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For Spectators, the Pageantry Is Almost as Much Fun as That Fiesta

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A young man named Tim Black jumped on a horse bareback, saying, “My horse can make it. I’ll be back by sundown tomorrow.” Then he brushed the horse’s flanks with his heels and rode it up a trail that led out of sight over the mountain.

The speed, the sharp slope of the trail and Black’s horsemanship brought a roar of excitement and encouragement from the audience that filled the Ramona Bowl in Hemet on Saturday.

“Ramona” is a melodramatic tragedy and panoramic spectacle, the dramatization of a book written more than 100 years ago by Helen Hunt Jackson, a woman concerned with the mistreatment of the Indians by the Norte Americanos. The book was published in 1884 and has been in print ever since.

It was an Englishman, Garnet Holme, a graduate of Christ College at Cambridge, who had the idea of making a fiery play from the book and presenting it in a natural setting. The first production was in 1923.

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The bowl has concrete seats (rent a pillow) on one side and looks across a shallow valley of more than five acres to a steep cup of natural mountains.

The set is a magnificent hacienda where Ramona, half Indian, is watched over by the stern senora. The man with whom she falls in love is a handsome Indian named Alessandro.

There are gun battles, wildly riding cowboys, a magnificent fiesta, murder--and romance. It is a true rip-snorter, and the most exciting part is that the melodrama is done mostly by volunteers from the cities of Hemet and San Jacinto. There is a small paid staff headed by Rowland C. Parker that works year-round to keep the nonprofit production in top form.

As the play opens, the players--more than 350 men, women and children--file in vast procession through a gap in the hills. They disappear behind the hacienda set. There are schoolchildren, priests, Indians, ranch hands, sheep shearers, the hacienda family.

The cowboys gallop their horses up and down, disappearing behind rocks and breaking out into the open again, each one a superb horseman.

There is a moment in the play that makes everyone gasp. The high hills are suddenly filled with Indians. Each rock holds a member of Alessandro’s tribe. “The rock Indians” used to be enacted by adults. Later, they were chosen from the honor societies of the local high schools. Now, the players start in the fifth grade.

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This role is a demanding chore. The kids climb the rugged hill and conceal themselves behind rocks and in declivities while the audience is distracted by action at the hacienda in the foreground. Then they crouch out of sight for 2 1/2 hours until it is time to make their startling appearance. Most are barefoot as they come down the cruel hill, but here and there, I saw a prudent Indian wearing sneakers. I promise you, you will be startled when they appear, whether I had told you or not.

Alessandro and Ramona are played by actors with professional experience, Mary Neocochea, who lives in Hemet, and Richard Livingston of La Crescenta. Livingston is a superb athlete. Actually, everyone in the huge company must be in great physical shape. They do the show at a fast clip, often at a dead run up and down the sloping hills and valleys.

The evil villain, who is roundly hissed and booed when he approaches Ramona with dastardly intent, is a captain in the Hemet City Fire Department. Another cowboy is a contractor with Fluor Corp. who comes down from San Francisco. Another player, his brother, comes from New Mexico.

The Boy Scouts of America are the good right arm of the pageant. They push people in wheelchairs, run errands, help people. I complimented one young Boy Scout and he said, “Well, they certainly couldn’t do it without us.”

He’s right.

Rowland Parker says there’s really a family feeling. There are cast members who have appeared in the show for 30 and 40 years. Parker says people are always delighted to see each other when rehearsals start every year.

I have seen “Ramona” about every 10 years since I can remember. There is something new to see each time. The dancing, the music, the horsemanship. I’d like to be a guest at that fiesta.

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There are two more performances this year, on Saturday and Sunday (Saturday is sold out). Performances start at 3 p.m. and you are asked to be in your seat by 2. There are a lot of people to thread into the narrow opening of the bowl.

Maybe if I go one more time they’ll invite me to the fiesta.

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