Major improvements coming to the Hemet Ramona Bowl Amphitheater this year

Artist rendering of Ramona Bowl Courtyard
This artist’s rendering, shown on a movie screen, shows how the Ramona Bowl Courtyard will look like before the spring “Ramona” plays begin in the Ramona Bowl Amphitheater. A trust fund in honor of James and Marilyn Latham is making the renovations possible. Valley News/ Tony Ault photos

The Ramona Bowl may undergo some needed improvements in the next year thanks to the James and Marilyn Latham trust fund, more than 100 guests learned at the annual Ramona President’s Dinner, Friday, Jan. 17.

Lori VanArsdale, past president of the Ramona Bowl Amphitheater, made the announcement during the special event at the Maze Stone Restaurant at the Soboba Country Club in San Jacinto.

According to VanArsdale, the trust will provide funds for the modification of the Ramona Bowl Museum, the grounds and restoration of an historic fresco of Ramona and Alessandro found on the museum wall and, in the future, remodeling the amphitheater’s Hacienda House and offices. In addition to the improvements, VanArsdale said the update will install California’s first Literary Landmark plaque for a woman, honoring the literary life of “Ramona” author Helen Hunt Jackson to the Ramona Bowl and another at the Hemet Library. The event would include a gala unveiling party.

The fresco on the museum wall was painted by famous muralist Milford Stone in 1942, showing Jackson’s Ramona character, a Scottish and Indian girl, dancing with Felipe Moreno as her true lover Alessandro Assis, a young Native American sheepherder, sadly watches with his friends.

VanArsdale said a few years ago a family representative from the Latham trust came down to tell them about how important the fresco etched on the museum’s wall is today.

“We learned it was a national treasure,” VanArsdale said.

After that surprise, the trustee offered not only to help with the restoration of the fresco but with other needed gift shops and courtyard improvements.

“I want to say how incredibly blessed we are with the Bowl, and all of you, which makes ‘Ramona’ happen every year, year in and year out,” VanArsdale said.

She thanked the city, local businesses and organizations who help with the outdoor play at the Bowl.

“But the bottom line is this trustee has committed to do a whole lot of things at the Bowl with the first thing is the restoration of the fresco,” she said.

A local art restorer, with the help of the trust, is now working on the wall-sized fresco located in a portion of the museum, slowly cleaning off the paint and plaster that covered the lower half of the fresco. The lower portion of the fresco was painted and plastered over because desks and other furniture had left ugly marks on the art piece.

VanArsdale introduced the architects who are now working on the plans to restore the Hacienda building and the courtyard to its original splendor and making it more actor friendly by the time the first 2020 “Ramona” play opens in the spring. She said the trustee talked about matching funds for future improvements to the Ramona Bowl.

“As we go through this, we certainly want to honor their names (the Lathams) and what they did for us, but we also want to honor the legendary people who have been at the bowl trying to keep it together for so many years. Trying to help us make things happen. And now we have longer ones (goals) and shorter ones,people can help us when we start our matching fund process,” VanArsdale said.

The “Ramona” pageant is now in its 97th year with the Centennial coming in 2023.

VanArsdale said, “I am eternally grateful for this friend of mine and this estate for doing so much for us as we march toward our Centennial. So get ready, get set and go!”

Stacey Bailey, president of Ramona Bowl Amphitheater, called on Dennis Anderson, artistic director of the “Ramona” play, to introduce many from the 2020 cast, bringing them to the stage. The cowboys, which are a longtime mainstay of the play including Dan Ferguson, who plays accused rancher Jim Ferrar, were first to take the stage, followed by the actors in major roles.

Playing Alessandro again this year is actor Eli Santana, and Kayla Contreras will play Ramona. Santana was unable to attend and sent a video greeting from Germany where he is performing.

Anderson introduced the newest cast member Monica Reichi, who will perform as a live narrator as the daughter of Alessandro and Ramona. Other new actors this year were introduced, including Bret Cherland as Felipe, Debradawn Shockey as Marda, Jesse Bouchard as Margarita, Matthew Clark as Luigo, Julianne Cherland as Dolores, Laura Cherland as Aunt Ri and Ray Henderson as Joe. Almost all the cast positions have been filled, VanArsdale said, except for one of the cowboys.

Returning to their roles are Daniel Martinez as Juan, Robert Leibovich as Padre Salvatierra, Randy Dawkins as Padre Gaspara, Rafael Ojeda as Ysidro, Teresa Seaton as Mara, Jim Bouchard as Jefferson Hyer, Mike Thomas as Kit Carson and Jake in a duel role, Eric Cervantes as Captain Merrill, Steve Silkotch Jr. as Curly, Jesse Nechochea as Jose, Greg Bruce as Yank,  Sal Baneulos as Captain Hernandez, David Sandoval as Lt. Sandoval and cowboys Mark Smith and Cy Ringel. The fiesta soloist is Linda Grelich.

Also playing in the fiestas and other special portions of the play are the Red Tail Spirit Dancers, the Rock Indians, fiesta dancers and other entertainment groups.

The Ramona Bowl’s board of directors also asked the guests to remember three board members who died recently, Phil Brigandi, Steve Covington and Irene Cordova. They were longtime supporters of the Ramona Bowl and the pageant. Bailey listed many of their accomplishments during their time on the board.

Tony Ault can be reached by email at