History of the Playhouse

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History of the Playhouse

The San Gabriel Mission Playhouse is a magnificent and opulent theater steeped in history, complete with tapestries presented by the King of Spain, a beautifully carved and painted ceiling, a fully operational Wurlitzer Theatre Organ, and chandeliers that replicate the lanterns used on Spanish galleons which sailed around the tip of South America en route to California in the 1800’s.

Dedicated on March 5th, 1927, this lavish facility was built by John Steven McGroarty for his famed Mission Play. The world-renowned production told the dramatic story of the founding of the California missions by the Franciscan Fathers under the leadership of Father Junipero Serra.

After the end of the 1932 season and an astounding 3,198 performances, the effects of the depression, plus an attempt to produce it on Broadway, ended the long run of the play. A re-imagined version of the play was presented in April 2013 as part of the City’s Centennial Celebrations.  Find out more on our Mission Play 2013 page.

This landmark structure was soon returned to the holders of the mortgage where its future was in doubt. During the ensuing decade, the Mission Playhouse served as a movie theater. Then, during the severe housing shortage that occurred while WWII was being fought, the Playhouse dressing rooms were used as apartments.

It was in the mid 1940′s that a group of San Gabriel residents formed a citizen’s committee whose goal was to see the Playhouse purchased by the City. Although the first initiative was turned down by the voters in April of 1945, it was successfully passed in August of that year at which time the City purchased the Mission Playhouse and renamed it the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium. On September 26, 2007, the City renamed the theater again back to the original name.

Today, the theater looks much as it did when the Mission Play was in production. The architectural style is Spanish, with Mexican and Native American influences apparent in the decor. The facade, designed to resemble McGroarty’s favorite mission, San Antonio de Padua in Monterey County, is clearly the most identifiable aspect of the building and can be seen for miles.

The Wurlitzer Theatre Organ is one of the finest in the country. Originally built in 1927 in New York, this magnificent instrument was donated to the Playhouse in 1968 and was fully restored in 2009 with the aid of a generous donation from the Peter Crotty Charitable Foundation.

View historic pictures and current images of the interior and exterior of the Playhouse and Wurlitzer Theatre Organ in our Photo Gallery section.