"I am going to write a novel, in which will be set forth some Indians' experiences in a way to move people's hearts," vowed novelist Helen Hunt Jackson in 1883.
The result was "Ramona," a romance of Old California, about the love of a noble Indian and a beautiful Mission girl. Published in 1884, Jackson's novel is still tugging hearts. And so is Hemet's 66-year-old "Ramona Pageant."
With a cast of more than 350 people, the "Ramona Pageant" uses an entire mountainside as its stage and is attended by 39,000 annually.
The 62nd edition begins its six-week run Saturday.
Although it's a large-scale event in terms of audiences, it is a family affair backstage, with many of the same participants returning year after year. Cast and crew members come from among the 85,000 residents of the Hemet-San Jacinto Valley, which includes areas where many incidents in the Ramona story actually took place. The stage, a 6,662-seat natural amphitheater called the Ramona Bowl, is built in the unspoiled foothills of San Jacinto Mountain--two miles south of Hemet's main street.
Of the numerous actors, stage hands and makeup people who return to the Ramona Bowl each year, many compare the coming of pageant time to a homecoming--a homecoming lovingly led by the play's co-directors, Maurice and Hilda Jara.
"Whenever we have the tryouts, it's like a reunion," said Tom Morlan, who plays cowboy Jim Farrar, and has been involved with the pageant for 17 years.
Those involved refer to the nonprofit pageant as "a labor of love," and say it is that sense of love and family that keeps them coming back year after year.
Longtime pageant associates include the Jaras, who have been involved with the pageant for 36 years; 27-year stage manager Melba Gilmore, who has been a part of the production for 43 years, and her husband, Watson Gilmore, who has played the crusty Juan Canito for more than 20 years, and Elmer Grohs, who plays a sheepshearer and has been with the play for 61 years.
"When we get together it's like old home week," said Hilda Jara. "There's a real spirit of family--I think that's why (the pageant) has lasted so long."
The pageant is administered through the Ramona Pageant Assn., a corporation that was formed through the Hemet and San Jacinto chambers of commerce after Garnet Holme, the writer and first director of the Ramona Pageant, left the rights of the play to the two communities in 1929.
With an annual budget of $300,000, only the two leading players, the directors and the pageant's office staff are paid, somewhat meagerly, for their efforts. But many give up their weekends from mid-January through performance time for the play's rehearsals. An additional 500 behind-the-scenes volunteers work during show times.
And there's no shortage of cast members, despite the long rehearsal hours and lack of remuneration. Maurice Jara said about 25 people try out every year for each of the leads, and in this year's auditions, eight women vied for the supporting role of Margarita.
The current Ramona, Kathi Anderson, also played the coveted role--as Kathi Sommers--in 1985. Anderson said that winning back the part was worth enduring four years of the tough audition process.
"I kept trying," said Anderson, 36, who added that not being a part of the pageant made her feel "like I'd gotten divorced. (Playing Ramona) is like being back home again," Anderson said.
Anderson's co-star, Christ Thomas, is playing Ramona's husband, Alessandro, for the third time. (He also played the role in 1985 and 1986.) Like Anderson, he kept auditioning until he won back his role.
"But I was still involved (in secondary roles)," said Thomas, 28, who played a sheepshearer at 16 and has been in the play ever since.
And for both leads, the play takes on an added sense of family: Anderson's daughter Kristie, 10, and Thomas' daughter Anne, 8, were both selected for roles in this year's production.
As for the Jaras, the pageant combines elements of their heritage (Maurice has Hispanic ancestry and Hilda is a fifth generation Californian) with their love of the stage. After working with the pageant for so many years (Maurice played Alessandro for 15 years before becoming the director in 1969), it has become a major part of their lives.
"We finally hit upon a vehicle that takes in all that we want to do with something that we understand (Southern California's customs and lore)," Maurice Jara said. "This is my biggest enjoyment in life. I stay for . . . the love of doing it."
"(The pageant) has been my life," agreed Hilda Jara, who relayed the story of the couple's involvement with the play.
"Maurice tried out for Alessandro and he fell in love with the play from then on," she said. "I'd watch it when he was Alessandro and think, 'Gee, I'd do this,' or 'I'd like it this way.' Then the director quit and we started (directing the play) ourselves."
The "Ramona" story has a long history: four American and one Mexican film versions have been made (including a 1910 version directed by D.W. Griffith and staring Mary Pickford as Ramona), and at least 10 stage versions have been produced.
The Hemet pageant's version (which has had 25 different Ramonas--including Raquel Welch and Anne Archer) debuted in 1923 and has been produced all but five years (when war and recession intervened) since then.
"We have a beautiful setting and we use it," said Hilda Jara of the 160-acre Ramona Bowl site. "We have action (including posses of horsemen dashing in and out of scenes) on the hill, and all around. Most plays with similar settings use only the foreground. It's an awesome thing when people appear from way up on the hill and are a part of it."
"The Ramona Pageant" will be performed Saturday and next Sunday April 22-23, April 29 and 30 and May 6 and 7. All shows are at 3 p.m. and tickets are $12 and $15 (tickets for children under 12 are half-price in the $12 section). Parking is free. Information: (714) 658-3111.