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Impostor, Revealed!

Watch & Listen

While The Ford was closed for construction, Ann Jensen cataloged and organized historic photographs and programs. Below she reveals how she solved one of The Ford’s most perplexing mysteries.

The photo above has been hanging in The Ford offices for years, quietly perpetuating a lie. The woman in the photo is identified in the caption as “Pilgrimage Play playwright, founder, and benefactress Christine Wetherill Stevenson” and is dated 1931. This woman, however, bears little resemblance to the Christine Wetherill Stevenson pictured in the photo below, taken in front of the original Pilgrimage Theater in 1920.

It’s hard to believe she could have aged so much in 10 years, not to mention the fact that Stevenson died in 1922. So, who was this emphatic-looking woman and what did she do with the real Christine Wetherill Stevenson?

I had to know, especially after I found even more images of the mystery woman, such as this one:

Photo courtesy of the Security Pacific Collection at the Los Angeles Public Library.
Photo courtesy of the Security Pacific Collection at the Los Angeles Public Library.

After eliminating the obvious suspects — for instance, the ladies armed with shovels and rakes below are some of Stevenson’s fellow members of the Theatre Arts Alliance (later the Hollywood Bowl Association) — I started some digging of my own through the Los Angeles Times' archives.

Photo courtesy of the Hollywood Bowl.
Photo courtesy of the Hollywood Bowl.

After comparing photos of various mature ladies and wading through the period’s purple prose, I spotted a familiar figure in an article dated December 30, 1930.

The caption revealed that our mystery woman was the oft-widowed Clara Burdette, a.k.a. Mrs. Robert Burdette, a.k.a. Clara Bradley Wheeler Baker Burdette.

After further research, I learned that Clara was the chairman of the committee to rebuild the Pilgrimage Theatre after a 1929 fire destroyed the original wooden structure. She spoke at the groundbreaking on December 14, 1930, the date the first photo above was taken. According to the Los Angeles Times, Mrs. Burdette turned a spadeful of earth and rededicated the spot to “the constructive and spiritual good of the community and to a noble expression of art, education, and culture.”

Like Stevenson, Clara Burdette was unconventional and determined. A prominent Southern California suffragist, she was instrumental in the formation of the California State Federation of Women’s Clubs and a founding member of the Ebell Club of Los Angeles. Clara was also particularly good at getting things built — she served on committees or donated funds for such buildings as the Temple Auditorium, a.k.a. Philharmonic Auditorium, located at 5th and Olive Streets and demolished in 1985, and Pasadena Hospital’s maternity wing.

According to additional Los Angeles Times coverage, Clara proposed several visionary, if somewhat impractical, improvements to what is now The Ford. The theater was to be “the only outdoor playhouse in the world” with upholstered seats, “heating facilities” to make it available year-round, and a winding escalator to carry patrons up the hillside. Though none of her suggestions made it into The Ford’s recent round of renovations, we are sure she would be proud to see her beloved theater flourishing on the eve of its centennial.

– Ann Jensen