Tales From the Canyon: The Olinda Story Is Orange County’s Our Town

Though teaching and paying bills took him away for a while, William Mittler was a freaking playwriting machine in the 1990s. He wrote nearly three dozen plays, most produced at STAGEStheatre, before transitioning into education at Fullerton College.

But in 2005, Mittler was asked to write a play about a mostly forgotten slice of Orange County: Olinda, a small oil community at the mouth of Carbon Canyon that lasted, roughly, from 1900 to 1950. (Olinda and the town of Randolph merged into the city of Brea in 1912.)

The result was Tales From the Canyon: The Olinda Story, a full-length play first produced in 2006 and now revived as part of Brea’s centennial. It’s not a historical documentary; those looking for OC’s historical warts—from its ugly racial segregation to unchecked development leading to generic suburban sprawl to the KKK’s influence in the 1920s—will be disappointed. But, neither is it a rah-rah, flag-waving, white-people-built-this-county-and-everything-about-it-was-so-great piece of civic propaganda (and yes, Virginia, nothing in this play suggests the current city of Brea is anything other than what is: the current city of Brea).

Blending historical reality (much of it from oral histories compiled by Cal State Fullerton) and fiction, the play focuses on the people in Olinda’s oil community, people who lived, worked and loved, some of whom drank too much, beat their wives and kids, and played baseball. Lots of baseball.

Featuring 35 actors and musicians playing some 70 characters under the direction of Jesse Runde (who needs to tell the kids and a few others to PROJECT), Olinda is both an homage to working-class people trying to build better lives and a poignant look at how the march of time so often reduces the past to dust. But it also sharply illustrates how the past informs so much of the present and that, as much as things change, the important ones remain the same. As one character says, people have been mainly concerned with work, weather and love since there have been people; the only thing different is the social milieu they live through.

Reflecting on the past gives Olinda an Our Town-like feel. That is augmented by the presence of two narrators: the always-capable Rick Kopps as the Station Master, and a likeable and ornery Mario Vargas Jr. as the Old Man of the Hills. As the name suggests, this is a series of tales, some very ordinary, if not tedious (a mother explaining the daily drudgery of her normal routine, oil workers describing the process behind extracting black gold), and some extraordinary, such as the great flood of 1938. The most extraordinary is that of Walter Johnson, a Kansas kid whose family moved to Olinda before he was one of the greatest pitchers in Major League Baseball. Another riveting tale is that of a young girl (a strong Ash Armstrong) who grew up in Olinda and became a nurse during World War I. In a series of letters written to her mother, she recounts the wild-eyed thrill she feels at embarking on this heroic mission to care for American G.I.s, her excitement slowly turning into horror and desperation at the carnage.

Johnson and the nurse are the only two characters in Olinda who manage to get out. Many others (as any OC native can empathize with) yearn to move, either to Hollywood to become stars or to travel the world and do Great Things, but their ties to their families and the ground they live and work on, even if oil-saturated, keep them there.

Until none of them can stay.

While Olinda isn’t preoccupied with revising OC history, there are allusions to women and “others” not having the right to vote, immigration (the immigrants blamed here aren’t people of color, but Okies working in the oil fields for less pay), and the reality that profit-driven businesses can both build and lay waste to a community. That happens in Olinda during the Great Depression, when the oil company decides to shelve the train and use a pipeline to ship its crude to the refinery.

The community had already peaked, with most workers living in the “flats” of Brea; by 1950, it was a ghost town. As Mittler relates, there was an effort later to stage an annual Olinda family picnic, a reunion of sorts, but even that ended, and today, all that’s left are the Olinda Oil Museum and Trail and a couple of place names.

And this play. A play about a place that helped build a county into what it is today, for better and worse. It serves as a reminder that a community isn’t about its buildings, but the spirit of its people, for worse and better.

Tales From the Canyon: The Olinda Story at the Brea Curtis Theatre, 1 Civic Center Dr., Brea, (714) 990-7722; curtistheatre.com. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. $15-$20.

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