Remembering Pomona’s Greek Theatre

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The Greek Theatre in 1922, from the Pomona Library Digital Images Collection

Reader DebB writes with a request for information:

“Maybe this is old news to everyone except me. But this evening my neighbor told me that there was once a Greek theater at the base of Ganesha Hills in Pomona. According to him, Huntington Drive went directly up to the theater until the 10 freeway cut it off. He remembers playing in the abandoned bowl as a child in the mid-60s.

“I just looked at the Google satellite image of the area and you can see a good-sized concrete pad just off Val Vista St. The way the hill wraps around, it looks as if it could have been an amphitheater at one time. We live just east of Ganesha Park, and I’ve driven by that gated pad a number of times and always wondered what it is/was.

“I find this curious and interesting. What was it like? What kind of shows did they have? What was its time period? Searching Google, however, only brings up links to the theater at Pomona College. So I wondered if any of your readers or your Pomona historian sources might know about/remember this theater?”

Deb, it so happens that I once wrote a column on the Greek’s history. I’m representing it here for posterity. Maybe next time someone searches Google, they’ll find it. But this also provides the chance for readers to chime in with their own memories.

The column originally appeared Oct. 15, 2006.

[headline]
Deader than Latin, Pomona’s Greek Theatre lives on in memory

WE WERE hunting for a Greek ruin in Pomona. Nearly a dozen members of the Pomona High class of 1956 caravaned up a quiet road, looking for the spot where they had graduated 50 years before.

That would be the Greek Theatre, a long-gone, almost-forgotten outdoor amphitheater nestled in a clay ravine in Ganesha Park.

Based on photos I’ve seen, the Greek had a broad stage and an imposing stone backdrop with faux pillars, making it a sort of California cousin of the Parthenon. Seating fanned out in a semi-circle on the ravine floor.

Our local Greek cost $30,000 and opened on June 7, 1917 with a concert by a 60-voice male chorus. A week later, 96 seniors from Pomona High graduated there.

Pomona’s Greek, by the way, actually predates L.A.’s Greek Theatre by 12 years. Impressive, although duty compels me to report that the Greeks beat Pomona to the punch by 2,300 years.

Performances took place now and then. In the special collections room of the Pomona Library, I found a brittle program for a 1919 concert by John Philip Sousa, plus handbills for a 1920 one-act operetta titled “Hiawatha’s Childhood” and a 1921 staging of “Samson and Delilah.”

In 1936, Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” was witnessed by 1,200. If that were a real wedding, imagine the catering bill.

But it seems the Greek was never very popular. The Progress-Bulletin, which upon the Greek’s opening had called it a “magnificent edifice,” in 1944 opined that the amphitheater had always been a “municipal white elephant.”

That year, after vandals had nearly wrecked the seats and dressing rooms, City Hall sunk $45,000 into repairs, fencing and new plantings.

The Prog’s headline: “Face Lifting Gives Pomona Greek Theater Modernized Appearance; Debut Today.” This must have been sweet relief to arts lovers, as nothing is worse than an unmodernized Greek replica.

As face lifts are wont to do, this one sagged. The Greek was too small to host Pomona High’s ever-larger graduation exercises, which after 40 years moved to the fairgrounds in 1958. Only the Camp Fire Girls still used the Greek regularly.

In October 1966, the Greek’s 35-foot backdrop was razed, leaving only the seating and stage.

In his obituary for the Greek, Progress-Bulletin reporter Jim Fulton blamed its failure on word that “the air got too cold” in that pocket of the hills for visitors’ comfort.

He described the theater memorably as a place “where residents have been refusing to congregate for almost anything for a half century.”

Eventually, the stage and seating were removed, too. The site, now fenced off, is home to a modest Police Department equestrian facility for the mounted patrol dubbed the Ponderosa.

A week ago, class of ’56 graduates had their reunion at the Sheraton Fairplex, their first-ever meeting in Pomona. Led by reunion co-chairmen Ernie Arutunian and Ray Hughes, a few of them, accompanied by yours truly, ventured to the park to see what was left of the Greek.

Very little, we found as we parked on gravel near the police trailer and disembarked.

“Where’s the amphitheater?” someone asked.

All that remained was a large concrete slab, as well as the bare-walled bluffs, ringed at the top by trees. It was picturesque and, with the late-afternoon sun on us, not a bit cold.

“Do you want me to give my speech again?” asked Bill Hamblin, one of the 1956 graduation speakers. His topic was “International Frontier and This Atomic Era.”

He intoned the first line, which proclaimed that in 1890, “western migration had become so diffused that a frontier line could hardly be said to exist.”

People reminisced about absent or deceased classmates. Then Arutunian made a discovery.

A stanchion from the Greek’s backdrop, at least 20 feet high, was still embedded in the face of the west cliff like a carving knife, apparently never worth the trouble to dig out.

“I’m sorry, guys, that’s all we got left,” Arutunian announced.

Wandering the slab with me, Arutunian pointed to the top of the bluffs. Lovers Lane had been up there, offering a view of the whole city. If your attention wasn’t diverted by the scenery in your own car.

“Even if you didn’t have a date, you’d go up there and honk your horn and make life miserable for everybody,” Arutunian said. In ’56, pranksters up on Lovers Lane had chucked cans and bottles at a few graduating seniors, briefly making life miserable for them.

After one last look around, we returned to our cars and left the ravine and its ghosts behind.

Since then, I’ve been reflecting on this: A city named for a Roman goddess built a theater in the style of ancient Greece, and in a park named for an elephant-headed Hindu god.

With such a pedigree, you wonder how the theater could fail.

Poor marketing? Cold air? Parking hassles?

It’s Greek to me.

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  • http://www.lagumbay.com/ Allan

    Here’s a link to a list of Greek Theater photos from within the PPL’s Digital Collections: http://goo.gl/pi1gA

    Yeah, like the rest of Ganesha Park it’s probably haunted too. I heard that on a clear summer night, chilled only by the cool ocean breeze, you can hear Patrick Tonner’s ostriches rustle through there. Or not.

    [Or not. -- DA]

  • DebB

    Thank you for such a wonderful answer to my question! I’m looking forward to reading people’s memories, although if the Greek wasn’t very popular, maybe there aren’t too many memories.

    I came to Pomona to attend Cal Poly in 1971, so I missed the Greek by only a few years. So sad to lose something like that. I wonder why the Greek wasn’t popular but the bandshell in the park is?

    As an aside, here’s another good reason for saving our library – the photo collection Allan linked to is priceless.

  • Ramona

    A special memory just for DebB:

    I graduated from Pomona High School in 1957 (sound the old crock alert!) and our class held their Baccalaureate in the Greek Theater. You youngsters use your Google foo to find out what I’m talking about. Clue: it was an important ceremony leading up to graduation.

    It was held on a mid-June evening and as June evenings are wont to do, a slight drizzle began.

    We seniors were told to wear our mortarboards perfectly level – or else. There was an inspection of the caps before we entered the theater. And it followed that when one of the ministers asked that we bow our heads in prayer – Clue: that’s why Baccalaureates aren’t held any more – the accumulated drizzle from our perfectly level caps dripped slowly into our laps.

    Thank goodness for the flowing over-sized sleeves of the graduation gowns. By doubling them over we prevented our laps from becoming puddles.

    Next memory in line please!

  • Bob House

    No memories of the Pomona Greek Theater (although the Pomona College GT was a childhood playground), but old enough to have had a Baccalaureate for high school graduation in Claremont. My question — I believe there are a number of teachers who regularly contribute to this blog: do any high schools still offer Latin? I took it at Claremont HS in the early 60s.

  • Annie

    Here’s a handy link that I use frequently to see how neighborhoods have changed over time, or to identify the location of things that are no longer around.
    http://www.historicaerials.com/

  • Rene Ring

    As a Blue Bird and Camp Fire Girl of many years, I remember the Camp Fire Girl’s annual ceremony being held at Pomona’s Greek Theater. This was the time of year that girls received their awards, earned beads and ribbons. Some were graduating into the older girl’s Horizon Club, in which they wore Indian maiden gowns with leather fringe and a big leather collar that earned beads were strung from, on long leather strings. There was always a big fire in the center and we would all sit around the fire and there was always quite a crowd of people there. I do not remember actual chairs, such as appears in the photo above–I remember sitting on rocks or big rectangular stones. Good memories!