Don’t be afraid. They’re not ghosts.
Volunteer actors and some city officials dressed in time-period costumes will conjure up local history at the 18th Annual Historical Cemetery Tour this Saturday, Oct. 26, just days before Halloween.
This yearly tradition arranged by the Historical Society of Long Beach (HSLB) is not meant to scare anybody but to educate people about the many legacies of deceased residents who were buried at the city’s two oldest cemeteries.
Amid some 20,000 grave plots at the Municipal and Sunnyside cemeteries– one of which dates back to the turn of the century– at 1095 E. Willow St. between Orange and California avenues, performers will portray individuals whose lives each tell a different story of Long Beach’s diverse past.
The historic site, known for its upright, old-fashioned tombstones, will set the stage for “miniature” plays performed by actors garbed in clothing from various eras, from the early 1900s to the ‘50s (when Long Beach was named “Iowa by the Sea”) to modern day. The cemetery was made famous by a 1939 picture by photographer Ansel Adams that includes a statue in front of a backdrop of oil derricks in Signal Hill.
This year’s cemetery tour has a theme of education and features some more recently departed individuals, such as Bill and Betty Seal, lifelong Long Beach residents who made major contributions to local schools and are the parents of Judy Seal, executive director of the Long Beach Education Foundation.
Betty, a teacher and counselor who died in 2011, spearheaded the first English As a Second Language, or ESL, curriculum at Long Beach Unified School District, while Bill, a teacher who passed away this year, helped Vietnam veterans enroll in community college.
Local community-theatre actors Mitchell and Jane Nunn, who participated two years ago, are representing the couple. During dress rehearsals last Sunday at HSLB’s building on Atlantic Avenue, Mitchell said he is grateful to pay respects to such noble people.
“It’s really interesting when you find out about these people,” said Mitchell, who also performs in The Foreigner at Long Beach Playhouse. “It’s just very fulfilling inside to keep this message alive as to what these people did and to pay the honor to them to let people know this isn’t just a person in the ground.”
Jane, who held back tears while practicing her lines, said the performances will be “especially interesting” since they feature people who recently passed away, unlike previous reenactments of people who died decades ago.
“There’s a chance there will be people who come to the event who actually knew these people, and we’ve never had that before,” she said.
In his fifth year directing the performances, Denis McCourt, who is the founder of the Public Theatre of Southern California and has worked with the Long Beach Shakespeare Company and Long Beach Playhouse, said each performance is like a “living obituary” for different residents of various time periods and they show how people never change.
“This is a way to bring it to life by finding that human connection and the power of personal story,” he said. “When you see real people standing there, you realize we haven’t changed much. The humanity is still the same.”
Local historians Roxanne Patmore and Kaye Briegel worked together on writing the scripts after months of researching each person’s life through newspaper archives, the Internet and relatives of the deceased.
Some of the residents featured in the plays were chosen by circumstance, however Briegel said the goal is to showcase a wide cross section of people’s lives, whether influential or not, instead of the traditional “movers and shakers” of Long Beach history.
“The challenge is to do something that says something worthwhile about the history of Long Beach and still make it interesting and engaging for the public,” she said. “These aren’t the same old stories. It’s not the booster history of Long Beach. It’s an attempt to look at a broader idea of what Long Beach has been in the past.”
This year, some city officials have joined the reenactments. For instance, Councilmember Al Austin is playing Charles Haynes, who in 1961 became the first African-American member of the Long Beach Board of Realtors. The performance will also feature Haynes’s wife, Ethel, an elementary-school teacher.
Some mayoral candidates are also participating, including Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal, Councilmember Gerrie Schipske, Long Beach Community College Trustee Doug Otto and Jana Shields, who runs a nonprofit educational service. Councilmember Suja Lowenthal, who announced she has dropped out of the mayoral race and is running for the 70th District Assembly seat, is expected to perform as well.
Jonathan Varillas, who plays Valentine Leal, a Mexican from Texas who married Maybell Leal in 1905 to have three sons, one of whom attended UCLA and became a language scholar, said the reenactment is unlike any performance he has ever done.
“It’s almost like you can literally touch the history of it,” said Varillas, who has been studying dramatic arts for about five years. “It’s kind of like you can feel what it was like to have lived in Long Beach. I’m just really glad to be able to express that to people.”
Anna Kate Mohler, who plays Maybell, said the graveside performances are the “essence of community theatre,” adding that the event is more about paying tribute to those whom the stories are about rather than the performances.
“I think there’s something that’s so wonderful about pieces that have historical relevance, especially in the town that we live in,” Mohler said. “It’s that much more important. It’s not just getting on stage… and getting to perform. You’re there, and you’re at their gravesite. That’s pretty special.”
Performances run continuously from 9am to 2:30pm. The event also features a Dia de los Muertos exhibit, a free hotdog lunch and guided tours. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $15 for HSLB members and $5 for students 8 to 18 years old (children under age 8 are free). Tickets may only be purchased the day of the tour from 8:30am to noon.