Through the Looking Glass, a play written over the past six months by playwright and poet Jerry Quickley and community members, explores the real drama, real triumphs, and real people in two of Los Angeles’ most vibrant neighborhoods: Leimert Park and Montebello. In advance of our culminating readings in each community (February 2 in Montebello and February 3 in Leimert Park) and at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (February 8), we’re taking a closer look at what the arts have meant to Montebello (below) and Leimert Park’s rich performing arts tradition (here).
Artists have been working in the area that is now Montebello for centuries. Before the arrival of the Spanish, Indians known as the Kizh or Tongva (and called the Gabrielino by the Spanish) lived in this part of the San Gabriel Valley. Song and story were important vehicles of cultural transmission for the Kizh, and music and dance were central to their rituals. The Kizh were expert basket weavers and soapstone carvers. They also built the San Gabriel Mission, which was originally situated at the native site of Shevaanga (the present-day intersection of San Gabriel Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue).
Some 130 years after the Mission was built, Simons Co. Brickyard No. 3, which was known as the largest brickyard in the world, opened in Montebello. The Mexican immigrants who worked there, many of them from Guanajuato, built Southern California as we know it today. In the company town that sprang up around the brickyard, workers decompressed by dancing, playing pool, and listening to the Simons Brickyard Band, which became so popular that they were invited to participate in the Rose Parade twice. Alejandro Morales, who was born and raised in Montebello, draws on this history as well as the lives of his parents in his novel The Brick People.
The brickyard closed after World War II, and in the 1950s, the Taylor Ranch House became a center for the arts in Montebello after local journalist Evelyn White took up residence there. White made two rooms available for community meetings and hosted a fledgling arts group at the house. A recent edition of the Montebello Historical Society newsletter quotes White, who died in the early 1980s, discussing her transformation of the property. “I had one desire—to establish a cultural center for the area, and to provide some worthwhile opportunities for our high school youngsters,” said White. “My dream became reality.” Over the years, a variety of organizations met at the Taylor Ranch House, including the Southland Art Association, a weekly breakfast club, and the local Soroptimist organization. Paintings for sale, many of them created in the art classes that met at the house, lined the walls. Each October, White held a competitive art fair. As Montebello resident Kathleen Ragabo told CTG, “The competition was fierce between professionals and amateurs!”
The city of Montebello bought Taylor Ranch in the early 1970s. While the building was demolished in 2008, Montebello residents continue to use the barn on the same site as a community meeting room. A new cultural arts center has been proposed at the former site of the Taylor Ranch House, but the project has been stalled since 2012.
More recently, Randy Reas has continued to make space for the visual arts in Montebello with Keeping the Culture Alive (KTCAlive), a community organization that puts on an annual ArtFest as well as art shows and workshops.
Learn more about Through the Looking Glass and reserve tickets for the readings.
Special thanks to Kathleen Rabago for her assistance with this article.