Dated but dearly recalled
Camila Lopez still recalls the oily smell of the greasepaint she carried to school when she played an Indian girl in the “Mission Play” in San Gabriel six decades ago. The paint was red.
“Red, really red. We had to look like redskins,” Lopez, 73, said.
Lopez, whose complicated bloodlines trace back seven generations to Gabrielino Indians who lived and worked at the San Gabriel Mission, was blissfully unaware of the stereotype in 1947 -- the year she appeared in the drama, the grandest and most successful of the historical pageants that swept California in the early 20th century.
Today, Lopez is thrilled that the city of San Gabriel, the Mission Playhouse and the East L.A. Classic Theatre plan to revive next year the landmark romance about the rise and fall of California’s mission system for the town’s centennial.
“We have such rich history, Native American, Spanish and Mexican,” Lopez said. “We want to keep our history, and we want it shown.”
But her memory of the red greasepaint underscores the difficulty of adapting an outdated and even offensive drama for a very different time. The massive -- four-hour -- performance broke racial barriers by employing Native Americans and Mexican Americans to perform early californio dance and music for a mostly Protestant audience.
“There were Protestant people standing on their feet applauding these performers,” said filmmaker Walter Dominguez, whose upcoming public television series on early Los Angeles history will include a segment on the “Mission Play” and its author, John Steven McGroarty. “They could look at Spanish and Indians as positive people. That was a very big step in racial perception.”
But the play also neatly excised the state’s Mexican past and distorted the true exploitation and devastation of Native Americans. McGroarty, a Los Angeles Times columnist and later state poet, described Indians as an “idle” and “savage” race civilized by the introduction of European work ethics and values. By a modern gauge, pure racism.
“You couldn’t prove that by us,” said Lopez of the racism claim. McGroarty was a gracious host who invited the whole “Mission Play” cast -- 300 strong -- to his Tujunga ranch for barbecues and fiestas.
“John McGroarty was a very brilliant man, a great man,” she said. “He loved California.... I don’t think that was his intention.”
I met Lopez last week at her home with two other women who played Indian children, Janet Gutierrez, 75, and Stella Rojas, 75. The trio laughed and reminisced over weathered paper folders of old playbills and photographs from their theatrical run during the 1947 revival.
Their memories are uniformly happy -- carrying their little makeup cases to school and running behind the stage to tell their fathers that the resident playhouse ghost was rattling his chains again.
“We were stars,” said Gutierrez, who like Lopez, is of Gabrielino heritage.
It’s difficult today to grasp the prestige and renown of the “Mission Play.” Part of a vast public relations campaign by state boosters to sell newcomers on California, the $1.5-million production -- an enormous outlay then -- was bankrolled by railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington. Then.-Gov Earl Warren, the future U.S. Supreme Court chief justice, was an honorary chairman.
The cast included professional musicians, performers and actors, including renowned Spanish dancer Lola Montes. The play ran continually from 1912 to 1929, a U.S. theatrical record, and was seen by 2.5 million people.
The railroads ran special cars to the theater, which replaced the play’s original outdoor location; trolleys whizzed back and forth from the airport; and cars converged in L.A.'s first big traffic jams.
“A tourist who went to California and failed to see Catalina Island, Mt. Wilson and the ‘Mission Play’ was considered to have something wrong with his head,” Carey McWilliams, the state’s preeminent historian, wrote in his 1946 book “An Island on the Land.”
For San Gabriel locals like Lopez, the “Mission Play” was a family affair. Rojas said she had to stay in to sew sequins on the costume for her Aunt Rosie, a featured dancer. Lopez’s father had a part.
Lopez introduced McGroarty to an old Indian song her grandmother taught her, which he had the Indian children sing during the magnificent fiesta that closed the second act.
The children are interrupted during a game with pebbles and shooed away by musicians and dancers, who perform traditional California numbers, including “La Golondrina” and the folklorico dance “La Jota.”
“What I like most was watching the girls’ feet to try to find out how they did those dances,” Rojas said.
The play was colorful and spectacular. Dominguez said some viewers described it as a religious experience.
When Spanish explorers landed in California, a cannon sounded, Rojas said.
At the same time, much of the language was bombastic and florid. Father Junipero Serra to a Spaniard lusting after an Indian maiden: “If you shall but so much as touch this young creature with your vile polluting hands, upon your head shall I hurl the curse of the Church!”)
The central premise -- of noble Spanish friars, sultry senoritas and dashing caballeros -- probably won’t fly today.
So how to stage a revival?
“There will be music,” said Dan Duling, a playwright and scriptwriter who has the task of adapting the “Mission Play” for the modern era. “And it will be compressed.”
Duling, who has written the book for Laguna Beach’s “Pageant of the Masters” for the last 30 years, said the trick will be to preserve the play’s romantic character while depicting diverse groups more authentically.
Duling could run afoul of traditionalists. Lopez said she was disappointed at the flat delivery of one of her favorite lines during a recent reading of a section of the play at the Mission Playhouse.
The line is: “How beautiful is this land of California.”
“It has to be said with your heart,” Lopez said. “There was a gaiety to the ‘Mission Play.’ They better put some passion into it.”