Right in our backyard is a wonderful cultural happening called the . It has happened in nearly all of the past 99 years amid the bloom of wildflowers and a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean out over rolling hills, visible from under the shade of manzanita and madrone, oaks and bay laurel.
At the amphitheater site on Mount Tam, there’s a big rock outcrop called Pohli Rock, as well as God’s Tree, which are often incorporated into the play itself. There may be a funky old-fashioned car or even a biplane floating by. On an average day, these mountain spots are serene, quiet, sunny locales that hikers love, punctuated by birdsong and mountain winds, with serpentine rock here and there underfoot and hawks above.
All this is ours for the day and a play.
This , a wonderful musical sure to entertain the whole family. You can get there on the big yellow school buses leaving regularly from . In times past, there also were red trolley cars going up. In the very old days, before the car was ubiquitous, many hiked and others cut that hike by taking the Crookedest Railroad in the World up to Rock Springs and walking the remaining mile. Some met the Sierra Club at the starting at 9:30 a.m. and hiked up with their leader. Horseback riders were barred from the trail on that day.
Some interesting facts:
The play was created by three men who loved hiking, two of whom had active roles in the local thespian community. Hikers who frequented the mountain’s trails helped enormously in getting the play off the ground. Their support ranged from financial and trail maintenance to stage know-how and acting. Because of their “understanding of the outdoors,” the California Alpine Club provided many additions to the cast.
Additionally, the Tamalpais Conservation Club, the Sierra Club and the Recreation League of California all played an integral part as the years went on. College of Marin and Cal Berkeley Drama Clubs were incorporated in the production at various times.
Prior to the founding of , William Kent donated the land from his family’s many acres up there, as he did for Muir Woods. But in this instance he stipulated that the Mountain Play be able to run there for the benefit of generations to come. After the founding of the State Park, the Mountain Play site was incorporated into those lands. However, when the summer months commence and the dry weather marches by, the site is protected by wise fire rules and so the play does not continue past June.
It has had a continuous running since 1913, except during the second World War years. The Northwestern Pacific and Tamalpais Railroad, as well as the Marin County Promotion League and North Coast Water Company of Marin City, contributed monetary resources and made possible the water system and reservoir. Many local individuals also contributed.
Thousands of people treasured the event and journeyed by ferry in the early years from San Francisco. The city newspapers lauded the event, considering it a grand affair and the location perfect. Back then, the play was just one day, and the first play was actually one play plus a scene from another. If the play was to be postponed due to poor weather, play-goers were met with a sign saying as much at the ferry terminus in Sausalito.
If all was a go, then they set off on the train to Mill Valley. Then up the Mountain carrying a picnic lunch. The seating was built by the California Conservation Corps, hewn from the mountain rock itself, and this replaced the grass seating in the 1930s. If the play was successful, it would run again in Berkeley. Those on its board were some of the members of the Bohemian Club up the coast.
The organization became known as the and was a volunteer-run group, with most if not all of the proceeds going toward site upkeep, trail maintenance and the running of the play. The association has always priced their regular tickets affordably to accommodate “moderate income families” and gifted tickets to groups such as the St. Vincent School for Boys.
But the Mountain Play did run into some impasses. The meadow for parking was suffering from impact and the interest in the play's subjects was not as strong as in the past. In the 1970s, there was a shift and the result was the play’s resurgence as a “great community expression in every sense.” (Mrs. D.E.F. Easton, “The Mountain Play,” Trails, 1922, p 25).
You would not know it now, but the Mountain Play as an integral part of Mill Valley’s folklore almost ceased to exist and is alive and well thanks to an (“The Ballad of Marilyn Smith,” Steve Riffkin, Mountain Play Association program My Fair Lady, 1996).
A music major and an avid arranger of local chamber music concerts and children’s plays, as well as a film director, an amazing Mill Valleyite with great organizational capacities, Smith took the helm of the Mountain Play in those dark days. Buses were arranged to alleviate congestion, and at the end of every play, Marilyn encouraged playgoers to walk down to Mill Valley on one of the many trails. One local writer describes the hikers in song as they descended, various groups singing their favorite pieces on their hike to close the day.
Marilyn Smith also began the tradition of bringing the musical to the mountain. These are always popular with folks who often know the tunes without ever having seen the shows in which they originated. This tradition has held strong to this day, and her vision and good steerage helped the Mountain Play remain an integral part of our area’s wonderful cultural activities, including the and the .
The Lucretia Hanson Little History Room at the Mill Valley Public Library has information, including newspaper clippings, playbills, photographs, books, maps, correspondence and legal documents pertaining to all these local events, available for your research or just plain curiosity.
So go to the Mountain Play this year. There’s transportation if you’d rather not hike the whole way, and there is food and drinks for sale and water up there. There is an intermission and there are bound to be some amazing props á la .
In closing, here again are the descriptive words that Mrs. Effie Easton wrote in her essay in Trails, The Mountain Play, still so fitting for today: This mountain theatre, “surrounded by a gallery of century-old redwoods, mountain oaks and madrones… The backdrop of the natural stage presents…a panorama of the ship-dotted Bay of San Francisco, its islands and the cities about its shores, together with charming glimpses of the Blue Pacific” (ibid, p. 24), which remind us of the
jewel that we have here, from which we can be audience to fun and laughter this and many more summers.
This article was written by a docent, a Mill Valley native, at the Lucretia Little History Room at the .