November 01, 2015

Photo Essay: San Gabriel Mission Playhouse

If you're going to learn anything about LA, you have to get to know San Gabriel. This is where it all started.

Junipero Serra founded the Mission San Gabriel Archangel in 1771, the fourth of his California Missions. In 1781, King Charles III of Spain mandated that a secular civilian settlement—a pueblo—be established along what is now the Los Angeles River. Eleven families were recruited, and these pobladores made their way to what is now Downtown Los Angeles and became its first townspeople.

And the mission that was built at El Pueblo de Los Angeles was a sub-mission of San Gabriel Mission. And lots of Catholic Angelenos were buried at the San Gabriel Mission cemetery.

It's easy to forget how important San Gabriel was, when Angelenos now consider San Gabriel some far-flung suburb in some other valley—and not just a suburb of LA, but a suburb of another suburb, Pasadena.

But this weekend, I didn't go to the Mission. I went to the Mission Playhouse. I can't resist a good theater.

California has the greatest number of preserved missions out of any U.S. state, and in the early 20th Century, people started traveling the Mission Trail to visit the remains of the missions—some of which had been abandoned by the Catholic Church or the military installments that had taken them over.

The crumbling collective of historic structures captured the imaginations of the people, including John S. McGroarty, who famously authored The Mission Play, a three hour pageant that told the story of the California missions.

The Mission Play was first performed in 1912 across the street from the San Gabriel Mission, but over the years, it became so popular that the Mission District plaza could no longer hold it.

The Mission Playhouse was built by McGroarty specifically to house The Mission Play and its growing audiences.

Dedicated in 1927, the Mission Revival theater's facade resembles the Mission San Antonio de Padua in Monterey County, between Big Sur and Paso Robles.

It has a cathedral-like forecourt (and box office)...

...and elaborately carved and painted ceilings...

...illuminated by replica lanterns, like those from the ships that Spanish explorers sailed on their way to California.

The auditorium is reportedly pretty close to its appearance during the era of The Mission Play, whose run ended in 1932 in the wake of the Depression. The theater was subsequently outfitted for film projection to run as a movie theater.

It's architectural design features incorporate Mexican, Aztec, and American Indian influences alongside its Spanish style...

...and the decor includes woven tapestries gifted by King Alfonso XIII of Spain in 1927.

To my delight, there's also a Wurlitzer organ: the Opus 870, built in 1924 for the Albee Theater in Brooklyn. Donated it to the playhouse (then known as the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium) by the Albee in 1968, the 16 Rank Style 260 Special was fully restored in 2009, including the addition of some digital voices (and another rank). Its console, which rises out of the orchestra pit for concerts, is lacquered in white with gold trim.

And it plays like a dream. The organ pipes and music-sounding bits are hidden behind two organ grilles on either side of the stage proscenium, as well as hidden under the stage apron, so its various instruments and sound effects bounce all over the auditorium—whether it's playing showtunes, oldies, or spooky Halloween music. (The Los Angeles Theatre Organ Society has more info on the organ and its restoration.)

I was lucky to have a free range experience of the theater, ascending the stairs to the balcony...

...and peeking into the projectionist's booth... well as descending into the bowels... observe the various layers of history in this theatrical and cultural landmark.

In a time of housing shortage during World War II, the playhouse dressing rooms (no longer needed for movie screenings) were converted into apartments.

Since the playhouse is now a full performing arts center with both theatrical stage productions and films on its calendar, the dressing rooms are back up and running in their original purpose.

And there's a full backstage area, too...

...with a fly system of 40 counterweight lines...

...which can move curtains, scrims, movie screens, and any other backdrops or set pieces up and down over 30 feet past the highest point of the proscenium.

My photos don't really do the playhouse justice—but I visited during a screening, so I had very low light and no flash to help me. For some really great photos, see the Photo Gallery on the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse website.

Because there were people there and a show happening, I didn't get to go under the stage and look for traces of the tunnels that reportedly go from backstage to the foyer. Some say they were used to store dead bodies during the Depression, and when they became full, they were sealed off. In any case, people have seen their share of shadowy figures in the theater. But what theater isn't haunted?

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: San Gabriel Mission, Rest In Peace
Photo Essay: Backstage at Pasadena Playhouse
Photo Essay: An Inn for Presidents, Padres, and Patron Saints

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