Sep 282023

Serenata de Chapala was first performed at the Padua Hills Theatre, California, on 2 August 1939 and had a highly successful one-month run. This makes it the earliest Chapala-linked play I have so far come across! Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that a script still exists, since its author and director, Charles Alvah Dickinson, was a strong proponent of improvisation.

Dickinson was born in Corona, California, on 26 December 1910 and died from a heart attack in Claremont, California, on 3 December 1950. He graduated from Pomona College in 1932 and gained a master’s degree from Caremont Graduate School in 1934, by which time he was already working with the Padua Hills Theatre, located three miles north of Claremont, a city on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County. In 1940, Dickinson married Kathryn Estelle Welch (1909-1984).

Dickinson’s 18 years with the Padua Hills Theatre was interrupted only by his service in the US Army from 1943 to 1945. At the theatre, he was the art and dance director of the Mexican Players, an acting group that was the mainstay of the Padua Hills Theatre, which began in the early 1930s and lasted until 1974.

Dickinson wrote more than 100 plays produced at Padua Hills, and acted in or directed many others. All the plays had close ties either to Mexico or to Mexico-California connections, and Dickinson’s in-depth knowledge of Mexico was ever-apparent. In 1936, for example, he took the part of an American entomologist in It rained in Ixtlán del Río, “a riotous comedy” about a bandit who tried to take advantage of a group of train passengers stranded in a crowded inn after their journey north was interrupted owing to a blockage on the railroad line.

The theatre, built in 1930, had struggled through the Great Depression. But Mr and Mrs Herman H Garner recognized the potential of the many young Mexican boys and girls who worked there and founded, in 1935, the Padua Institute. The institute arranged classes, some with guest teachers from Mexico, in music, dance, dramatics, languages and arts and crafts, all with the aim of promoting friendly relations between the US and Mexico.

Ad for "Serenata de Chapala (Redlands Daily Facts, 2 Aug 1939)

Ad for “Serenata de Chapala (Redlands Daily Facts, 2 Aug 1939)

At the time Serenata de Chapala was running, the Mexican Players consisted of a group of about 30 young people of Mexican or Spanish Californian descent, some of whom were born in Mexico, and most of whom had lived in California for some time.

Serenata de Chapala was a rollicking romantic comedy in two acts. Performances were followed by a “Jamaica” or outdoor carnival of songs, dances and festive Mexican games. Presented in Spanish, Serenata de Chapala was about the serio-comic tribulations of a sextet of ardent young lovers. The “conversation of the play frequently introduces English, and the action is so arranged that it is easily followed by those who do not understand Spanish.” Chapala, the setting for the play, was described in publicity materials as “Mexico’s famed vacation resort.”

According to one review, “Serenata de Chapala told a merry and exciting story of how an Americanized Mexican lad unwittingly solved a romantic quadrangle through defying time-honored customs to give the señoritas a thrill.” Another reviewer wrote how “Serenading a señorita in Mexico at 4 o’clock in the morning is a hazardous pastime that may provoke a pistol barrage from an irate papa, to judge by the startling and hilarious climax of Serenata de Chapala.’”

"Serenata de Chapala" (Redlands Daily Facts, 14 Aug 1939)

“Serenata de Chapala” (Redlands Daily Facts, 14 Aug 1939)

The Padua Hills Theatre won national and international recognition as a unique cultural project, with the Stage magazine including them on their list of the ten best little theatre groups in the US. According to Wikipeda, Padua Hills Theatre was the longest running theater featuring Mexican-theme musicals in the US. The dinner theatre group called the “Mexican Players” lasted until 1974. Several former players continued their careers on stage; others, such as Natividad Vacío, made their name in movies.

The Padua Hills property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998, and is used today primarily for weddings and special events.

This website has many evocative images of the Padua Hills Theatre in its heyday.

Papers, flyers, photos and other material associated with Padua Hills Theatre are housed in a special collection at the Claremont Colleges Library.


  • Anon. “‘Padua Hills’ – Unusual Institution.” Pacific Electric Magazine, August 1939, 3-4.
  • Redlands Daily Facts: 25 Jul 1939; 2 Aug 1939; 14 Aug 1939; 23 Aug 1939.
  • South Pasadena Review: 1 Sep 1939, 2.
  • The Pomona Progress Bulletin: 12 Feb 1936, 5; 4 Dec 1950, 13.
  • Santa Barbara News-Press: 4 Dec 1950, 3.
Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

May 282020

The Canadian playwright and novelist George Ryga (1932-1987) lived and wrote in the village of San Antonio Tlayacapan, mid-way between Chapala and Ajijic, from November, 1972 to March 1973.

Ryga was sufficiently immersed in local life during his few months at Lake Chapala that it inspired him to write A Portrait of Angelica, a play set in Ajijic that rings just as true today as it did when it was first written.

This is not some lighthearted romantic comedy, though Ryga does employ humor to good effect in examining the interaction, from a Canadian perspective, between a group of tourists and the Mexican townsfolk, who have “a culture that, unlike our own, ‘has withstood a thousand hurricanes.'”

Ryga introduces the play (in the published version) with the text of a talk he gave during a series of workshops of populist theatre in Thunder Bay in 1982. In the introduction, entitled “An Artist in Resistance,” Ryga proves to be a staunch advocate for the contribution that populist theatre can play to help audiences understand a world that is globalizing so rapidly—via changes in technology and communications—that it inevitably leads to conflicts and contradictions that expose widespread racism and inequalities. The themes of A Portrait of Angelica are no less serious.

My first surprise in reading the play was to discover that Angelica was the name of the small town (Santa Angelica) where the play is set, and not a person!

The basic plot is centered around frustrated lives and loves mixed with tales of lust, violence and drunkenness. The three principal characters are Danny, Jose and Elena. Danny is a well-educated young Canadian, who wants to parlay his masters degree in history and English into a writing career. He sits at a table on the town square writing letters to his mother—letters which, for one reason or another, never get sent. Jose is a local policeman, standing nearby, outside the town’s delegación. Elena is a “town girl”, an independent thinker, high spirited, sensuous and flirtatious.

The dialogue between these three and a host of minor characters (tourists, local residents, fishermen) varies from seemingly mundane conversations about daily life to quick-witted teasing, taunting and wisecracking about past and current events, occasionally interspersed by drinking and dancing. For the most part the dialogue is unfailingly entertaining, incisive and perceptive.

Here is Danny casting lighthearted aspersions on the newcomers who arrive with no Spanish:

Danny: I came to write a book in a town the new arrivals from Texas, Alabama and New York call Se Vende for a week or so. There are no markings on the highway to announce the entrance to Angelica, only “Se Vende” signs on fields, sheds, housing, shops and even refuse heaps now overgrown with banana palms sheltering scorpions who know nothing of inter-American economics… or the meaning of “For Sale” signs. [31]

Moments later, Padre Edwardo explains to Danny and Jose his own fears about how the town is changing:

You are both young… it is easy to impress you! You know nothing of this culture! Two thousand years of heritage sells for twenty pesos a square metre this very hour on the edge of town. I have a dream the people sold my church from underneath my feet for a parking lot… and I was reduced in my old age to herding goats upon the mountain for the milk and cheese consortium! When the price of land is high, history and culture is a dying calf with three legs! [31]

At one point Jose loses his patience with Danny and tells him what he thinks of the foreigners who have settled in the town:

They’ve all come here to die, or write a book! The taverns overflow with rotting poets and biographers who waste empty paper on their empty lives! Climb a mountain, or screw up a storm, amigo!… It will be better for your system than sitting at a table all day long! [33]

In a later part of the play, Danny and Jose continue to debate the relative merits of Canada and Mexico, Canadians and Mexicans:

Danny: In my homeland, we struggle six months of the year to keep ourselves from freezing during winter. Our children are well fed… the old have a living pension. You are as wealthy in resource as we, yet to boil soup takes a woman and two men!

Jose: But the soup gets made, even though we had to lose Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California to get to this!…” [36]

As the discussion proceeds, Jose is particularly anxious to impress on Danny that foreign visitors need to treat Mexicans as their equals:

Jose: . . No one, amigo, not a fool nor enemy of our people, will be allowed to starve or die forgotten in this country!

Danny: I understand that.

Jose: But do you understand that once you’ve taken of feeling that we have… you must accept us and our country as your equals… and not curiosities in your winter travels? [38]

The opening lines of Act 2 reiterate the long and rich history of Mexico by including this keenly observed reference to las cabañuelas:

Jose: In the month of January, we predict the temperatures and rainfall of each month within the coming year… what crops to plant and when… what water we shall have… according to a Mayan calendar of observations that has never failed us… and never will. [47]

Despite the play being set in Ajijic, there is only a single direct reference to Lake Chapala in the entire script, in this evocative description of a rider galloping along the shore:

Danny: A spray of sand and flecks of foam fly as Diablo and his rider become one – teeth bared, bent into the wind like arrows flying. Galloping over pale sands of Lake Chapala. Disappearing into eucalyptus groves and then reappearing. Galloping in water now… grey water beaten to a mist… by Diablo’s iron hooves. [55]

Elsewhere, Danny notes how:

Fishermen, silhouetted in the dying light, haul nets into boats designed ten thousand years ago. The women gather laundry left drying on the stones, their dusky faces and their eyes haunted by memories of long ago… of kings who rode this valley, their glowing helmets ablaze with quetzal plumes gathered from the places of the dead. [59]

One revealing exchange between Danny and Jose focuses on some of Santa Angelica’s other characters:

Danny: . . Mercedes Perez, doctora who invites an illness with her languid eyes, delicious thighs and septic hands… legendary healer of small dark children with dysentery… and white gentlemen with clap…

Jose: Antonio, the fixer… a hot lunch and four hundred pesos buys anything from Antonio – a two-year visa… marriage license… death certificate.

Danny: Blind Santo, who plays one note on his harmonica beside your open window until he’s paid to go away. Over coffee he listens for the addresses of all newcomers to the town, so he can serenade them at a later time.

Jose: The pimp, Augustino… hustling disease and brightly coloured woven shawls of finest mountain wool.

Danny: The solider, Gus… ancient remnant of an ancient war. [55]

Some of these minor characters are so timeless they have reappeared on numerous occasions scattered through Ajijic’s history.

This interesting and thought-provoking play was commissioned by the Banff School of Fine Arts in Canada, and first performed at the summer 1973 Banff Festival of the Arts, with a cast of students, directed by Tom Peacocke. Choreography was by Jacqueline Ogg, costumes and set by John W Graham and lighting by Murray Palmer.

In the program notes, Ryga reminisces about his ‘accelerating life’ and

. . . the sun and history of Mexico . . . regenerating as good rain . . . Long days and nights of joyful work despite the pain of gathering illness . . . Pots of flowers left beside our door . . . The love and generosity of people whose poverty and pride would terrify a Canadian executive . . .

And rising from it – “Angelica” – co-authored by the warrior poet Aztec kings, in whose manuscripts I found a testament of human brotherhood and love that has outlived their names and other deeds through centuries.

A cloud hangs over “Angelica” tonight. It is a cloud of anxiety in people who will never know the real Angelica, for they have yet to see the sorrow of native trees dying on the grounds around them through overnourishing transplanted grass and social values already maimed and left for dead by the onrush of history.”

Somewhat surprisingly, A portrait of Angelica has never been performed at Lake Chapala.


  • George Ryga. 1982. “An Artist in Resistance,” Canadian Theatre Review, No 33 (Winter 1982).
  • George Ryga. 1984. A portrait of Angelica. A Letter to My Son. (Two plays) Winnipeg: Turnstone Press.


The published version of the play could use some light editing. It is quite irritating (for any Spanish-speaking reader) to encounter such monstrosities as “el gatto” for “el gato” and “Como esta, senors?” for “Comó están, señores?” While the absence of accents is excusable in an English-language play, the absence of the letter ñ from words that require it is not. And as for “Padre Edwardo” [sic], he should definitely be Padre Eduardo, given that w is used in Spanish only in words of foreign origin.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcome. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Mar 192020

Ken Smedley and his wife, Dorianne Smedley-Kohl, lived and performed at Lake Chapala from 1978 until 1989. Ken was a long-time friend of George Ryga, and the couple stayed initially at Ryga’s “cottage” in San Antonio Tlayacapan, before moving later to Ajijic, where they rented a house opposite “La Rusa” on Calle Independencia.

Image: Cover art of Smedley’s “Arrest That Naked Image”

Ken Smedley is an actor, director and dramatist who grew up in Kamloops, British Columbia. Smedley has presented one-man shows such as “Three of a Certain Kind” at Fringe festivals in Edmonton and Vancouver (both in 1986) and was a founding member of the Western Canada Theatre Company, now a professional theatre. He has directed plays at the Phoenix Theatre in the U.K. and several radio plays for CBC.

During his time in Ajijic, Smedley wrote Horn Swoggled, an over-the-top Pinteresque black comedy set in Mexico. The play was performed as a stage reading at several locations – Kamloops, Vernon, Kelowna, Penticton and Armstrong – in the interior of British Columbia in 1994.

The setting for Horn Swoggled is a gathering of relatives mourning the family’s dead matriarch, whose body lies in a casket in the living room. As the assorted relatives – including the priceless family patriarch, “Don Porfidio”, who clutches a gallon jug of tequila throughout – interact, they recall past events, recount differing versions of past events and argue angrily and vehemently with each other.

While the Smedleys were living in Mexico, Smedley directed several productions at Lake Chapala, including plays by Joanna Glass, Jack Heifner, David Marnet and Harold Pinter. Perhaps the single most noteworthy production was Smedley’s dinner-theater offering, in 1979 at the (Old) Posada Ajijic, of Portrait of a Lady, a Tribute to Margaret Laurence. This work, based on George Ryga’s seminal adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s classic novel The Stone Angel, featured Dorian Kohl’s acclaimed portrayal of heroine Hagar Shipley, a role Kohl has reprised numerous times since, in theaters across British Columbia.

Smedley was later appointed director of the George Ryga Centre, a cultural venue occupying Ryga’s former home in Summerland, British Columbia, Canada. Due to funding problems, the center closed in 2013.

Dorianne Smedley-Kohl (also known as Dorian Kohl) is a Canadian model, actress and artist. Dorianne was a fashion model in Toronto, New York, Paris and London for more than a decade, before becoming a regular on the “Wayne & Shuster Hour” on television. She has also appeared in the CBC TV series “The Party Game”, “The Actioneer” and many other works. Her stage performances include roles at Toronto’s Royal Alex Theatre, in “The King and I” and in “Pal Joey”.

In 1988, Ken and Dorianne Smedley were instrumental in mounting the first (and only) Ajijic Fringe Theatre – “El Fringe” – which included performances by Dorianne in “Circle of the Indian Year”, and by Ken in “Ringside Date with the Angel”, alongside various other events.


Terence “Diego” Smedley-Kohl

The couple’s son Terence “Diego” Smedley-Kohl was born in Ajijic and spent the first ten years of his life in Mexico. Diego later became a member of “El Mariachi (Los Dorados)”, a Canadian mariachi band that had the honor of playing at the prestigious International Mariachi Festival in Guadalajara a few years ago.

Want to find the play?

  • Ken Smedley. 1983. Horn Swoggled. Canada: Rich Fog Micro Publishing (2019).

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcome. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.