Arts & Culture

Phoebe Hearst showcased in one-woman show in Atascadero

Karen Harris
Karen Harris

Whenever people talk about Hearst Castle, the name of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst inevitably comes up. After all, he called the lavish San Simeon estate home.

But what about Hearst’s mother, Phoebe Apperson Hearst?

“She was the one who inspired the place,” said Paso Robles resident Karen Harris, whose one-woman show seeks to shine a light on the influential, yet largely forgotten, philanthropist, feminist and patron of the arts.

“Phoebe Apperson Hearst: An American Treasure” will premiere Sept. 25 at the Best Western Plus Colony Inn in Atascadero. The performance is presented by the Atascadero Performing Arts Center Committee (APACC).

Harris, who moved to San Luis Obispo County in 2003, first became interested in Phoebe Apperson Hearst’s life and legacy while working as a Hearst Castle tour guide from 2007 to 2009.

“I thought it was a wonderful place (and) a great opportunity,” said Harris, adding that the idea of serving in the California’s State Parks system appealed to her as a former military wife and Russian-language interpreter for the U.S. Army. “The longer I worked there, the more I liked it.”

While at Hearst Castle, Harris said she learned tons about William Randolph Hearst and his Hollywood connections.

“Phoebe Hearst was something I had to teach myself about,” she added. Born in Franklin County, Mo., in 1842, Phoebe Elizabeth Apperson worked as a teacher before marrying her distant relative, 41-year-old miner George Hearst, at age 19. The couple soon moved to San Francisco, where Phoebe Hearst gave birth to their only child, William Randolph Hearst, in 1863.

When George Hearst was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1887, his wife, too, moved into the national spotlight. Her accomplishments include cofounding what became the National Parent Teacher Association, funding the international architecture competition that transformed the UC Berkeley campus, and spearheading efforts to preserve Mount Vernon, George Washington’s historic home. She also cofounded the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C.

In addition, Phoebe Apperson Hearst championed future Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan, who she commissioned to design her Pleasanton estate, among other projects.

“Phoebe Apperson Hearst: An American Treasure” is set in 1898 — the same year Hearst, then UC Berkeley’s first female regent, launched the Phoebe Hearst International Architectural Competition.

“She was a very powerful civilizing force, not just to California but America as a whole,” Harris said of Hearst. “We still live under that fantastical spell.”

While at Hearst Castle, Harris developed a Phoebe Apperson Hearst training module for park guides and consulted with Hearst Castle historian Victoria Kastner on Kastner’s 2009 book “Hearst’s San Simeon: The Gardens and the Land.”

She’s spent the past eight years researching and writing about Hearst — efforts that culminated in “Phoebe Apperson Hearst: An American Treasure.”

Harris described the show as a Chautauqua-style performance similar to those popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“As the character, you are addressing the audience directly and presenting information to them directly” before opening up the floor for questions, explained Harris, who is basing her performance on Hearst’s own letters and speeches. “Every performance will be different in terms of how much interaction you get and how many stories you tell.”

To add to the authenticity, Harris will wear a tailored, Italian-made costume modeled after a dress from the 1890s. It was purchased with an APACC grant.

Harris’ show coincides with the exhibition “Phoebe Apperson Hearst: California’s Grande Dame,” which runs through Nov. 2 at History Center of San Luis Obispo County headquarters in downtown San Luis Obispo.

“The timing is really perfect,” she acknowledged.

Harris, who will present “Phoebe Apperson Hearst: An American Treasure” in Pleasanton in January, hopes the show will inspire audience members to learn more about Hearst and “feel excited about the fact they are connected to her.”


7 p.m. Sept. 25, 6 p.m. VIP reception Best Western Plus Colony Inn, 3600 El Camino Real, Atascadero

$30, $50 with VIP reception

460-9182 or,