Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Radio Greats: Christmas at Mission San Gabriel (Romance of the Ranchos)

The Title Insurance and Trust Company of Los Angeles put out a little book, called The Romance of the Ranchos, as a promotion. The book discussed some of the rich history of the Southern Californian land the company was selling. The stories were popular, so they turned it into a local radio program from 1941 to 1942. That's a brief time, and it only ran on the West Coast, but the program has lasted as one of the great programs of the period. Usually an episode will narrate the history of some particular region of land in Southern California through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with little vignettes to bind it together. Sometimes the format will be a little different and it will focus on some local celebrity and his relations to the local landmarks. There's always a fictionalized aspect to it -- the stories are Romance rather than History -- but they are remarkably well researched, and the fictionalization is itself well chosen, being used mostly for atmosphere as we try to imagine what the land and towns might have been like in those times.

Each episode is introduced by The Wandering Vaquero, played by Frank Graham, a very talented radio star and voice actor who would commit suicide at the age of 35. He was known as the man of 1000 voices and considered one of the best of the best -- some would even say second only to Mel Blanc, which goes far beyond just 'one of the best of the best' into 'better than almost all of even the best'. We don't get his full range of talents here, but he does make a sometimes striking host and narrator.

The episode I've selected is a charming and seasonal one -- not perfect, but very memorable -- called "Christmas as Mission San Gabriel". It's a little different from most of the others in that it involves more fictionalization than most. However, the story about the Beautiful Lady that it builds on is not mere fiction but a local legend. According to that story, shortly after the Mission San Gabriel was founded, the local Tongva natives gathered together to chase the newcomers away. The Franciscan fathers, faced with the immediate danger, responded by unfurling a large painting of Our Lady of Sorrows in front of them. The Tongva were so impressed by the beauty of the picture that they made peace with the Franciscan fathers. Of course, it's a legend; how much it connects with history is hard to say. But the painting that was supposed to have had such an effect is, from what I've read, still hanging in the chapel at Mission San Gabriel, over two centuries later.

You can listen to the episode at the Internet Archive (it's number 16), as a Christmas reminder of the power of goodness working through a human heart -- any human heart.

Notice, incidentally, that 'Los Angeles' is consistently pronounced with a hard 'g'. It was standard pronunciation at the time.

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