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!



History and nostalgia rolled into our local Dinosaur Park

I was introduced to a video that  I wanted to share. Fitting it in with other content is a little uneven, but I’ll contort a bit to make it as congruent as possible. It simply makes me laugh and I enjoy sharing a laugh.

I think most Californians know how the media portrays the state and we know how to laugh at the stereotypes and caricatures that at times label an entire region.

And it is a very large region. But as you already know, the greater Los Angeles area is really made up of many, many smaller cities with rich local history vital to the well-being of its inhabitants–and likely not a part of a tourism campaign.

I recently thought about how “small town” my own city can feel when my daughter brought to my attention the 50 year anniversary of a park that was very special to both my children growing up.

Dinosaur Park Play Day

I had no idea 50 years had passed since the whimsical sea creatures were installed at what was then called “Wells Park.”   DSC_9714

My grandparents lived just a block or two away in an era when it was still possible to walk directly through their neighboring elementary school at the end of their block, no locks or barriers, and with no division between the school playground and this delightful park.


My children have the happiest memories of walking with their great grandparents and spending countless hours here. They grew up with this park. It has long been called “Dinosaur Park”  or “Monster Park” by local children, who, the story goes, saw the sea serpent as a dinosaur, and the name just stuck. DSC_0710

Fifty years ago when the sea creatures were installed I knew nothing of their significance, but in 2006, the Friends of La Laguna formed to restore and preserve “Dinosaur Park” when it was announced that the city intended to demolish it. A dedicated group of people devoted endless hours to preserve this special place. IMG_3606

There’s more than simple nostalgia contributing to why this play equipment is now listed on the California Register of Historical Resources.


The park was designed and constructed by Mexican concrete sculptor Benjamin Dominguez. La Laguna was the capstone of his very long career in Mexico and the United States, where as an artist he blended the artistic medium of his Mexican heritage with children’s play space.


La Laguna of San Gabriel was Dominguez’s final project. He was 70 years old when he was commissioned for this project, and using themes and characters from some of his previously installed playgrounds, our children have grown up with “Minnie” the whale, “Stella” the starfish, “Ozzie” the octopus and “Flipper,” “Speedy,” and “Peanut,” the three dolphins.

DSC_0835   DSC_0712


I’m really grateful to the Friends of La Laguna for their response to save this playground. The Saturday celebration brought out many city officials and the artist’s youngest daughter who appeared to be very touched at the reception and praise of her father’s work and contribution.

If I start with my grandparents and their tie to the neighborhood and this park and then reach to my grandchildren playing on the same equipment, we’re spanning five generations. I think that’s very special all by itself.

It’s not a big tourist draw, I understand, but it’s a little gem in our city, and I’m grateful for the small town, grassroots effort responsible for preserving it for my grandchildren.

Doesn’t this have a small town feel?

Heading into our weekend exhale with a final stop at Hearst Castle

Earlier this week I shared bits and pieces of biographical color to give a sense of the powerful and influential newspaper and publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst.

Hearst Publishing-imp

As much as I’m in awe of the Castle he called his “ranch home,” I’m much more interested in the people than I am the building. I am currently reading an excellent Hearst biography, “The Chief,” written by David Nasaw and I have another sitting here waiting for me that will delve into the fascinating life of Hearst’s architect, Julia Morgan.

I’ll add a few links at the end of this post for anyone interested in reading more, but for now I’ll just give a little more information to make the photos more relevant.

What are these menagerie cages?


In his day, Hearst had one of the largest private zoos and game preserves in the world. Animals listed in the literature include bison, musk oxen, elk, antelope, giraffes and even camels, all encouraged to roam freely over the ranch lands. The grottos held polar and grizzly bears, lions, tigers, leopards and chimpanzees and other exotics. I came across the mention of an elephant named Marianne.

The field animals were plentiful and gracefully dotted the beautiful hills. The deer, sheep, and zebra are still plentiful and very accustomed to people standing nearby with cameras flashing wildly.

Hearst was proud of his animals and carefully controlled their exercise and  diet with oversight from a staff veterinarian. In 1937 Hearst experienced great financial strain and was forced to cut expenses. The animals were donated to public zoos or sold. It took more than fifteen years to complete the dispersal and when the State of California was given Hearst Castle seven years after Hearst’s death in 1951, Rocky Mountain elk, tahr goats, llamas, white fallow deer, zebras, sambar deer and Barbary sheep still roamed free.

All that beautiful undeveloped land! The Hearst Corporation donated the Castle to the State of California in 1957, but retained the surrounding property and continue to operate as a cattle ranch, just as William’s father George operated when he made the land purchase in 1865.

Referred to as the Piedra Blanca Rancho at San Simeon, the land extends from the inland mountains down to the ocean, with 18 miles of gorgeous coastline.  The 128-square mile property is “home” to more than 1,000 plant and animal species and is an abundant ecosystem.

San Simeon Ranch is preserved thanks to conservation commitment from the Hearst Corporation. This topic made for some interesting reading.  In 2005 the Hearst Corporation partnered with The American Land Conservancy, The California Rangeland Trust and the State of California to preserve the land and protect the scenic coastline, and some vocal opponent organizations fought back for either even stricter restrictions or on the other side, greater pubic access, but I’m just glad that the land will not be used for resorts and private acquisition that could easily change this gorgeous coastline forever.



I can’t conclude this tour without just a mention of the two swimming pools. They are worth the price of admission!

The outdoor Neptune pool is a beautiful feature, and experienced at least three major renovations during Hearst’s lifetime. He enjoyed this pool and was always making what he thought of as improvements.  It is currently drained and undergoing a painstaking tile repair. The original tiles are being preserved while repairing huge leaks. In a state experiencing mega-drought, it is an expedient time to make these repairs.

But the pool to top all pools–the Roman pool–sits underneath the two tennis courts, is lighted by skylights with gorgeous arched windows and tall standing marble lamps. The surfaces, covered with blue and gold mosaic tile give a stunning appearance. Gold leaf is fused with the glass. As our tour guide told us, at Hearst Castle, when it looks like gold–it is!

Well, I think that concludes my tour, except I do have a few more photos you might enjoy. There are a variety of tours available at the Castle, and because we’ve previously toured the “grander” more opulent rooms, we visited Hearst’s private quarters, bedrooms and some of the guest rooms, which I think you’ll see are more personally furnished and have a comfortable feel–well, my whole house could fit in some of these rooms, but they still felt inviting.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Other photos are included in my previous post HEREand the Castle’s website is full of interesting reading and photos. I highly recommend it!

I hope you have a chance to visit Hearst Castle someday, but wherever you find yourself this weekend, do make the most of what you have available. There are so many interesting places to visit. We are headed out again tomorrow to spend some time just staring at the ocean. That’s still my favorite (and most effective) weekend exhale!

Will you be “de-stressifiying” this weekend?