Claremont Heritage gala celebrates ‘Our Town’
By Michael Ceraso
Homebound viewers on Saturday were treated to a highly entertaining three-act celebration of Claremont’s historical, cultural, and architectural heritage, inspired by Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
Adapting to the state and county health measures in place to protect Californians from the spread of COVIDd-19, Claremont Heritage moved its long-held annual gala from under the bright lights of the Padua Hills Theatre to a computer screen.
“We knew we had an opportunity to reach a much broader audience than the usual number of people who show up to a gala,” said Claremont Heritage Executive Director David Shearer.
The idea to reimagine Wilder’s Our Town came from the crafty and historical mind of John Neiuber, who serves as president of Claremont Heritage. He pitched committee members on the concept, and they immediately signed on, offering ideas of their own.
“We wanted this to celebrate optimism and everything good with the town,” said Mr. Neiuber.
Cher Ofstedahl’s vivacious persona greeted audience members in the beginning of Act 1, conjuring Wilder’s iconic Stage Manager throughout the production, her welcoming demeanor made it easy for Zoom weary viewers to stay engaged.
Ms. Ofstedahl immediately whisked viewers off on a fun-filled ride, transporting audience members through four generations of aerial and street level images of Claremont landmarks, pictures that included the Santa Fe railroad at the Depot in the 1940s and Memorial Park with and without trees, provided by the Claremont COURIER.
“Every year, we talk about the incredible people who have made a contribution to Claremont but when it’s over, we go home, and you probably don’t think about the event again,” said Ms. Ofstedahl, a long time Claremont resident with deep thespian roots. “Now, we can archive the event, and years from now, you’ll get a sense of how we were feeling during the time. There is a little bit of history tied to this.”
Ms. Oftsedahl introduced Claremont’s Treasury of Music, a new organizational effort within the Claremont Heritage, to showcase the city’s talented musicians and performers who continue to entertain and delight us with their talent, while remembering the ones we have lost.
Among the several pre-recorded musical performances in the one hour production was Treasury honoree Jen Rosen, who performed acoustically the late Norma Tanega’s “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog.” Ms. Tanega wrote the song after feeling constricted by her own living situation, a prevailing feeling residents are sharing in today’s COVID-19 lockdown.
Bess and Herman Garner’s legacy for breaking down racial barriers through academia and the arts is well-documented. Throughout the production you could see and feel the impact the Garners had on Claremont’s transformation, especially when John Dominguez accepted the Bess Garner Historic Preservation award from Mr. Neiuber.
Mr. Dominguez lived in the Intercultural Council Houses, where Anglo students and Mexican laborers lived together in a time when this was frowned upon in American society. The Garners were in the middle of this movement. Years later, Mr. Dominguez would be on the front lines to ensure the Intercultural Council Houses were listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Mr. Dominguez has worked on historic floor restoration and preservation projects in Claremont for years, leaving a lasting imprint on the city.
“My philosophy in restoration is to restore it to a level that no one can notice,” he said. “Trying to keep something the same is extremely emotional for people. It gives people a sense of security.”
When the doors open again, Claremont residents will face new economic realities, but also an opportunity to build on the city’s proud diversity.
“The COURIER documents Claremont history, while Heritage ensures it’s archived for everyone to see,” said COURIER publisher and owner Peter Weinberger, who received the Cultural Heritage Award for the COURIER’s focused reporting that has catalogued the city’s history the last 112 years.
Regardless of the choices and the results that follow, Claremont Heritage along with the COURIER will be standing there, transcribing everything for you to see and read.
To become a member or get involved in preserving the city’s grand history, visit www.claremontheritage.org