Let’s situate ourselves, shall we? We’re way the hell out in the middle of what has, at some point, been grandiosely titled “The Inland Empire.” If the Inland Empire had an emperor, he would rule over a land of desert, farmland, mini-malls and tract-home suburbs.
One might think this already describes the southern half of California quite succinctly. But once you start heading east, far enough for the ocean to become distant, you enter a different planet; in essence, the rest of the country: American-made vehicles bearing American flags, Jesus billboards, McDonalds. Strange suburbs have arisen here, seemingly without any relation to an urban center.
We pooled our scant knowledge of Hemet on our way, speeding through miles and miles of nowhere. Ben saw multiple police brutality cases from Hemet while clerking for the 9th Circuit; I remembered a 10-year old news story, something about the football coach at Hemet High rewarding his players by letting them sleep with his wife.
And then we arrived. Instant civilization. The sudden concrete sprawl, the sheer abundance of chain stores, simply dazzled. The town seemed comprised almost entirely of housing developments: at every block along the main strip, huge white sign-post directories pointed the way to each mobile and tract-home subdivision, of which there were dozens. How odd, I thought. What’s the industry? Who all’s going to move here and buy these houses? Who lives here?
Old people, turns out. And the people who care for them. I remember hearing that Hemet has killer thrift stores because so many failed Hollywood actors—like, the ones who never had a chance, meaning most of them—come out here to retire. It’s true. Second-hand shops occupy two full blocks of the old downtown. Ben found a gorgeous Yves St. Laurent suit coat, mint condition and a perfect fit, at the Hospice Thrift Store for $2.50.
We saw a fragile old couple walking down the sidewalk, carrying grocery bags. Well put-together teenage girls with frosted lipstick and skinny tanned legs stretching from short cut-off denim skirts. Boys on tricked-out low-rider bicycles. A homeless lesbian couple picking flowers for each other. Charismatic, evangelical denominations in weird buildings, like the Monolithic Dome housing the First Church of Religious Science (the most conservative-looking church we see turns out to be Seventh Day Adventist). A framing and photo shop advertises expert restoration of old California photos—all their examples involve the Mexican revolution. Mortuaries always are the longest-running, most established businesses in any community.
We get to the Ramona Bowl amphitheater; a little blond boy of perhaps 10 or 11 years, wearing what looks like a full security guard uniform, directs us to our parking spot with such jarring officiousness that we nervously looked for his gun. Tickets, hot dogs, and tamales are being sold out of a hacienda-style building, which also houses the Ramona Pageant Museum and Archives Office. I get our seats ($31 each! Ridiculous!). Audience members mill about the courtyard.
It’s nice. I mean, sure, they were selling trinkets and food, but it seemed contained, innocent, compared to the overwhelmingly conspicuous consumption at most street fairs and county carnivals. There’s a stand for fresh roasted corn (condiments include the largest squeeze bottle tub of mayo I’ve ever seen). A local health clinic gives free blood-pressure tests. Sales of copies of Ramona and candles shaped like red-pepper ristres. Margaritas and beer. The flavored ice booth clearly wins the popularity award. I actually heard someone ask for “half bubble-gum, half banana” syrup for his shaved ice, just as I was thinking how disgusting those two flavors must be.
We ducked into the Museum, in hopes of both air-conditioning and education. The two-story Museum combines the history of local Native Americans (entirely told through collections of arrowheads and baskets found by local white people) with the history of Helen Hunt Jackson and the novel. But mostly, the Museum is dedicated to the history of the Pageant itself, photos and old props and costumes presented behind glass. Elderly volunteers act as docents, confirming for me that yes, Raquel Welch (nee Tejada, a local San Diego girl) did in fact play Ramona in 1959. One of the women in the Museum talks loudly to her friends about playing the Señora in 1986.
It’s a paid gig for the main actors, but it all seemed like a local affair, created to generate tourism, local income and local pride. Local talent graced the courtyard with a little pre-show entertainment. A troupe of girls performed traditional Mexican skirt dancing (note overweight white tourists in the foreground, including, to the right, a woman taking a photo of me).
Also, a singing group of older ladies accompanied by a couple of men on guitar. The women dressed in their idea of young Mexican señoritas wore (although they were dressing more like hookers of the period, what with the wigs and the makeup and the strongly contrasting colored lace on silk “espanish” dresses). The attempt to look young seemed grotesque on the women in their 60s. One of the women, oddly, couldn’t have been older than 14. She clearly loved performing with them—probably thought it was really cool that she was doing this with grown-ups.
During one number (“Oh, Perfidious One”), she went up to and sang to helpless male audience members. I always love the opportunity to help make a moment of audience participation succeed, even at the expense of my loved ones. Encouraged by my smile, our little friend went after Ben.
Though the Ramona Pageant has corporate sponsorship, several plaques and renovated buildings point to a deep local interest (like the ticket hacienda, whose repair came with the donations of one Dr. Chadhuri, whose states his pride in this annual community festivity.) The Red Hat ladies, seated right behind us, gossiped about their children, exclaimed over the ornate sequined Mexican dance costumes (“Those pants are hand-sewn, can you believe it!” “Those skirts are gorgeous!” “Who’s in it?”–“Oh yes, that’s Pat’s niece in the play.”)