerance, have stuck.

"We're never going to stop telling the story," said Janine Mundwiler, the bowl's general manager.

Mundwiler drummed up municipal support this year and walked the halls of the Capitol in Sacramento wearing 19th-century garb last week, inviting state legislators to the show.

"In the first 60 years, we didn't have to work so hard to get out the message," she said.

There are no plans to overhaul "Ramona's" tragic romance for modern audiences, even though the three-hour show has been condensed to 2 1/2, the cast made more diverse and greater Native American influence added, including songs in Cahuilla to represent local Cahuilla and Luiseno tribes.

"Disneyland, they did a lot of things to change," Mundwiler said. "They didn't get rid of Mickey Mouse."

The live performance worked just fine for the 5,200 fourth-graders assembled at Friday's preview performance, who squealed as the young Native American Alessandro smooched Ramona for the first time.

Information: (800) 645-4465 or www.ramonabowl.com.

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