The perfect bite: social reform, literature and a recovered silent movie

Chefs and foodies  speak of the elements on the plate coming together in the perfect bite! Although my tastes aren’t that refined, I recently enjoyed an equivalent experience when a particular slice of history presented itself to me in a unique blend of artistic components.

I first learned of the “Ramona” story  while accompanying my grandparents to the longest running outdoor play in the United States, the “Ramona Pageant.”

Ramona Pageant, San Jacinto

There are numerous “Ramona” streets and landmarks near my home. I went to high school on Ramona Street and my yoga class meets on the grounds where the old house referred to as the “birthplace of Ramona” used to sit–every day reminders.

It is believed that author, Helen Hunt Jackson, wrote much of her beloved “Ramona” doing research in the vicinity of the San Gabriel Mission, the site chosen for Ramona’s parents to wed. San Diego, another Mission city, holds claim as Ramona’s wedding place.

San Gabriel Mission

You may not be at all familiar with this book, but had you been living in 1884 when it was first published, its reach would have been inescapable.

California tourism was greatly encouraged by its overwhelming popularity, and as travelers arrived by rail, they flocked to see the locations and landmarks referenced in the story.

Ramona_San Gabriel

A contemporary and friend of Emily Dickinson and regarded by Ralph Waldo Emerson as one of America’s greatest poets,  Jackson was an accomplished writer prior to her most successful book, but she suffered a number of very personal and painful losses, and eventually traveled west to Colorado.

In Colorado she took on an advocacy role for Native Americans and developed a passionate pursuit of American Indian rights, in particular the Mission Indians of Southern California. 

“Ramona” tells the story of a mixed-race Scots-Native American girl who suffers racial discrimination and hardship, painting a vivid picture of unrest in Southern California after the Mexican-American War.

Was there a “real” Ramona? It gets a little tricky here, but it is believed that Jackson was certainly influenced by the Native American people she knew and her ardent passion for Indian reform.

The public regarded the book as primarily a love story, and on its own merit didn’t bring the public closer to reform measures, however, the author continued to be a very well-respected activist and reformer until her death in 1885.


The book, now free to the reading public as part of Project Gutenberg, has had more than 300 printings, been adapted four times as a film, and as previously noted, is very popular with Ramona scholars.

And speaking of those films…

In 2010 American silent film scholars finally came across the only copy of the 1928 silent movie “Ramona,” starring Dolores Del Rio and Warner Baxter, missing and presumed lost for decades.

Where has it been?

It is generally accepted that it was at least initially captured by Nazis during World War II and then taken from the Nazis by the Soviet Union. A Czechoslovakian film archivist found it in 1950 and the film remained in the Czech Republic until a recent team of American silent film scholars obtained it and brought it back to the United States.

In early June a good friend and I had the privilege of sitting in the historic San Gabriel Mission Playhouse,  just steps from where the original “Ramona house” once stood, enjoying this fantastic old silent movie accompanied by theater organist Bob Salisbury on the Playhouse Mighty 1924 Wurlitzer Pipe Organ.

There you have it.

Historical fiction, Southern California landmarks,  Mission era history, early California tourism, Native American rights activism, a stolen silent movie returned, and an absolutely fascinating woman, Helen Hunt Jackson.

The perfect bite!

You’re welcome to take a little walk around my neighborhood and perhaps soak up just a little bit more of the “Ramona” flavor if you’re interested. You’ll see by this video that I’m not alone in my enthusiasm and interest.

Wouldn’t this dedicated author and activist who feared her book didn’t make the impact she had hoped it would be amazed that 131 years later her work and dedication is still considered important?

There is so much more I could tell you about her, but perhaps one day you’ll find your own reasons to pick up a copy of “Ramona,” and you’ll be interested in learning more about Jackson, too.

Let me know if you do!



40 thoughts on “The perfect bite: social reform, literature and a recovered silent movie

    • The “pieces” of Ramona have fascinated me for a long time, Frank, and the recent silent movie viewing stirred it all up again. I literally have my yoga class twice a week on the exact same spot where the purported house once stood, and given my interest, that little fact makes me smile. The video shows the street where all this was once so well-known, and it is also part of the original De Anza Trail. It’s no secret that this is all of great interest to me. I’m glad I have a blog where I can share it and you and others are polite enough to respond. I think most of my friends are glad I have a blog, too–they aren’t on the hook to listen to me go on and on. LOL!

  1. I enjoyed a few hours with our Katy at the San Gabrielle Mission when she was living in Pasadena and we both have a few momentos and photos of the short time we spent there. You’ve not only compelled me to seek out Ramona, Debra, but to also relive some nice memories.

    The play, the book, your interest in Californian history; all blending together in this fabulous post. You have done it again, dear friend; intrigued, educated, awakened . . .

    It has been interesting of late all the stories and renewed interest in the arts that fell, or were stolen, into the hand of the Nazis and were such things as this film eventually ended up. How exciting to have been able to see the film with your friend in the San Gabrielle Mission Playhouse and to recall your experience with the play and your grandparents.

    • Every time you mention how Katy was here locally for all that time I just feel “shucks!” Why weren’t we blogging then. LOL! Since you were at the Mission, you were right in the middle of this story! I am so glad I could share that with you again.

      You are so knowledgable about many of the American poets, I wonder if you’ve ever run across Helen Hunt Jackson? I didn’t thoroughly research the names she used, and her first husband passed away and it’s possible her early poetry was under the name Helen Hunt. But to have Emerson think so highly of her is noteworthy. She has really captured my imagination a bit. She must have been an incredible woman and from the little bit of digging that I’ve done she really was very influential in her advocacy for Native American rights. It’s true that this story grabbed me! I’m so glad you enjoyed it, too, my friend.

      • Ha! I’d barely mastered emails at that time.

        I do not recall Helen Hunt Jackson as a poet, but, went over to the Poetry Foundation site, put in her name, and severe of her poems are there. Her short bio describes what you have about her activism. You might want to take a look.

        I just saw Karen’s response below, which was such a sweet and touching remembrance of her mom. It reminded me of a box of sheet music we have that belonged to Tom’s great aunt and became ours when we inherited her piano. I need to find the box and see if Ramona is in it. Wouldn’t that be a find!?

        • I have a ton of old sheet music up in the attic, Penny, and I’m hoping to go through it soon to see if I have a copy, too! It’s possible. I’d get a real hoot out of that. 🙂 Thank you for the poetry foundation link, my friend. I’m going to spend some time on that. It’s fun to discover other aspects of this interesting woman!

  2. You have definitely touched a tender spot over here in Indiana, Debra. I took one look at that sheet music image and Ramona started rolling in my head. When our Mom was young she studied voice and sang beautifully. However, she gave up any professional aspirations she may have had when she met Dad and opted for marriage and babies instead.

    For awhile, when I was in elementary school, there was a piano in our house and sheet music, lots of sheet music, most of which was older and had probably been collected, before we kids started arriving on the scene. I spent countless hours sitting at that piano, picking out the melodies found on the sheet music that filled the bench to overflowing. Today, all these years later, I can hear tunes or see a piece of sheet music that I remember from that piano bench, and know immediately, Mom had that! Now I also know the story behind this one and I enjoyed reading it.

    • Karen, what a wonderful story from your childhood! You were then raised with an early appreciation for music, and it sounds like those memories are close and very special.I have quite a collection of old sheet music myself. Because I play the piano and people knew I enjoyed it I somehow became the person contacted when friends inherited old music and didn’t know what to do with it. Do you have any of your mother’s? Music is such a trigger to memories, but I was touched to thin that just seeing the old sheet music brought precious memories to you. I’m so glad to have shared a little bit of Ramona with you, my friend.

      • I’m sorry to say I have none of that sheet music, Debra. When Mom and Dad retired, they pulled up stakes here in Indiana,selling nearly everything they owned, and moved to Washington. I don’t remember whether there was sheet music sold then, but all of their LP and 78 records were, and unfortunately I had a hand in helping them dispose of things — they needed the funds to assist with starting over in a new place, and I held several sales on their behalf. So, mostly, we have memories and, since I’ve “met” several of you bloggers, mine are often triggered by something one of you shares. Thanks, again, for this one.

        • I do understand that there is a need to let go of “things” and let the memories remain important! Sometimes we hold onto things that clutter, and in reality, everything is just boxed up and stored. I’m guilty of that! I’m trying to do better. I don’t want my children to get stuck with all the things only make sense to me. 🙂

    • It’s been years since I’ve read the book, too, Andrew, but I’d like to read it again and see it in a new light now that I’ve learned more about the author and her intentions. I wondered if Ramona “reached” any further than Southern California given its incredible popularity more than 100 years ago…point being, I suppose, 100 years ago! LOL! maybe I’ve helped to give Helen Hunt Jackson just a little more publicity and Ramona will make a tiny new resurgence outside of Los Angeles. 🙂

      • Ramona isn’t something we hear a lot about up here in the North, but a few of us know about. History up here tends to focus on the 49ners and the gold rush. You certainly got me thinking about Jackson.

    • I wondered the very same, Nancy. Helen Hunt had to at least have been aware of the author, but it would be interesting to know how her name was chosen! And your recognition was the opposite of mine. As a child I knew “Ramona,” but I didn’t really now the author until I did more research. I’d read the book, and still couldn’t remember her name. I have since learned of some of the other things she wrote and I’m interested in checking them out as well. She was a fascinating woman for any era, but to be as strong, determined and accomplished in her day makes her even more interesting to me! 🙂

  3. Now I’m left wondering what aspect of today’s culture that’s popular but not very heard of in the future, but will still be blogged about 100 years later. 🙂 Or what book characters will have street names? Cool read, Debra. I dig it. 🙂

    • What a great question, Rommel. I don’t know either, but wouldn’t it be fascinating if we could peek into the future and know what will remain relevant long after we’re gone. Street names, too! That’s a funny thought. Hogwarts Avenue? LOL! I’m glad you enjoyed a little piece of the Ramona story!

    • I think the west is probably very different and it lends itself well to story telling. There are many, many reasons I would think it inhospitable and California sure does have its problems, but I think it’s lovely to hear that you find it interesting. I am so glad you do, because I really enjoy sharing some of the little side trips that often go unnoticed even by people who live here. 🙂

    • I’m so glad you found Ramona interesting! In some ways the story is now more relevant in the west, perhaps, but I am fascinated with the idea that in the late 19th century it was such a popular novel that it inspired tourism from the east. The novel does a good job of describing “hacienda life” and I would imagine that was a very strange new world if you lived in the east. I hope you might read Ramona some day just for the sake of reading something that fits so nicely in this historical era and context, but I know what you mean about the huge pile of books! I am completely unrealistic when it comes to how many books I think I can actually read, but I think it’s an acceptable state of denial! 🙂

  4. Debra, I haven’t read Ramona, but your post makes me want to find it and read it. Interestingly, my mother was named after Dolores Del Rio. I wonder if my grandmother saw the movie when she was young. It’s so fascinating to me to see the impact that writing can have long after an author’s life is over, allowing their ideas to live on.

    • I have to smile that your mother was named after Dolores Del Rio! She sure was a beauty! I wasn’t all that familiar with her until I saw the silent movie, and those gorgeous actresses had to use their beauty and their eyes to do all the “talking.” She was incredible! And I’ll just bet, knowing the popularity of Ramona, your grandmother probably was at least familiar.

      I had the same response to the idea that an author’s work would continue to resonate so long after they’re gone. It really drives it home that what we invest in today can make a lasting impact. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Karen. 🙂

  5. And now I desperately want a copy of ‘Ramona’. What a fascinating history to this book! And it’s fantastic it’s still being read so long after her death. She definitely was a woman ahead of her time xx

  6. I’ve never heard of this Ramona (only the Beverly Cleary version). What an amazing opportunity that were able to see this once lost silent movie! I’ve been on a non-fiction kick lately. It sounds like this book is a good blend of both fiction and non. I’ll have to check it out soon. 🙂

  7. Although I have never read the book, I did see the Ramona pageant many years ago in Hemet, CA. It was one of the last outing I had with my Dad and have thought many times of going back to see it again. As I never seem to think about it at the right time of the year, maybe I should opt for reading the book instead. Thanks for bring back a lovely memory of a beautiful day in So. Cal.

  8. Absolutely fascinating history yet again Debra! I seem to recall a song called Ramona – was that also based upon this story? Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • How interesting, Marie! Yes, the Ramona I am speaking about and the song you heard your father sing are indeed the same! Isn’t that fun! I wonder if he knew anything of the story, as through the movies perhaps, but I know the song was very popular as well. There’s our Ramona connection. 🙂

    • I had fun sharing about Ramona, Otto, because I’ve been fascinated with the story since my childhood. It’s been interesting to hear from fellow bloggers that they either remember a parent or grandparent singing the song, or heard of the author but not the book, or as in your case, didn’t know anything about it. I wouldn’t think the story would have much of an international appeal back in the day it was written, but the history, especially for Californians, is quite interesting. And now when you travel this way and see her name on so many different streets or landmarks you’ll know a bit of the backstory. 🙂

  9. Wow… It has been decades since I last saw the mission. I see the streets are vastly improved; however, I dimly recall seeing much more elm-like trees covering the area.

    That recovered movie is interesting in that it had not deteriorated to the point of crumbling. Amazing.

I always enjoy hearing from you!

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