Valley Chronicle in Hemet California : Column by Bhadraji


Out of curiosity, once-in-a while, someone would ask me, how did I end up in Hemet? In Hemet, of all places…

While living in Los Angeles, for over ten years, Hemet was an unheard-of name for me until I decided to make a television play for Sri Lanka.

A Sri Lankan family I knew had a 160-acre property in Anza with plenty of space for a little ‘stage set’ and open fields that could resemble the north-eastern province of the motherland, where my story took place.

But at the time, I was told by my location scout that I was going to a place called “Hemet” to do the shoot. After driving late at night on a Friday, we arrived at the ranch in Anza in the blistering cold of a wintry weekend.

When I returned to LA, my friend James Nutte who was a retired priest from Bristol, England, wanted to know how Hemet was. I told him how I never went to Hemet. Since his retirement, Jim was always interested in moving away from the hectic pace of Los Angeles to find more peace and quiet.

So, one Spring day in 1984, we drove down to Hemet and fell in love with a newly built house overlooking the blue Idyllwild mountains with the morning sun gently smiling upon it. (Not the hot Summer yet!)
That is how I ended up in Hemet.

You may have heard of the Tahquitz curse…No it is not like Montezuma’s revenge which you face when you go to Mexico. According to legend or perhaps a superstitious folklore, Tahzuitz’s curse falls upon anyone entering the Hemet valley. Beware! Once you come here you are bound to come back at least one more time. Now, I have a superstitious theory of my own as to who would return, but that is a different story.

When I moved to Hemet, I was curious as to what was happening here. I right away got involved with the famous Ramona Pageant, became a sheep shearer with a long black wig and a bandana, sang “Where will thou go…” etc, saw Dolly Parton sitting way back in the director’s booth; painted a façade to match the walls of the stage set building of the open-air theater and enjoyed the company of the other actors.

Then I played Dr. Emmet in “The Curious Savage” which Vesta Garcia directed for the Ramona Hillside Players- the little theater near the Ramona Bowl.

I always wanted to write and direct my own plays- just the way I did in Sri Lanka and that is how I met Ms. Marguerite McPherson/Washburn.

Marguerite was a great lady with her own little theater on Harvard Street right next to “Hollywood Hair”. She was always looking for new talent and welcomed me with open arms and invited me to direct my play on her little stage. The play I wrote was the English version of one of my Sinhala radio plays which I had written for Sri Lanka Broadcasting Cooperation. My American adaptation was titled “Timewalker” – about a cave man travelling through time too fast and ending up in the modern world and losing his mind in the process.

Marguerite helped me find the actors and I found it easy to direct them. We all became like a family. We did two weekends with a Friday matinee and had full houses. From the audience’s response, I gathered I had done something right.

My relationship with Marguerite continued after the success of my play and she kindly allowed me to use the interior and exterior of her charming historic heritage home facing the Main Street in San Jacinto for a video drama and a movie I wrote and directed.

Marguerite was a free-spirited woman- as they say “a woman of her times” as well as a woman ahead of her time. She was born Marguerite Fantz in Robinson, Illinois in 1920. Her older sister Betty (later Ingle) was also born there. I came to know more interesting facts about the family after I met Matt McPherson- Marguerite’s grandson who is now a realtor in Hemet.

On a rainy afternoon in December, Matt unloaded in my garage, a heavy old trunk that belonged to Grandma. The 21 inch-deep 18”x31” wooden trunk, decupage’d with varied wallpaper, reinforced with metal strips and studs is full of photos, newspaper articles and other memorabilia and is a true time capsule going back many, many years.
It not only holds treasures about the Palace West Theater but about Ramona Playhouse and news items about President Roosevelt winning the fourth term.

Matt had managed to save this precious trunk amidst all he had to go through in his life including a house fire. When he first opened the trunk, there was a reddish yellow photograph from the play “Christmas Carols” at the Palace West theater where Matt himself had played the part of Tiny Tim.

Matt also had some fascinating stories from his grandmother’s life. He said Grandma had some superstitious beliefs or interesting inexplicable happenings relating to her life from the time of her birth. While Marguerite’s mother was still living in Illinois, pregnant with Betty, she had gone berry picking in a forested area near her home. A big black bear had come from behind her and whacked her in the back. Though she got away unharmed, when the baby was born, the little girl had a tuft of black hair growing out of her back in the shape of a bear’s paw!

When mother was pregnant with Marguerite, again while she was outdoors, she had had a scary experience with a huge slithering snake that crawled over her foot. When Marguerite was born, she was the longest baby anyone had ever seen! Coincidence? Or did the consciousness of the pregnant lady register these fears in her mind and had aftereffects on the fetus?

When Marguerite was about six years old, her father died and she and her family moved in with uncle Joy Richart to Hacienda Heights in 1926. Joy Richart was an inventor and had invented a revolutionary oil drill bit which was soon adopted by the oil companies. This brought in great wealth to Mr. Richart and he himself had oil fields in Santa Fe Springs and around Downey in the LA county. In the late 20’s the family moved to Whittier and soon became friends with Richard Nixon’s family. The Nixons had a grocery store and young Richard used to deliver groceries to Marguerite’s place. Richard and Marguerite’s brother Richart (so named after the uncle) were close friends. During Prohibition in the 1930’s for eight years, Richard Nixon and Richart Fants, the two young men had a beer still in their garage and brewed their own! (“This would be like growing your own marijuana in your backyard now illegally” Matt remarked)

Marguerite married Robert McPherson and they had five children. Three boys and two girls. Robert the eldest is Matt’s dad. Then there were Marcia, Connie, Dan and Pat. Since Robert had a hotrod he had the chance of being an extra in the Hollywood Beach movies driving his hotrod up and down the beach while Annette Funicello would be acting in front of the cameras.

In the 1950’ after moving to the valley, and Robert senior opened the McPherson’s furniture shop in Hemet. Slowly he managed to buy the whole block from Harvard Street to State Street. The furniture arrived from all parts of the US and they would pick it all up from the train depot once a week and bring it to the store in their flatbed truck.
In the 1960’s when Marguerite and Robert parted company, she got the building on Harvard street as part of the settlement and that is where she built her little theater- the Palace West.

Matt related all these fascinating facts to me which was a history lesson to me. He has many interesting stories relating to growing up in the valley and many mystical experiences which he keeps as a dream diary. He also researches and writes about anthropology and has taken classes in Ethno Botany. Very much interested in the migration patterns into the valley he has looked into the history of the native Americans and the Spaniards.
He said that there are the Cahuilles, Lusenos and Cupenos. In Soboba the majority are Lusenos and Anza has the Cuhilles who also live in Palm Springs and Agua Caliente. The Cupeno in Fallbrook area are famous for weaving beautiful baskets out of pine needles. The turpentine in the products keep the insects away, he said.
Very much interested in land and property, Matt and his dad had done some searching the Celico Ranch in Soboba Springs and had found some 200-year old Spanish tiles.

According to Matt and history, San Juan Bautista- the leader of the Spanish expedition had come all the way from the Gulf of Mexico (now Texas) looking for new lands in the West. They came via Anza and saw the expanding verdant valleys in the distance where the Cupeno lived. All Indians were using an edible root like garlic or leaks for garnishing. The blue flowers on these plants reminded the Spanish of the wild Hyacinths in Spain and called them the “Wild Hyacinths.” Matt believes that the valley is called “San Jacinto” for this flower so named.

He says there are many more mystical or spiritual experiences he can write about and so does our local historian Mr. Rob Lindquist who knows a lot about the highly spiritual places in this sacred valley.

Who knows, with their help, I can write a lot more about this peaceful place where I make my home. Hemet does mean “Home” (in Danish).

While when it is hot, some may say “Hemet is hot as hell”, others say Hemet is heaven. I prefer the latter because every time I drive into the valley, I see the beauty all around in these sacred grounds, and from top of Idyllwild, the prophet on the “Lilly Rock” looks down every day.
Lilly Rock? Now that is another story for later!

BHADRAJI MAHINDA JAYATILAKA is a prolific writer who has won many awards for his books in Sri Lanka. He is an instructor in Theater and Art and is currently teaching Water Color through the Community Education programs at Mt. San Jacinto College. He is also directing his new play in Sinhala “Sathuta Namvu Thaanayama” (The Happiness Inn) in Los Angeles and is completing the final edits on his movie “The Sunday Drive”.