By Julie Pendray
HEMET, Calif. — Gunfire erupted among the boulders of Ramona Bowl Amphitheatre on Friday.
“They’ve shot Alessandro!” exclaimed some of the 4th-graders in the audience.
“Yeah, Alessandro dies,” one boy calmly informed his peers.
“I know,” sighed a girl sadly.
Friday was the 4th-grade preview of the annual performance of “Ramona” which opened Saturday to the public and shows weekends through May 3, 2015. This year’s production has some changes designed to boost audiences. If students’ reactions are a barometer, young people will find the Native American dancers “cool” and they’ll give the cannon fire and guns “two thumbs up.” At Friday’s preview, there were also loud “oohs” (and a few “ews!) during Ramona’s first kiss with Alessandro.
“Ramona” is a love story based on the novel of the same name written by Helen Hunt Jackson in 1884. She based her story on what she saw while traveling through California as an agent of the Interior Department, documenting the plight of Native Americans.
In the tale, an Indian couple’s romance survives (though Alessandro ultimately does not) amid a backdrop of battles between the Indians, Spanish, Mexicans and white settlers, over land, money and respect.
The story gives an important sense of place for any California resident. For anyone living in the San Jacinto Valley and on Mt. San Jacinto above it, its value goes even deeper. Mt. San Jacinto is where Alessandro promises to pick wildflowers as he woos his beloved Ramona. She says she would love to see flowers from that mountain that seems to rise up to touch heaven.
There are several points of interest for residents of the tiny village of Idyllwild on that mountain. This year’s executive creative director, Stephen Savage, and some of his team live in Idyllwild. Also, Mountain Mike Allen and Mountain Mike’s Leatherworks of Idyllwild have created the costume for the new character of Kit Carson. Allen will take on more of a role in costuming for “Ramona” in the future, according to organizers, such as making moccasins for each new woman who plays the lead role.
Ramona is played this year by Morgan Lester. Alessandro is portrayed by Joseph Valdez. Both have Native American heritage. There are many fine actors in the show, which features plenty of music and dance. A special treat is soprano Linda Greilich of Hemet, who regularly performs in local productions.
Among the crowd packing the amphitheater on Friday was a class from Idyllwild School. According to Tom Dillon, one of the school’s teachers, the show is “a great cap for the year for students because they can see something they’ve been studying all year long. It also gives the kids a break,” he said. “They’ve been working so hard.”
When his students were interviewed about their favorite parts of the play, the boys overwhelmingly liked the cannon (new this year), guns and cowboys. Tara Geisinger said she liked the “girls’ dresses.”
Savage said it wasn’t easy to find a cannon for the show, but, in the end, he found one right in town, through a re-enactment group, The Washington Artillery of New Orleans.
“Ramona” is billed as California’s Official Outdoor Play, and the longest running outdoor play in the country. The first performance at Ramona Bowl was in 1923. Audiences had to stand or sit on the brushy hillsides because there were no seats yet. Ever since then, residents of San Jacinto Valley and beyond have come together, some of them as families, to volunteer to bring “Ramona” to life.
The play has a special significance for this region, especially for Native Americans.
According to the The Historical Society of Southern California, author Helen Hunt Jackson hired a law firm to protect the rights of a Saboba (sic) Indian family facing dispossession of their land at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains.
She called for changes in the government’s Native American policies in an 1881 book called “A Century of Dishonor,” in which she described “broken treaties, brutal murders, and deceptive government policies,” according to the Ramona Bowl web site.
The historical society references her 56-page report to the Interior Department, completed in 1883, which called for “a massive government relief effort, ranging from the purchase of new lands for reservations to the establishment of more Indian schools. A bill largely embodying Jackson’s recommendations passed the U.S. Senate but died in the House. Undaunted by Congress’ rejection, Jackson decided to write a novel that would depict the Indian experience ‘in a way to move people’s hearts.'”
“Ramona” became a best seller. Savage said it was like the “Harry Potter” books, for its time.
Tony Barksdale grew up in Hemet and his family participated in the Indian dance scenes in “Ramona” for several decades. He now lives in Kentucky but he made a visit to see the preview of “Ramona” on Friday. He said he’s thinking of dancing again.
To see photos of the various performers over the years, go to the Facebook page for “Ramona,” which features images from the Hemet Public Library collection.
Dennis Anderson is the artistic director again for this year’s “Ramona.” Anderson, a former Mt. San Jacinto College vice president, has directed the play for 18 years.
Irene Bedard, a Native American actress, narrates the show via a recording heard over a new sound system. Bedard was the voice and model for Disney’s “Pocahontas” movies and lead actress in the cult classic “Smoke Signals.”
Also new this year: a smart phone app. During the play, the audience will be able to go on their iPads and when an actor comes on stage, the app will show the actor’s name.
“It’s educational,” Savage said.
Savage wants to work with local Native American tribes to teach them to act in future “Ramona” productions, he said in a recent interview. He also said he wants to start a film school in Hemet/San Jacinto area for students who can’t afford expensive schools.
“Ramona” is two hours long, with an intermission after an hour. If you go see it, be prepared for hot sun. There’s little shade, so take a hat and sunscreen. Refreshments and gift vendors are available.
Showtime is 3:30 p.m. on April 25 and 26 and May 2 and 3.
Ticket prices range from $18 to $44.
The show is not considered suitable for children under age 5. All children must have tickets; all seating is reserved.
Ramona Bowl is at 27400 Ramona Bowl Road, Hemet.
For more information, visit the “Ramona” official web site at ramonabowl.com .
Copyright Julie Pendray, SpecialsNotOnTheMenu.com