“Ramona” is the name of California’s official outdoor play, and it has been performed every year since 1923 in the town of Hemet, California. It’s also the longest running outdoor drama in America!
“Ramona” is staged in a natural amphitheatre in a beautiful setting overlooking the San Jacinto Valley. The play is based on the novel, Ramona, written by Helen Hunt Jackson after she visited the valley in the 1880’s. It was her effort to inform America of the way native Americans were treated by the US government. She wanted to write a story that would create an emotional response. Ramona was so popular, it has been in print ever since. Unfortunately, Helen Hunt Jackson died within a year of publishing the book and never got to see how hugely successful it was.
Story of Ramona in a nutshell
Ramona is the story of a young orphaned Scottish/native American woman who is raised by her aunt (Senora Moreno) on a Spanish mission. She is raised to be a high-class seniorita, but she falls in love with Alessandro, the native American man who comes to help with the mission’s annual sheep-shearing. Their desire to be wed is rejected, so she is forced to elope and live on a small homestead in the mountains. At the same time, the US government has acquired the territory of California after the Mexican-American War. Californios’ land claims are being reduced and entire native American villages have been wiped out by disease or decree. When Alessandro borrows a horse to find a doctor for their sick infant, he meets a terrible ending when he is accused of horse theft by the settler who is forcing him off his land.
What makes Ramona unique?
Ramona is not just another tragic love story. It is based on true stories about the history of Southern California and what happened to the Californio’s and Native Americans who lived here at the end of the Mexican-American War. The impact the novel had on the culture and image of Southern California was enormous. It painted a picture of Mexican colonial life that gave the valley a unique cultural identity. Its publication coincided with the arrival of railroad lines to the valley, which encouraged tourists to come see for themselves the locations in the novel. Much of the crucial action in Ramona was taken from real life events.
The “Ramona” play was written by playwright Garnet Holme, and the first performance was held in April 1923. Mr. Holme found a location in a canyon with good acoustical qualities, and the first patrons sat on the hillside to watch the play in a natural amphitheatre. From RamonaBowl.com’s history page: The audience found their seats as best they could, on rocks and blankets and cushions carried up with them. During the first intermission, one of the Bowl Supervisors used to come out and announce in a loud voice that if anyone’s seat was uncomfortable, just call one of the ushers and they would be happy to flip their rock over for them. The outdoor amphitheatre, called the Ramona Bowl, is as much a part of the play as the costumes or the props.
Why has Ramona endured?
Ramona has become a part of the history of San Jacinto Valley. People who have played the part of rancho children or rock indians in the past, come back to play more mature roles later. Family members pass the tradition of participating in the play to their children and grandchildren. Attending the play has become a long-standing tradition among residents of the valley, as well as many who travel much longer distances to be a part of the legacy of Ramona.
The value of Ramona as a resource is priceless. Its ability to be both entertaining and historically educational has added to its value. It has become worth preserving and sharing with California and beyond. And you see the passion that its supporters have for Ramona in their countless hours of volunteer work!
Over the years, there have been many improvements to the Ramona Bowl amphitheatre, including seating, support buildings, a museum and gift shop and costume building. The script of “Ramona” has been revised to add music and native American dancing to the performance. And recently, the character of Helen Hunt Jackson was created, so that she could introduce the beginning of the play and explain its purpose.
Why did I enjoy “Ramona”?
First of all, I have always been interested in history. When I moved to California in 1989, it became a goal of mine to learn the history of the state I now called home. I heard about the outdoor play, Ramona, but I neither understood its significance nor its proximity to San Diego, where I was living.
Last year in October, I was invited by the Visit San Jacinto Valley tourism board to tour much of San Jacinto Valley, including the Ramona Bowl amphitheatre. We toured the museum, gift shop, and costume shop. I also met Lori Van Arsdale, a former Hemet mayor and the president of the Ramona Bowl Board of Directors. “Please come back,” she invited. “You’ve got to see the play!” I was beginning to understand how important it would be to come and experience the play for myself. Besides, I love good theatre! I put the show dates on my calendar (performances are always in April/May), and just attended the show last weekend. (Lucky for you, there are two more performances this year, on May 6 & 7, 2017. So you may not have to wait till next year to see it!)
It was an honor to be a guest for the Ramona performance.The amphitheater is nestled at the base of the hills covered in native brush and boulders.Beautiful flower beds indicate the gardens of the rancho on the stage.
With the sun behind us and the blue sky as a backdrop, it was just beautiful. The play began with horses and riders running onto the lower stage area, soon to be followed by soldiers and a cannon. It had my attention from the start!
The actors and actresses are very good! And the musicians and dancers add so much to the authenticity of the story.
Costumes are very colorful, and the story is entirely engaging. The 2 1/2 hour production passed much more quickly than I expected–too soon, actually.
I just couldn’t help but feel I was a part of keeping the history alive. It’s a story that should continue to be told over and over again, so that every generation will know it.
Is there more?
Um…yes!! So much more! Now, you can arrive at the amphitheatre two hours before the play begins and enjoy pre-show festivities, including food, dancing, and crafts. Dancing by Folklorico and native American dancers adds to the atmosphere and the excitement.
You can add a BBQ dinner to the price of your admission ticket, or you can just enjoy a la carte items like kettle corn, ice cream, and cotton candy! You can rent a cushion for seating comfort, and there are free parking lot shuttles if you prefer not to walk up the hill from the parking lot (parking $5).
Ticket prices range from $18 to $44, which are great prices for a production of this calibre! There are “box office” seats with shade, but all the seats in the amphitheatre have good views. Discounts are available for groups if you order by the end of December, including one free ticket for every ten ordered. And if you want a really good deal, come to the Snow Birds’ sneak preview in March for only $10 in advance or $15 at the door. (You just have to prove you live outside of San Jacinto Valley – Call 951-658-3111 for more information)
Be sure to bring or purchase water and apply sunscreen liberally. A hat is most welcome to shade your head and neck! I used sunscreen and still managed to get a little pink, but wouldn’t have if I’d worn a hat!
The following items are not allowed inside the amphitheatre: pets, strollers, umbrellas, ice chests, portable folding chairs, outside food or beverage (except water), smoking.
- A real historic cannon is used at the beginning of the play to indicate the surrender of Mexico to the United States
- Narration during the play was recorded by Native American actress Irene Bedard, best known as the voice of Disney’s “Pocahontas”
- Raquel Welch, then known as Raquel Tejada, played the role of Ramona in 1959. This year (2017), the part of Ramona was played by Kayla Contreras, Alessandro by Joseph Valdez, and Senora Moreno by Kathi Anderson.
- A one-of-a-kind fresco, now worth over a million dollars, was painted on the museum wall by artist Milford Zornes in 1942.
- There are plans in the works for a Centennial celebration of “Ramona” in 2023.
- A special performance is held every year for the fourth graders, since that is the year they study California history. They also do assemblies in the schools to teach kids how to act in a play audience.
- You can volunteer to help with the play. Just call 951-658-3111 and ask for Al Cordova, who can direct you to the services that are needed.
- There’s no way I can tell you everything you might want to know about the “Ramona” play (also known as the Ramona pageant), so be sure to visit their website to learn more.
(Disclosure: I was offered free admission to see Ramona; it in no way affected my opinion or review.)
Found on a pageant brochure:
The Ramona Bowl Amphitheatre: A place like no other…Where History and the Arts flourish, Where the Experience lasts a lifetime!
I really have to agree! Have you ever heard of the Ramona play? Have you ever been? What was your experience?