Remembering a Southern California Landmark -- Corriganville Movie Ranch in Simi Valley Where the Cowboys Made Their Movies
One of the truly fascinating Los Angeles area attractions of the 1950s was Corriganville, an actual Hollywood Western Movie Ranch--owned and operated by an actual Hollywood Western Movie Star: Ray "Crash" Corrigan. Corriganville was located in the Simi Valley alongside the Southern Pacific railroad tracks, where the old two-lane Topanga Canyon Road emerged from Santa Susana Pass, concluding its snake-like slither through the craggy canyon from the San Fernando Valley. Today, California's Ronald Reagan Freeway (the 118) bisects Corriganville's rocky remains, and the modern commuter who drives this scenic route daily passes unaware through what was once several thousand acres of quite recognizable Western movie scenery.
Back then, local legend had it that Corrigan--a very successful Republic Pictures' Western star--had originally purchased the 2000-acre parcel in 1938 with hopes he might locate a fabled Spanish treasure, rumored to be buried somewhere within the area's rugged but breathtaking sweep. When nothing even close to resembling any lost loot was ever found--and when Crash wisely figured out that he could make more real gold by renting his picturesque purchase to Republic as a sagebrush backdrop for his own Westerns--Corrigan decided he liked it after all.
By the time I began working for Crash in 1958 as a "stuntman-gunfighter" in his weekend Western shows, the Corriganville Movie Ranch had become world famous; not only for its very recognizable Western movie-town facades and familiar stagecoach roads, but as a don't-miss "Hollywood" tourist attraction as well.
America's love affair with the TV cowboy--enhanced by the year-round balmy Southern California weather--ensured a great time for everyone, attracting no less than a few thousand excited customers every weekend, eager to see how movies were made. Maybe even a star or two. Folks didn't mind parking a mile away and being bussed directly to the false-front Western street where their action-packed day would begin. On the way they got a close-up view of the site where the '50s TV series Rin Tin Tin was filmed; it originally had been named Fort Apache: that memorable movie set built for John Ford's distinguished cavalry film of the same name starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda.
The main attraction was staged every half hour: A non-stop, live-action Western show was acted out by myself and my fellow performers to a prerecorded narrative backed with familiar Western movie musical scores. In between these well-choreographed street-shows, the harmonized voices of The Sons of the Pioneers boomed continuously over the hidden P.A. system. When these dramatic Western street-recreations were viewed by the audience--with cameras snapping and flash bulbs popping from start to finish--they truly gave the impression of being behind the scenes as if one were actually watching a Western movie being made up-close, live and in-person. This was especially true with those shows that had us blasting away with our Colt .45s, with full-load blanks packing their shining cylinders, while nearly blowing out everyone's eardrums as the entire street became engulfed in billowing blue clouds of freshly burnt gunpowder. The crowd loved it! Since visitor cameras at that time were absolutely forbidden on all the major studio lots, everyone knew for sure they could capture these memories on film, then take them home and savor their precious snapshots forever.
Our first live-action show began at 9 a.m. sharp; the final performance ended our day at six p.m. When the street-shows were not in progress, the nearly hypnotized crowd visited the many other movie sets dotting the Corriganville landscape. Right nearby was Robin Hood Lake and Forest . The name implied that this was the actual Sherwood Forest setting used in the classic Robin Hood movie. Intentionally, it was never specified which Robin Hood movie. I'd always believed it was the Robin Hood movie starring Errol Flynn, and I'm sure the Corriganville customers were supposed to infer the same. It may well have been--though I doubt it.
Warner Bros. had its own ranch in the San Fernando Valley, and I expect Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood was most likely filmed there. Nevertheless, movie audiences worldwide have seen the Corriganville lake and forest used as a background in literally hundreds of "B" Westerns and television shows.
Between the Western street and Fort Apache stood the spectacular full-size Corsican Village set, painstakingly constructed for Howard Hughes' extravaganza, Vendetta. The Corriganville Corsican Village set was also an integral part of the Danny Kaye classic, The Inspector General; The Lone Ranger TV series used it as their Mexican village for years. Surprisingly, today's moviemakers would have to go all the way to Europe to find a village with the same money-is-no-object authentic detail that Howard Hughes had originally insisted upon.
There were hideout shacks dotting the many canyons and bandit cabins down every draw--a paradise for the army of wide-eyed, cowboy-clad kids. There were stagecoach roads criss-crossing wherever you looked, with real stagecoach rides for the stout-hearted. Imagined dry-gulchers, who just might be waiting in ambush, lurked behind every rock and tree.
There was a livery stable with horses for rent; a ride on horseback which passed by all the sets could be accomplished in an hour. And there were even pony rides for the toddlers. Crash also hosted a real rodeo every weekend, to attract and show off the equestrian skills of the "genuine" cowboys. No time for anyone to get bored here.
Of course there was a Boot Hill, and even a turn-of-the-century photographic studio where you could have your own kisser put on a wanted poster. The Silver Dollar saloon served 5-cent salami sandwiches--if you purchased a mug of draft beer or sarsaparilla to chase them down. The Frontier Cafe across the street served a "dang good" Western breakfast, lunch and supper.
The Country Store put on several audience-participation shows a day. On this shade-covered cement slab with benches for the spectators, contemporary products were peddled under the guise of an old-time medicine show. Max "Alibi" Terhune, Corrigan's longtime movie sidekick, was the Pied Piper who attracted huge audiences, using his multi-talented vaudeville genius. Max was a very entertaining ventriloquist never without his famous little dummy, Elmer. Terhune could fill the house every time with his jokes, impressions and down-home personality--just like they did in the real medicine shows back in the 19th century. .
The Trading Post was where you purchased cowboy hats, film, sunglasses and those inane-but-always-well-received post cards everyone sent home to the relatives, thus promoting Corriganville still more; yet even further free nationwide advertising for the ranch, courtesy of the already-paying crowd.
Corrigan also had a PR tie-in with local Los Angeles TV powerhouse KTLA, and thus the Channel 5 personalities paid the ranch frequent visits. The two everyone loved the most were Bozo the Clown and Skipper Frank; all serving to increase next weekend's turnout a little bit more.
Talented vocalist Elaine DuPont (Mrs. Crash Corrigan--what a coincidence!) entertained regularly at the ranch; Nick Adams, one-time cohort of James Dean and star of TV's The Rebel, would show up periodically to greet the crowd and sign autographs. Ken Maynard--once Corrigan's box-office rival in the "B" Western field--did a spectacular trick-shooting act at the ranch. Maynard was known in his day as the wealthiest cowboy in the movies--that is, before Gene Autry and Roy Rogers rode into Hollywood.
Spending the day at Corriganville wasn't quite like taking the Universal Studio Tour today; but if you ask me, it was just as much fun! It sure made you want to come back for more. And like the sign over the main gate promised, the Corriganville Western Movie Ranch was indeed: The Biggest Dollar's Worth in America!!!
I worked at Corriganville for almost a year; and because I was only 16 at the time, it still seems like those unforgettable days lasted a whole lot longer. Throughout the decades I've grown to understand that those precious weekends I put in at Corriganville served as a rite of passage: my own personal transition from boy to man. Yes, a wonderfully enriching experience; but not an easy period for me either--always earning my parents' permission to continue my "career" by making sure I did well in school. Of course, for five days every week I was expected to be the typical high school student, and I was. But come Saturday and Sunday, I could at least pretend I was one of Hollywood's biggest cowboy stars--ever.