A living history tour through a cemetery staged atop graves may sound ironic, but that’s exactly what happens when the Thespians from the Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) bring the scripts written by the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society (SAHPS) to life once a year at the trumpeted Cemetery Tour, coincidentally performed a few weeks before All Hallows’ Eve.
Each year a central theme provides a framework for a series of reflective vignettes that resurrect the lives of some of Orange County’s most notable folks. That these historical figures appear as costumed actors from OCSA proves that, despite their demise, they are still movers and shakers, with a little stretch of imagination.
And that’s what SAHPS and OCSA have done with this year’s thematic program, “Creative Genius: Artists and Inventors in Orange County History” — awakened history with an imaginative interpretation of the creative spirit. A Saturday sold-out crowd toured one grave after another on October 19, 2013, as OCSA student docents guided hundreds of guests and introduced them to some of the expired geniuses interred at Fairhaven Memorial Park and Santa Ana Cemetery. Once the grassy stage is set, OCSA Thespian actors, emulating the dearly departed, immerse spectators in conjured-up scenes that provide insight and historical perspectives to a panoply of amazing stories about deceased scientists, inventors, artists and musical mavens. It’s a chance for the Other Side to tell their stories and preserve their legacies. Whoever said dead men tell no tales never attended the SAHPS’s Cemetery Tour. Each scenic sketch is structured with a blend of narrative prose, confessional monologues and witty dialogues, where the emerging story lines of the playlets are realized amidst mature trees and worn tombstones: plots atop plots!
Among the vignettes, the story of F.C. Hall and Leo Fender, owners and innovators of guitar companies, Rickenbacker and Fender, respectively, was a crowd-pleaser that was staged inside the acoustically appropriate mausoleum. Writer Alan Lawson crafted the piece, “Leo Fender and F.C. Hall — How Two Orange County Guitar Innovators Conquered Popular Music,” that captured the competitive but cordial banter between the two legendary guitar entrepreneurs (portrayed by Joseph Kilpatrick as Hall and Mitchell Huntley as Fender); the scene culminated with a video tribute of classic performances by Buddy Holly and the Crickets, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and others, with each song showcasing the sonic distinction between the Rickenbacker and Fender guitars. Bookending the video were two live performances of The Beach Boys’ “In My Room” and The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” angelically performed by Blythe Schulte. The most amusing piece of esoterica gleaned from the scene was finding out that neither guitar innovator ever knew how to play their own instruments.
“Clara Mason Fox: An Artist Rediscovered,” written by Max Schmidl, focused on poet and fine artist Clara Mason Fox, whose painting oeuvre enjoys a renaissance thanks to the serendipitous unearthing of a treasure trove of her stunning wildflower watercolors that surfaced in 2010 at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, inside the cabinet drawers of a forgotten herbarium. This intimate portrait of an artist from the O.C. draws the audience in with a stimulating exchange between the artist and a young British botanist, Theodore Payne, who worked as gardener at actress Madame Helena Modjeska’s ranch. Whether Mason Fox and Payne actually met is a matter of speculation, but they clearly shared a love of indigenous wildflowers. The scene was performed beautifully by OCSA actors, McKenna Nisson (Mason Fox) and Harvey Sutton (Payne), who connected with one another’s artistic sensibilities and common affinity for the inherent wonder of nature with an exchange that was filled with delicate grace and apropos poise.
“The Inventor’s Wife,” authored by Alison Young, featured OCSA Thespians, Avery Nueva (Nora Laws Wallace), Savvy Smith (Beatrice Wallace Morrisey), Tara Byk (Mattie Wallace Gaston), and Brad Gaston (the driver). The scene captured the frustration of struggling through the realities of life while one man, Charles Wallace, chased his dreams at the expense of his family’s financial security. Perhaps the apple didn’t fall far from the tree of inspiration, as the inventor’s daughter, Beatrice, appeared to smartly sense there were opportunities ahead with some of her deceased father’s patents and inventions. Such a richness of heritage clearly enchanted Beatrice, but puzzled her mother, who shielded her daughter from the disillusionment of her father’s tepid fiscal rewards. The piece is cleverly directed by Alexandra Spurlock, with the action opening as a vintage car (provided and driven by relative Brad Gaston, grandson of Mattie) cruises to the gravesite and deposits the visiting Mattie Wallace Gaston into a kitchen chat that engages the audience with Nora’s revelations about her inventor husband who left her penniless. All is redeemed in the end when we discover that one of Charles’s patents he left the family was the practical rolled curtain rod.
“William Mortensen,” penned by Will Morton, is an ingenious and campy account of how famous photographer William Mortensen had to compete for attention against the legendary photography master, Ansel Adams, who was evidently obsessed with ensuring Mortsensen would lead a life and leave a legacy of virtual obscurity. Mortensen actualized many groundbreaking photographic techniques that were contrary to the popular naturalism of photographers like Ansel Adams. Mortensen’s imagery was often dismissed as tawdry, pseudo-erotic and romanticized to pretentiously look like art. His career started by taking photos of Hollywood stars and movie stills for studios. Once he started his manipulation of his exposures with hand tinting, he was shunned by the professional photography community that championed the purist approach, popularized by artistic personalities like Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. So disturbed was Adams of the pictorialist aesthetic that he declared Mortsensen was the Anti-Christ. The scene is written as repartee between Mortensen’s wife, Myrdith, and George Dunham, a dramatist and writing colleague who co-authored a number of books with Mortensen. OCSA Thespians, Adrianna Taffel (Myrdith) and Jacob Beaver (Dunham), were spot-on with their punchy performances, which were chock-full of sparking sarcasm and acerbic one-upmanship. Taffel’s portrayal of Myrdith and her defense of her husband, her modeled cheesecake poses, and her determination to set the record straight, captures the frustration and farce of a woman who’s man has been done wrong by that rascally realist, Ansel Adams. Beaver’s portrait of Dunham, meanwhile, played as the perfect foil opposite Myrdith, calling her out while calling himself into focus. He is the truly obscure figure of history, the shadow behind a notable nobody. Ironically, both Mortensen and Dunham were shuttered into ignominy by Adams, a man who himself spent many monolithic moons in the darkroom, manipulating the exposures of his so-called purist images.
That Cemetery Tour reaches from beyond the grave to make a difference is evidenced by the scores of parent volunteers who assist with the production. Diane Spurlock, mother of the student director Alexandra, noted that “It’s always so rewarding to work with creative kids. They really put their heart into their work, and they are all willing to work long hours for their art. It’s beautiful to watch them as their characters evolve. It was especially rewarding for me to watch my daughter, Alex, grow as the student director representing OCSA. Her reward was treasuring the faith everyone put in her. The Cemetery Tour experience has taught all of us to work collaboratively in community service, grow our art and learn about our local heroes. I know all of the OCSA Thespians and their executive producer and mentor, Wendy Tobiska, are grateful for the opportunity to work hands-on bringing these scenes to life with the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society.”
The uniquely constructed Cemetery Tour completed its 16th year by continuing the finely-tuned tradition of offering an afternoon of entertainment and historical insight. It’s no wonder the event won the coveted California State Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation. Already, the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society is busy at work, conjuring up the theme for next year’s Cemetery Tour — their 17th year and growing in popularity.
Haunted Orange County’s The Santa Ana Haunted History Ghost Walk, which benefits the Society, has added extra tours through the end of October. Interestingly. the SAHPS’s home headquarters at the Willella Howe-Waffle House and Medical Museum was recently featured on the Travel Channel’s hit show, Ghost Adventures. Whilst waiting to waltz through graveyards or meander the halls of the haunted Willella Howe-Waffle House, the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society hosts and sponsors many other community events year-round. Be sure to check out their website for news about the 2014 Cemetery Tour — as well as their other events, like museum open house days and the downtown architectural walking tour. Proceeds from Cemetery Tour and other historical events all benefit SAHPS’s sundry educational programs and two museums, The Dr. Willella Howe-Waffle House and Medical Museum, and the Santa Ana Fire Museum.
Cemetery Tour is co-sponsored by Fairhaven Memorial Park. Put it on your annual calendar of October activities! For more information, visit the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society’s website.
Creative Genius: Artists and Inventors in Early Orange County
“How Fast Did You Say? Albert Michelson and the Speed of Light”
Written by Robert Towns Blethrow
James Irvine, Jr.: Jordan Boggess (AM); William Hopper (PM)
Dorothy Michelson Livingston: Olivia Castillo
“Clara Mason Fox: An Artist Rediscovered”
Written by Max Schmidl
Clara Mason Fox: McKenna Nisson
Theodore Payne: Harvey Sutton
“Frederick Eley: Orange County’s Iconic Architect”
Written by Max Schmidl
Frederick Eley: Lucas Blankenhorn
OC Register Reporter: Alyssa Carol (AM); Yasmine Moriel (PM)
“Modern Genius on Skis”
Written by Alison Young
Velma Amsbury: Alexandra Spurlock (AM); Jillian Navarro (PM)
Clara Amsbury: Clarissa Camacho
Girl: Rylyn Koger
Written by Robert Towns Blethrow
Dean Beaumont: Blake Lehrich
Written by Will Morton
Myrdith Mortensen: Adrianna Taffel
George Dunham: Jacob Beaver
“The Inventor’s Wife”
Written by Alison Young
Nora Wallace: Avery Nueva
Beatrice Wallace Morrisey: Savvy Smith
Mattie Wallace Gaston: Tara Byk
Written by Roberta Reed
Charles Utt: Dominic DiPonio
Mary Utt: Annabeth Amarasuriya
Written by Roberta Reed
Marie Sattler: Katrina Pope
Audrey Sattler Twist: Ava McDonald
Leo Fender and F.C. Hall — How Two Orange County Guitar Innovators Conquered Popular Music
Written by Alan Lawson
Leo Fender: Mitchell Huntley
Francis (F.C.) Hall: Joseph Kilpatrick
Blythe: Blythe Abigail Su-Ren Schulte
Eve La Puma
Tour Guide Lead
Director: Alex Spurlock
2nd Director: Caroline Knapp
Assistant Director: Harvey Sutton
Director Emeritus: Blythe Abigail Su-Ren Schulte
Executive Producer: Wendy Tobiska, OCSA
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