A Sri Lankan native moves from Los Angeles to Hemet and discovers a plethora of stage opportunities and a local theater legend named Marguerite Washburn McPherson
■ B.M. Jayatilaka / Contributed
When I moved to Hemet, I immediately became involved with the famous Ramona Pageant. One could say I jumped in with both feet. I landed a part as a sheep shearer, wore a long black wig and a bandana; I saw Dolly Parton sitting way back in the director’s booth; I painted a façade and scenery, and enjoyed the company of the other actors.
Then I played Dr. Emmet in “The Curious Savage,” which Vesta Garcia directed for the Ramona Hillside Players — the little theater near the Ramona Bowl.
I always wanted to write and direct my own plays, just the way I did in Sri Lanka, which is how I met Ms. Marguerite Washburn McPherson.
Marguerite was a great lady with her own little theater on Harvard Street right next to Hollywood Hair. She was always looking for new talent and welcomed me with open arms and actually invited me to direct my play on her little stage. The play I wrote was the English version of one of my Sinhala radio plays, which I had written for Sri Lanka Broadcasting Cooperation. My American adaptation was titled “Timewalker” and it was about a caveman who travelled through time too fast, ended up in the modern world and lost his mind in the process.
Marguerite helped me find the actors and I found it easy to direct them. We all became like a family. We did two weekends with a Friday matinee and had full houses. From the audience’s response, I gathered I had done something right.
My relationship with Marguerite continued after the success of my play and she kindly allowed me to use the interior and exterior of her charming historic heritage home, which faced Main Street in San Jacinto, for a video drama and a movie I wrote and directed.
Marguerite was a free-spirited woman; as they say “a woman of her times” as well as a woman ahead of her time. She was born Marguerite Fantz in Robinson, Illinois in 1920. Her older sister Betty was also born there. I came to know more interesting facts about the family after I met, Marguerite’s grandson, Matt McPherson, a real estate agent in Hemet.
On a rainy afternoon in December, Matt unloaded in my garage a heavy old trunk that belonged to Grandma Marguerite. The wooden trunk, decoupaged with various remnants of wallpaper and reinforced with metal strips and studs is full of photos, newspaper articles and other memorabilia. It is a true time capsule going back many, many years.
It not only holds treasures about the Palace West Theater but about Ramona Playhouse and news items about President Roosevelt winning a fourth term.
Matt managed to save this precious trunk amidst all he had to go through in his life, including a house fire. When he first opened the trunk, there was a reddish yellow photograph from the play “Christmas Carols” at the Palace West Theater, where Matt himself had played the part of Tiny Tim.
Matt also had some fascinating stories from his grandmother’s life. He said Grandma had some superstitious beliefs or interesting inexplicable happenings relating to her life from the time of her birth. While Marguerite’s mother was still living in Illinois, pregnant with Betty, she had gone berry picking in a forested area near her home. A big black bear had come from behind her and whacked her in the back. Though she got away unharmed, when the baby was born, the little girl had a tuft of black hair growing out of her back in the shape of a bear’s paw!
When mother was pregnant with Marguerite, again while she was outdoors, she had had a scary experience with a huge slithering snake that crawled over her foot. When Marguerite was born, she was the longest baby anyone had ever seen! Coincidence? Or did the consciousness of the pregnant lady register these fears in her mind and had after-effects on the fetus?
When Marguerite was about six years old, her father died and she and her family moved in with uncle Joy Richart to Hacienda Heights in 1926. Richart, an inventor, had invented a revolutionary oil drill bit that was soon adopted by the oil companies. This brought in great wealth to Richart and he himself had oil fields in Santa Fe Springs and around Downey in Los Angeles County.
In the late ‘20s the family moved to Whittier and soon became friends with Richard Nixon’s family. The Nixons had a grocery store and young Richard used to deliver groceries to Marguerite’s place. Richard and Marguerite’s brother Richart (so named after the uncle) were close friends. During Prohibition in the 1930s, Richard Nixon and Richart Fants allegedly had a beer still in their garage and brewed their own for about eight years.
Marguerite married Robert McPherson and they had five children. Robert, the eldest, is Matt’s dad. Then there were Marcia, Connie, Dan and Pat. Because Robert had a hotrod, he had the chance of being an extra in Hollywood beach movies, driving his hotrod up and down the beach while Annette Funicello acted in front of the cameras.
They moved to the valley in the 1950s and Robert Sr. opened McPherson’s furniture shop in Hemet. Slowly he managed to buy the whole block from Harvard Street to State Street. Once a week they would pick up a load of furniture from the Hemet train depot and bring it to the store in their flatbed truck.
In the 1960s when Marguerite and Robert parted company, she got the building on Harvard Street as part of the settlement, and that is where she built her little piece of paradise — the Palace West Theater.
Bhadraji Mahinda Jayatilaka is a prolific writer who has won many awards for his books in Sri Lanka. He is an instructor in theater and art and is currently teaching water color through the Community Education programs at Mt. San Jacinto College. He is also directing his new play in Sinhala, “Sathuta Namvu Thaanayama,” (The Happiness Inn) in Los Angeles and is completing the final edits on his movie “The Sunday Drive.”