John Steven McGroarty

California Through the Progressive Era

Oxford University Press, 1985, p 87-9
Kevin Starr
California State Librarian

A genial journalist and a dreamy poet of the lo! hark! school, John Steven McGroarty had come to Southern California in his late thirties after qualifying for the bar in his native Pennsylvania. As a type, McGroarty was typical of the sort of journalists Otis attracted to the Times and dominated once they got there: intelligent but not overly critical, politically conservative, genial, genteel, appreciative—and most importantly, a booster, someone who wanted into the fast-forming oligarchy of Southern California. McGroarty wrote for the Los Angeles Times for forty years: Sunday essays of chitchat, poetry, and Emersonian encouragement, penned in his house in the Verdugo Hills. (He was known popularly as "the Poet of the Verdugo Hills.") A facile writer, McGroarty compiled a number of official histories of the Southland; his California of the South (1933), in fact, five volumes fat, is perhaps the last of the great commissioned mugbooks glorifying local worthies willing to underwrite the cost of publication. Reveling in Southern California's growth, McGroarty looked forward to the day when the Southland would be the most densely populated region on earth. Like his chief on the Times, the General, he invested heavily in real estate so that he might profit by the growth he promoted through speaking, journalism, poetry and his Mission Play.

Early twentieth-century California supported a number of outdoor drama-pageants: at the Forest Theater in Carmel, the Greek Theater in Berkeley, the Bohemian Grove in Sonoma County, the Ramona Pageant at Hemet, and the Pasadena Festival of Roses. The Mission Play, however, outdrew them all. It cost $1.5 million to mount. Seeing its promotional possibilities, Henry, E. Huntington helped underwrite the production. After founding the Mission Play Association as an umbrella organization, McGroarty and his backers built a playhouse near Mission San Gabriel outside Los Angeles. Costing $750,000 and done, naturally, in the Mission Revival style, the Mission Playhouse seated 1,450. Its giant pipe organ was a wonder to hear. A cast of 300 players was hired, together with a director, Henry Kabierske, who had extensive experience with historical pageants on the East Coast and in Europe. A local girl, the actress, Eleanor Calhoun, then married to a Serbian prince and acting in Europe under her married name, Princess Lazarovich- Hrebelianovich, returned to Southern California to take the female lead. On 29 April 1912 The Mission Play opened to a full and enthusiastic house. Front and center were Otis, Huntington, and Bishop Conaty. McGroarty's play combined music, mime, drama, pageant, choral singing, and dance to celebrate the work of the Franciscans in Alta California. The dialogue was spotty and sententious (Father Junipero Serra, to a Spaniard casting lustful glances at an Indian maiden: "If you shall but so much as touch this young creature with your vile polluting hands, upon your head shall I hurl the curse of the Church!"), but spectacle carried the day. Even the sophisticated and acerbic Willard Huntington Wright, soon to damn the provinciality of Los Angeles in the cynical and glittering pages of The Smart Set, confessed himself moved on opening night by The Mission Play's direct power of romantic myth.

The Mission Play became a Southern California institution. It played to an estimated 2.5 million people between 1912 and 1929. In recognition of his services to the Spanish myth of Southern California, McGroarty was named poet laureate of California, knighted by the pope and the king of Spain, and twice elected to Congress.

The levels of appeal tapped by McGroarty's Mission Play—and the mission myth in general—were multiple. Like Frank Miller of Mission Inn, and somewhat like Charles Fletcher Lummis of Land of Sunshine, John Steven McGroarty provided Southern California with a usable past, a revered founding time, at once escapist and assuring, linking a parvenu society with the rich ecclesiastical cultures of Mediterranean Europe. A Presbyterian, McGroarty fell so much under the spell of Franciscan California that he converted to Catholicism—which is a paradox, because the mission myth was an essentially Protestant creation for an essentially Protestant Southern California. McGroarty, for instance, used to give speeches in Protestant churches extolling the padres. For all its luxuriant imagery, the mission myth fundamentally celebrated the Protestant virtues of order, acquisition, and the work ethic. "They took an idle race," claimed McGroarty of the Franciscans' work with the Indians, "and put it to work—a useless race that they made useful in the world."