How ‘Ramona’ did for California what ‘Harry Potter’ did for England
■ By Ramona Bowl / Contributed
Helen Hunt Jackson’s “Ramona” sparked a tourism boom in California much like “Harry Potter” created tourism for England.
The most important woman in the history of California never lived. She is the fictional heroine of Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 wildly popular novel “Ramona.” Her mark on Southern California’s landscape and on the social memory in the region is indelible, even today. She boosted D.W. Griffith’s film career, offered gainful employment to Loretta Young and Dolores del Rio, gave Raquel Welch a big break, inspired countless architects and helped write the map for this region’s tourism industry.
When Jackson’s book was published, it came just before two competing railroads completed their tracks to California. Rail fares plummeted and tourists by the thousands came to see where “Ramona” took place. Southern Pacific Railroad had a stop they advertised as the “Home of Ramona” (the Rancho Camulos). John D. Spreckels bought the adobe building in San Diego that was called “The Marriage Place of Ramona” and restored it in 1910, adding a gift shop featuring dried flowers, teaspoons and postcards. The Mission Inn in Riverside had many “Ramona” events.
California sought to capitalize on the popularity of “Ramona.” Towns, real estate developments, streets and even a freeway were named for her. Capitalizing on her image of purity and beauty, Ramona Face Cream, Ramona Candy, and Ramona Perfume were created. Ramona’s renown reached into the 20th century with Ramona Beer (she didn’t drink) and Ramona Transmissions (she didn’t drive). By the 1920s, there were so many places and businesses named for Ramona that one commentator wrote, “ I doubt if there is any town in Southern California that does not boast of a street, hotel, garden, park or public place named for Ramona.”
Hemet and San Jacinto also helped promote the Ramona tourism industry. Hemet sits in the foothills of Riverside County, the heart of the country where much of the cruelty and violence of “Ramona” took place. Several tribal reservations reside nearby, but those weren’t exactly tourist attractions in the early 20th century. In 1922, somebody at the local chamber of commerce proposed that the town capitalize by other means. Local boosters traveled to Palm Springs to pilfer a playwright’s ideas, and instead, they ended up hiring him to write a play based on “Ramona.”
His name was Garnet Holme. He not only adapted the novel into a script, but also strode into the brush and chose a site for an open-air stage production with perfect acoustical properties. In 1923, the first “Ramona” production made its debut with audiences of thousands clambering up the hillside to watch the scenes enacted on the facing slope. The spectacle grew into a three-act annual event—the actors dodging real cactus thorns and scrambling up real boulders. Behind the false facade of the set’s ranch house, a bathtub holds water for the horses.
Through the years, many well known actors have been a part of “Ramona.” Victor Jory, who starred in over 150 films and television shows, played the starring role of Alessandro nine times. He and his wife Jean Innes, who played Ramona, also directed the play.
In 1959, the producers chose a new Ramona named Raquel Tejada, soon to become better known as Raquel Welch. In 1969, the role went to Anne Archer, who has gone on to dozens of television and film roles, including an Oscar-nominated supporting role in the 1987 film “Fatal Attraction.”
The Ramona Bowl Amphitheatre continues to present the pageant every year with a cast and crew of over 400 volunteers. They updated the script four years ago. In 1923, everyone had read the book or actually remembered how California became part of the United States. Now, the play opens with the surrender of Mexico to the American Cavalry.
This year is the 95th anniversary season. The actors change, but the spirit remains the same. Many of the actors move through the play as they age, including three former Ramonas who now play the Señora (Kathi Anderson), Marda (Cesaria Hernandez) and Aunt Ri (Monica Reichl). Once you have Ramona in your blood, it’s hard to stop coming back each year.
The Bowl itself is a lovely setting. In the spring, when the play is presented, the hills are green, the flowers are in bloom, and soft breezes always blow in the afternoon. Coming to the Pageant should be a full-day excursion. You can come as soon as the gates open at 1:30 p.m.
Come and witness a part of California’s history come to life at a play you will never forget. Come to “Ramona” April 28 and 29, and May 5 and 6. Show starts at 3:30 p.m. For tickets and information, call 951-658-3111 or go to ramonabowl.com.