How Helen Hunt Jackson's character took on a life of her own
In 1884 Helen Hunt Jackson's novel, Ramona, was published by Roberts Brothers of Boston. Jackson, a prolific writer with 30 books and hundreds of articles to her credit, intended that this "story would do for the Indian what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the Negro." The book didn't help the Indians much but this romantic tale, set in the mission era , was declared "the greatest story of California ever written" by the San Francisco Chronicle.
The book has been published in hundreds of editions over the years. In explaining Ramona's popularity the critic Lawrence Clark Powell wrote: "Ramona was the first novel about Southern California. Today, nearly a century after its publication, it remains the best California book of its kind—an historical romance of a vanished way of life."
Dorothy Sloan Books (a rich source for rare books and manuscripts), in commenting on the success of the 1884 edition (it now sells for $800-$1000), provides this insightful comment. "Readers mistook her sad story of injustice as a tender love story and as a recreation of a mythical Arcadian paradise. The story of Ramona and her lover Alessandro became a fairy tale... Enchanted Easterners flocked to the missions, toured old adobes, and made pilgrimages to places like ‘Ramona's Wedding Place’ in San Diego”.
Ramona spurred interest in California's history. Authorities argued over the identity of the "real" characters and "actual" locations. For example, in 1888, Charles Fletcher Lummis, then City Editor of the Los Angeles Times, published a book The Home of Ramona: Photographs of Camulos, the fine old Spanish Estate Described by Mrs. Helen Hunt Jackson as the Home of 'Ramona'."
The Ramona phenomenon continued into the 20th century. In 1928 United Artist released a "Photoplay" starring the Mexican born actress Dolores del Rio.
Gilbert and Wayne wrote a song named Ramona and dedicated it to the actress.
When Technicolor was perfected, one of the first movies released was a new version of Ramona starring Loretta Young.
The most enduring Ramona spin-off was the Ramona Pageant which was first held in 1923 and is still produced each year in Hemet California. The pageant was created by Garnet Holme (1873-1929) the greatest outdoor dramatist of his day.
Holme not only wrote a superb script, he had the idea of staging the pageant outdoors and using local talent in the production (the cast and crew total over 400). This approach generated tremendous local support that continues to this day.
The author of Ramona, Helen Hunt Jackson discovered that she had cancer shortly after the serialization of her book began in June 1884. She died on August 12, 1885, and was buried near the summit of Mount Jackson in Colorado.
Garnet Holme lived to see his pageant become a tremendous success. In 1925, a permanent home for the pageant was built into a natural amphitheater in Hemet. Holme continues to direct the play until he died, unexpectedly, in 1929. His tombstone contains a line from one of his poems "I lingered on the hill where we had played."
For more information on the Ramona Pageant see http://www.ramonabowl.com/home.shtml.