It’s Curtains for 2020 Mountain Play

Abraham and Isaac was written in 1316 by an unknown author. The biblical story is based on the supremacy of duty over love  |   photo from  | post by Larry Clinton

One of the casualties of the Coronavirus pandemic is the Mountain Play on Mount Tam. This would have been the 107th production, and Jane and I would be rounding up friends and relatives to go see Hello Dolly. But since the season has been shuttered and we’re all shut-ins, I thought I’d look back to the beginnings of this beloved Marin tradition.

How did the idea of putting a play on top of Mt. Tam come about? The Marin History Museum (MHM) asks and answers that question on Facebook: “It happened when three hikers, Garnet Holme, John C. Catlin and Richard O’Rourke, stopped in the popular hiking area Rock Spring, to take in the breathtaking view of the Bay. Mr. Holme, a director, playwright and UC Berkeley drama coach, is said to have exclaimed ‘What a perfect setting for an outdoor theatre.’ This would become the Cushing Memorial Amphitheater with annual productions delighting audiences for over 100 years.

“The first play, entitled Abraham and Isaac, was performed on May 4, 1913 directed by Mr. Holme. Paying 50 cents apiece, more than 1,200 people attended. And, the only way to get to the amphitheater was to ride the Mount Tamalpais & Muir Woods Railway from downtown Mill Valley or hike up the mountain.”

The Mill Valley Record announced the inaugural performance in its April 5, 1913 edition: “The Mountain Play is a sincere effort to inaugurate a festival on the mountain side worthy of its great beauty. Mt. Tamalpais has never been fully appreciated by the great bulk of those who live in its shadow. To the visitor the majestic form of the great cliff looms large in the memory of his visit to the City of the Golden Gate and he is far more likely to ascend the easy trails to the summit than he who resides within sight of it. Such a mountain is worthy of a great festival and it is only lack of knowledge of its beauties that is an obstacle to such an undertaking. The Mountain Play, to be given in a worthy and dignified manner, will, it is hoped, start a movement which will adequately do honour to this beautiful guardian of the Bay.

“It is a beautiful idea, this of giving a Mountain Play on the summit of one of the most famous mountain ridges of the world, where the background of the stage is made by the San Francisco Bay, with its islands and blue water and the rugged shore line of the Pacific two thousand feet below; with magnificent old Mount Diablo as sentinel in the east and Mount Montara at the South. No drama has ever been presented with so magnificent a setting; for here on the rugged mountain side, among the stately pines, with tapestries of madrona and oaks, nature has built and decorated its own theatre and set a stage on a little bank of turf among lichen covered boulders of primeval serpentine. The spectators will place themselves on the slopes of the two grassy banks that run down to the front of the stage. The auditorium formed without human aid can hold at least two thousand people and all can see and hear perfectly. There will be no effort to provide wooden seats on this first Festival and the onlookers will group themselves at their pleasure on the bank side. The approach to the Mountain Theatre consists of a woodland trail from West Point, a little over a mile in length. The wayfarer passes through delightfully shaded lanes, every now and then traversing an uncovered space where he may see the grand sweep of the Bay and the Pacific and the hills of San Francisco in the far distance.”

The Mountain Play Association was formed the following year to make the shows an annual event. Congressman William Kent deeded the land for the amphitheater, according to the MHM, “and it was named after the mountain railroad magnate, Sidney B. Cushing, a conservation crusader of Mt. Tam.”

The following year, automobiles were able to reach the amphitheater, and this announcement ran in the Sausalito News: “On one day of the year, Sunday, May 17th, you will have the privilege of motoring to the top of Mount Tamalpais. Furthermore you may witness, in California’s largest and most magnificent theatre, built by Nature on a splendid scale, the first American open air performance of India’s famous mountain drama, Shakutala. An admission fee of only 5O cents will be charged to provide for the expense of preparing and presenting a Mountain Play, and there will be no other charges. On the day following the play, Kent’s private road, thrown open to autos for the occasion, and connecting with the newly opened road to the mountain theatre, will be closed. Will you come? We shall be very much pleased to have you, and you may be assured of a day long to be remembered with pleasure. Yours very truly, The Mountain Play Committee.”

Next week: how the Mountain Play evolved, despite many obstacles over the years.