Faulty Memory

Jazz hands, Anaheim! Photo by Doug Cataller

There's no shortage of skeletons rattling in Anaheim's closet—a lot of 'dem bones can accumulate in the 150 years it takes a city to reach its sesquicentennial anniversary—and it's not necessarily a surprise that few of them show up in Anaheim Home Companion. This original play is the Chance Theater's celebration of the winter holiday season, not Halloween.

Looking wistfully at Anaheim's past, the play uses a fictional 1953 radio program to tell the story of a town of about 20,000 mostly white people, surrounded by orange groves, obsessed with the high school football team, worried about polio, communists and the Korean War—and sitting obliviously on the cusp of drastic change.

The arrival of the 5 freeway was about to slice the community in half. Walt Disney was talking up a big amusement park. In the next seven years, some 84,000 new residents would arrive. The small town would soon be gone.

Not that this was entirely a bad thing. The Ku Klux Klan briefly infiltrated small-town Anaheim government in the mid-1920s, about the time a former school chief and the head of a church choir were popped for trying to rob a U.S. Mail truck. In the '30s, there were battles over unionizing citrus packing houses, federal court investigations into ranchers selling frost-damaged oranges, and a flood in 1938 that nearly washed the entire community into the Pacific.

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Anaheim Home Companion doesn't reference any of those events. This might be forgiven without a second thought, except that the production has been sanctioned by the city of Anaheim as part of its official celebration of the city's 150th birthday. That relationship presents a question or two: Whose history is this play really telling? And why?

Anaheim Home Companion is the third play this year about some slice of Orange County history. Both of the others were part of the California Stories Initiative, a state grants program for arts projects about California communities.

In April, the Breath of Fire Theater Company at El Centro Cultural de Mexico in Santa Ana presented The Mexican OC,a series of vignettes that explored aspects of the Mexican-American experience in the county. At its center a young woman seeks clues about her past but runs into an older, more assimilated woman far more concerned with real estate than real cultural history.

In October, Brea's Curtis Theater produced William Mittler's Tales From the Canyon: The Olinda Story. It tracks the colorful history of the now-deceased town of Olinda, once located in what today are the foothills of Brea, just east of the 57 freeway. It does not shy away from the big issues—namely, that Big Oil founded the town and, once the oil was nearly exhausted, left it to die.

Both of these plays embraced the uncomfortable. The Mexican OCrecalled the ugly Depression-era repatriation to Mexico of Mexican-American families born in the United States as well as the formal segregation of Westminster schools. Although sponsored by the city of Brea, Olindadelivered the real history, not just heroics, of the dismal prospects of life in a dry mining town—sexual infidelity, debauchery and visits to (surprise!) Anaheim for samples of the liquor that was legal across the city line. There's even a not-so-veiled commentary on war's true toll in a scene about young men from the town drafted to serve in World War I.

"My stipulation when the city asked me to write Tales From the Canyon was that I could write whatever I wanted," said Mittler, who teaches theater at Fullerton College. "I probably wouldn't have done it if that weren't the case."

The Chance bills Anaheim Home Companion as a "tribute to the town we call home," and a "salute to Anaheim's history and the people who made it possible." After the play was conceived and researched by members of the company—including interviews with longtime city residents—UC Irvine composition professor Tira Palmquist shaped the narrative. She's candid about the script's sunny-side-of-life look at Anaheim history.

"A lot of that was by design, since this was meant as more of a light-hearted holiday entertainment," said Palmquist. "It was lively and funny and not meant as a hard-hitting expos that explores some dark, deep underbelly."

Palmquist also believes the show is true to its initial motivation: to find the stories that mattered to people who lived in Anaheim and to tell them, whether that story is a parks worker who created the boysenberry, or how much Anaheim loved its high school football team.

"Some might scoff at the notion of telling these heartwarming stories, but I think these are also stories of value," Palmquist said. "You can look at it and say it didn't touch on the warts of the community. But why does telling the warts of a story make it any more valuable or artistically valid than the stories that mattered most to the people who lived there? I think you can learn from those, too."

This is true so far as it goes. But Anaheim Home Companionis part of the city's birthday party; that qualifies its relentless cheer as propaganda. It's one thing to write a family-friendly holiday show that paints the past in a palette that runs from honey to gold. It's quite another for a city to champion that same show as embodying its soul.

Consider this sentiment, repeated several times in the play: "Wherever you're from, you can find a home in Anaheim."

Really? My mother lived in Stanton in 1953. She remembers the entire north county as a quiet, peaceful area surrounded by miles of orange orchards and strawberry farms. But she also remembers harvest time, when hundreds of brown-skinned laborers pitched tents, slept in trucks and raised shacks on the side of the road. She saw them in the fields and orchards—but never once in a market or any other store.

Evidently, not everyone could find a home in Anaheim. Not then.

None of this is meant to condemn the Chance; theaters can produce whatever they want and invite whomever they want into their beds. Playwrights craft plays, not lectures, and a theater's primary job is to tell stories, not recite history.

But by scoring big points with city hall, has the Chance's artistic integrity been cheapened in any way? When the stories you choose to tell, and the way you tell them, makes a play feel less like art and more like Chamber of Commerce propaganda—even if it's cheerfully rosy propaganda—it's a question worth asking.


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