If it weren’t for John Steven McGroarty’s writings, the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium would not exist.
On Wednesday, 95 years will have passed since the first performance of McGroarty’s amazingly successful “The Mission Play” was staged.
His play was based on the history of Father Junipero Serra and the California missions and ran for 20 years straight (take that, “Fantastiks”) and was seen by 2.5 million people. In 1924, the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium was built to house the overflow who came to watch McGroarty’s play.
I confess to not knowing the history of the San Gabriel Civic, nor much about McGroarty, who was also a journalist, the state poet laureate (1933-1944), and a two-term congressman.
That is, until Saturday, when I went to a party put on by the Independent Writers of Southern California (my wife is a member) at the McGroarty Arts Center in Tujunga, the house where McGroarty lived. Upstairs, in a dimly lit study of wood-beamed ceilings, were other artifacts from his life. They included: a wooden night stick given him by Los Angeles County Sheriff Biscaluz; a copy of his column “From the Green Verdugo Hills” that ran in the L.A. Times; and a silver Tournament of Roses trophy with the inscription “Mission Play float, Jan. 1, 1924.”
McGroarty’s poems won him the poet laureate job, including one called “Just California” memorized by school kids for years after.
But being a fan of politics and a protector of the environment, I found this item of interest. It was a letter written to a constituent in 1934 while McGroarty had been in Congress just a few months: “One of the countless drawbacks of being in Congress is that I am compelled to receive impertinent letters from a jackass like you in which you say I promised to have the Sierra Madre mountains reforested and I have been in Congress two months and haven’t done it. Will you please take two running jumps and go to hell.”
Seems like the guy never lost his ability for telling it like it is.