6 minute read


Words & Photos provided by Terry Ommen

The Sierra Nevada mountain range dominates California. When early Spanish explorers saw the series of snowy mountains, they named it Sierra, meaning “jagged mountain range,” and Nevada, meaning “snowy.” The impressive collection of granite peaks, alpine valleys, and crystal clear lakes stretches more than 400 miles long and spans 50 to 80 miles wide. Many consider it to be the longest unbroken mountain range in North America. It truly is a land of superlatives. It hosts Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America; Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States; and General Sherman, which is, by volume, the largest tree in the world. John Muir was so moved by it he said, “Of all the mountain ranges I have climbed, I like the Sierra Nevada the best,” and christened it the “Range of Light.”

But despite its awe-inspiring beauty, this charmer is more than just a pretty face. It’s also been witness to considerable California history. It watched as the Miwok people hunted and gathered food there, and saw mountain men and trappers like Kit Carson explore its rivers and valleys. The Sierra offered a comfortable haven for those trying to escape hot summer heat, but it also became the last resting place for travelers like members of the doomed Donner Party, who found themselves trapped in treacherous blizzard snow. But its historic heyday happened when gold nuggets were found in its streambeds—a discovery that set off a massive migration that became the California Gold Rush.

This 1932 publicity photograph is believed to capture a scene from Ersa in Sequoia National Park.

Tulare County is fortunate to have a good portion of the Sierra within its boundaries, comprising about half of the county’s land area. The county saw its share of history including the silver rush to Mineral King, the preservation movement to save the giant Sequoia trees, and the creation of Sequoia National Park. Each played an important part in county history. Many other less dramatic, but interesting events occurred in the mountains as well.

One such event was a sylvan theater production called “Ersa of the Red Trees.” Written by Garnet Holme and Dan Totheroh, this open air theater pageant was performed many times within Sequoia National Park, often at the base of the General Sherman Tree and always with large crowds. The three-act mythical play had a strong big tree preservation theme, using music and dance. After it dazzled the audience in its first production in 1922, it was scheduled for a two-day run the following year, this time starring Garnet Holme, the playwright himself and Katharane (sometimes spelled Katherine) Edson, the well-known American dancer. Because of its popularity, “Ersa” became part of the 1925 dedication ceremony for the new 24-mile Generals Highway section connecting Three Rivers and Giant Forest. Again Garnet Holme starred and 12 of his actors performed at the General Sherman Tree with many dignitaries looking on, including National Park Service Director Stephen Mather.

From 1928 to 1932 at least, production of “Ersa” became an annual event. Many park visitors enjoyed its graceful dancing which sometimes included as many as 27 cast members. Holme died in 1928 having directed his play in the Giant Forest for four years. After his death, Visalian Floyd Byrnes took over as director, bringing in many Visalia theater performers as part of the cast. "Ersa" left its mark on those that saw it, leaving them with a powerful message of preservation for the giant trees.

Shortly after “Ersa of the Red Trees,” the mountains of Tulare County hosted another production. This time it was a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie called Sequoia starring Jean Parker, the well-known film and stage actor. Released in 1934, the film was based on the book Malibu written by Vance Joseph Hoyt. The plot of the story centered around Toni Martin, played by Jean Parker, who lived with her father Matthew Martin, played by Samuel Hinds. While out walking in the Sequoia forest where they lived, Toni found a mountain lion that she named “Gato” and a young fawn she called “Malibu.” The story revolved around these two natural enemies, their relationship with each other, and their struggle to survive the dangers of the world. The movie was billed as a wildlife film packed with adventure. Zane Grey said it was “the greatest picture of the last decade,” and MGM called it “the most unusual romance ever filmed.”

For about two years, the crew filmed on location in Sequoia National Park, much of the time at Heather Lake. During the long filming, they were pleased with the help they received from park employees. The MGM studio was so impressed that they named the film Sequoia rather than Malibu, as a tribute to the cooperation received from park officials.

But Sequoia National Park employees were not the only helpful ones. Visalia businesses also impressed the filming crew. From time to time, Director Chester M. Franklin needed supplies that were often difficult to find. Visalia businesses went out of their way to get what he needed. And Franklin was especially impressed with the help he received from the Visalia Chamber of Commerce. On one occasion, he needed logs to build a cabin. He checked with “every lumber yard in the area” without success. Finally, he went to the Visalia Chamber and they were able to find them in the Southern California Edison pole yard. Totally pleased, Franklin said, “Great Scott, I suppose if we asked for a black elephant, the Visalia Chamber of Commerce would have it,” and added, “We got cooperation far beyond that ordinarily experienced.”

Visalia was honored with the Northern California premier showing of Sequoia. Its three-day run began on Sunday, March 3, 1935, at the Visalia Fox Theatre. It was very popular in Tulare County, especially Visalia. Not only was it enjoyable, the Visalia Times-Delta noted, “The advertising value which this picture gives to Sequoia National Park cannot be overestimated, nor should we underestimate the reflected glory in which Visalia stands as the gateway to this great national paradise.”

Left: This is the cover of the 1932 fifth annual presentation of "Ersa".

Right: Shown here is the cover of the Sequoia Big Little Book, published in 1935 and features Jean Park with Malibu on the cover.