The future of the struggling, nonprofit-run Ramona Bowl and its long-running signature outdoor drama about two star-crossed lovers and the racial injustice they face could now be in the hands of Riverside County.
Officials with the Hemet-based Ramona Bowl Amphitheatre confirmed this week that they are negotiating a county proposal to take over the 6,000-seat venue, a development that secures this year’s spring production of the Ramona Outdoor Play—which officials had considered canceling
“It’s a huge deal,” Ramona Bowl board president and interim general manager Louis Amestoy tells the IE Weekly. “I think it’s such a part of our community, that its value and importance is kind of unquestioned.”
Bowl officials in the next week or two expect to formally adopt a resolution outlining a partnership with the county’s Economic Development Agency, Amestoy says. County supervisors—Supervisor Jeff Stone is the pointman for the proposal—would finalize the deal publicly.
If the deal to have the county purchase the Ramona Bowl Amphitheatre and take over its day-to-day affairs is finalized, officials will be tasked with handling a venue in need of maintenance and an operation that’s been grappling with financial troubles and decreasing attendance.
The Ramona play, based on the Helen Hunt Jackson 1884 novel of the same name, would remain in the hands of the association, however, Amestoy says. According to former board member Robert Lindquist, keeping the grassroots play in the hands of locals is key to the partnership.
“It’s been a community celebration,” he says.
Ramona, this year’s production will be its 86th season, is described as the longest-running outdoor play in U.S. history. The play, formerly known as the Ramona Pageant, is California’s official outdoor play, according to a 1993 state Senate resolution.
Over the years, as many as roughly 400 players, largely made up of volunteers and locals, have taken on the roles of cowboys, settlers and Native Americans. The natural rock of the amphitheatre forms much of the play’s stage and setting.
Under the preliminary plan being negotiated, the county would purchase the amphitheatre and its surrounding 160 acres from the nonprofit association, which currently owns and operates it.
The Bowl has become a difficult operation to maintain—the county had to step in six years ago with a one-time contribution of more than $400,000. Several factors over the years have played a role in the bowl’s gradual troubles including the rise of other entertainment options cropping up in the region, the recession of the 1990s, an aging audience base and ineffective fundraising efforts, Amestoy says.
“So, you have a lot of things that have changed,” he says. “From that point on, the amphitheatre began to overwhelm the ability of the pageant association to maintain the facility.”
At one time, money from the Ramona play was enough to cover the venue’s maintenance costs. No more. It takes between $30,000 to $50,000 a month to keep the amphitheatre running, depending on the time of year. Two years ago, purchasing the rights for a production of The Sound of Music alone cost the association $10,000, Amestoy says. Plus spring attendance, which used to average about 10,000, has recently dipped to between 7,000-8,000. At its peak, Ramona drew as many as 40,000 attendees. Budgets and staffing have been reduced.
“We’ve reached a point in the last few months where our financial situation has become critical,” Amestoy says. “We can no longer support ourselves.”
The play is scheduled to run April 18-19, 25-26 and May 2. The Bowl’s spring lineup will also feature performances by American Idol finalists.
Amestoy says his vision is for the Bowl association to end up becoming the fundraising and endowment arm for the play and other musical productions. In the end, the hope for some is that a county takeover means Ramona will continue and the Bowl will get a much-needed guardian.
“That’s what I’m looking for, maintenance and stewardship and security as soon as possible,” Lindquist says. “ . . . It’s worth protecting the whole thing.”
–Roberto C. Hernandez