A perspective on a Western Theme Attraction near Yucca Valley, California
In the early 1950s, my younger brother Bobby and I would periodically hike the roughly four desolate miles leading north out of Yucca Valley, trudging boldly along the narrow, winding dirt road that seemed to lead nowhere. With the scorching sun overhead, we trekked through familiar rock formations, passing the legions of Joshua trees we’d seen on TV’s The Cisco Kid and The Gene Autry Show only weeks earlier. We’d pass the time throwing rocks at the tiny lizards skittering across our path, making believe they were deadly rattlesnakes, or better yet, gun-toting masked outlaws attempting to rob the local stagecoach. As we reached the final summit, we could see our intended destination, Pioneertown--home to our favorite movie and TV cowboys, and their proverbial antithesis: those bad guys who were always lurking behind the next tumbleweed.
Recently, my wife Beth and I made that same journey. We found the Pioneertown road of today a smooth, two-lane asphalt thoroughfare, not at all difficult to maneuver. Although the dynamic scenery has refused to change, single-family homes and small ranchettes now dot the craggy hills paralleling the route, no doubt making it nearly impossible to film a believable stagecoach robbery sequence these days.
In the late 1940s and early ‘50s, Pioneertown was used strictly for what it originally had been envisioned: an all-inclusive Western movie location; a functioning community with motel rooms for cast and crew; a restaurant tagged The Golden Stallion; a soundstage to film interiors; a bowling alley for recreation after movie-making hours; and of course, a saloon called The Red Dog.
The idea for this practical Western movie-town and location studio had originally been conceived by perennial movie bad guy, Dick Curtis, who came across what was to become Pioneertown’s magnificent setting while riding horseback through the area. Construction on the project was begun in the mid ’40s. Curtis didn’t finance the undertaking alone, he had partners: King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers; Russell Hayden, “Lucky” in the Hopalong Cassidy films; a couple of Western film directors; as well as several members of the famous Sons of the Pioneers singing group, after whom the town was eventually named. The investors initially purchased 32,000 acres for their Pioneertown endeavor, selling stock to everybody they knew on the Republic Pictures lot--then to whomever else they knew in the movie business, even relatives!
Ironically, it was neither Curtis nor Roy Rogers who put Pioneertown on the Hollywood map; it was the combination of one of the venture’s first shareholders and two outsiders. One was the original singing-cowboy, former Palm Springs resident, the late Gene Autry. The world-famous Autry simply convinced Columbia Pictures head, Harry Cohn, that shooting the studio’s Western movies at Pioneertown would save him tons of money. Like Autry, Cohn enjoyed being thrifty, so the legendary studio boss went for the bait, not realizing that ultimately he would lose control over Autry and the movie-makers who surrounded his cowboy star. Most of those talented folks became members of Gene’s producing staff when Autry left Columbia to form his own Flying “A” Productions.
The second and not-so-recognizable name, was the late Philip N. Krasne, an energetic, go-getting former attorney who somehow ended up as a producer in the picture business (worse things have happened in Hollywood). The property Krasne would make famous was The Cisco Kid, the rights to which had been owned by 20th-Century Fox for decades. With the right connections and some good old-fashioned luck, Krasne became the owner of the entire Cisco Kid franchise, producing not only several feature-length Ciscos at Pioneertown, but the popular TV series as well.
Number three was Russell (Lucky) Hayden, the only original stockholder. Having done
so well acting in the popular Hopalong Cassidy feature film series, by the 1950s Hayden decided to add producing to his already lengthy list of credits. His production company generated syndicated TV shows like Cowboy G-Men, 26 Men, and Judge Roy Bean. For the latter, Hayden had a replica of the town of Langtry, Texas, built on his 35-acre ranch just south of Pioneertown. This writer well remembers the Bean set from visits to the Hayden Ranch in the 1950s; I have also spent some time in Langtry, Texas. Believe me, if the Rio Grande River didn’t run past the Texas town, it would be very difficult to tell the two apart. Russell Hayden passed away in 1981; his wife, actress Lillian “Mousie” Porter, in 1997. Recently the property was purchased by retired Flying Tiger Airlines pilot John Ristaino and his wife Carolyn. When I talked to Ristaino, he assured me, “I hope to restore the ranch to its original condition; my expectations are to revive some of that old Hollywood interest.”
Incredibly enough, many of the buildings in modern-day Pioneertown stand almost as they did decades ago. Note that I say “buildings,” instead of facades or false fronts--words one might use to describe virtually any other movie Western street set--anywhere; thus the reason why it was considered such an ideal location for hundreds of Westerns. Every single building--constructed to survive the harsh, desert environment--served a dual purpose. In addition to the soundstage, with its exterior resembling a livery stable, and the bowling alley, disguised as a cantina, many of the structures were designed to be used as facilities for props, wardrobe and special effects. Other buildings could easily be converted into editing rooms, camera darkrooms, projection rooms, and production offices; on occasion they would even serve as additional housing for cast and crew--saving a fortune.
Ernie Kester told me that at one time Pioneertown might have been on the verge of becoming one of those quaint little artists’ retreats--playing host for a couple of seasons to The Great Western Art Show. Today, said Ernie, most of the area’s artists live in nearby Yucca Valley, unless of course, you’re speaking of a Hollywood makeup artist! Mary Gaffney, Bob Hope’s personal makeup artist, lives right here on Mane (as in horse’s mane) Street. One of her recent clients, according to Ernie, was the infamous, Monica Lewinsky. Resently, in the low hills surrounding the adobe and wooden storefronts lining Mane Street--with many, like Gaffney’s, now private residences--there are numerous homes, some of them quite impressive indeed. Most of these ranch-like dwellings have been built on several acres and are situated neatly along a freshly graded system of roads with names like Red Ryder, Annie Oakley, Tom Mix and, of course, Roy Rogers.
One of these newer Pioneertown “settlers” is the genuinely friendly, pony-tailed (just like his horse) gentleman I had been invited to lunch with at the Pioneertown Bowl on the Sunday following our visit. This fully operational six-lane bowling alley, bar and restaurant is run by the congenial Ron Young who whipped us up a couple of his “special” Pioneertown hamburgers. I had been given Diamond Braverman’s name and e-mail address by yet another Pioneertown supporter, a man who runs an Internet web site devoted entirely to Pioneertown and its unique history. As we chatted over lunch, I discovered that Diamond Braverman was still a Hollywood art director, another lover of Hollywood Western-lore, who while on location here five years ago decided he liked the place well enough to stake his claim permanently. Now, besides the occasional Hollywood assignment that takes him out of town (Pioneertown, that is), he runs Diamond Location Services, a company offering visiting movie-makers his expertise with special effects, and his talents as a first-rate production designer. Braverman is responsible for the new construction along Mane Street: a compact, stage-like arena resembling a Western town and used by the local “Gunfighters For Hire” Western history re-creation group for its Sunday afternoon mock shootouts. Braverman, a pistol-packin’ member of this grisly assemblage, invited me to stick around for the exciting 2:30 p.m. performance.
Diamond and I were joined by two very engaging Pioneertown denizens, Anitra Ekstrom and John Ziagos. Ekstrom, a bright, tall, interesting blond woman, has just ridden into town on her horse wearing shorts instead of the customary Levis and chaps--no doubt quite disillusioning for the gathering tourists who were more than likely expecting Annie Oakley or Calamity Jane! Swedish-born Anitra, like Braverman, now calls Pioneertown her home. Ziagos, Ekstrom’s riding partner, somehow made me think of Duncan Reynaldo when he portrayed The Cisco Kid. Hmmm? Could that possibly be because we’re in Cisco Kid country?!
The Kesters aren’t at home today; they’ve taken a much-needed vacation from the Pioneertown Motel which they’ve owned and operated since 1984. That’s when Ernie, a devout Western buff, and his wife Carole decided to settle there. The motel, christened The Townhouse when it was first built, was all part of the original plan conceived by Dick Curtis, Roy Rogers and Russell Hayden. Assembled from what appears to have been old railroad ties, the two very sturdy-looking buildings that comprise the motel doubled as an Army fort in one of the first films ever shot at Pioneertown. The producers of Cody of the Pony Express--a Columbia Pictures’ serial starring the late Jock Mahoney (Sally Field’s stepfather; also one of Hollywood’s greatest stuntmen)--took Dick Curtis’s “all-inclusive” term for the town and literally went hog-wild! They had actually built a stockade gate directly in front of the motel; then following the script, had their extras portray cavalry troops marching into and riding out of the “fort” as Mahoney and the other actors played their scenes. Following the day’s hard work, the cast and crew would then put the Army fort set to its other good use: They slept there.
Diamond Braverman excused himself to go home and change into his cowboy duds for the gunfighter show. I decided to scout the town’s perimeter in the hour or so I had before the entertainment was to begin. As a kid visiting Pioneertown, it had always appeared to me as if nothing more existed beyond the town itself except for more Joshua trees, sagebrush and extensive desolation. I do recollect a movie-cowboy friend of our family who’d always talk about taking my brother and me on an overnight horseback riding expedition into the mountains behind Pioneertown--on a hidden trail, he said, that would lead all the way to Big Bear. To my surprise, someone told me that such a trail does indeed exist--used primarily in the early 1900s to drive herds of cattle down the mountain from their summer pastures.
Driving past the Pioneertown church just after the Sunday service, then swinging by the post office, and finally--miles beyond the town itself--I found myself at the proverbial fork in the road: one way leading into Pipes Canyon; the other to Rim Rock. I decided to explore in both directions, eventually realizing that civilization had long been blooming here, too. Like the Pioneertown area, these low hills have also acquired their specks of civilization, little homesteads--to be fair let’s call them “ranches”--plots of land that the folks can call their own spread.
While the Gunfighters for Hire group presented their slam-bang, knock-down-drag-out program for the larger-than-I’d-expected audience, a man in a Hawaiian shirt approached me, introducing himself as Joe De Marco. To get away from the crowd we went inside to chat, leaving behind the sounds of gunfire. I’d met De Marco online, through his Pioneertown-tribute web page. This was our first meeting in person, and we both were curious about each other’s interest in Pioneertown. De Marco, a Brooklyn native, also grew up wearing Hoppy hats, Gene Autry shirts, and Roy Rogers chaps. Discovering Pioneertown for the first time, he like the others I’ve since met, fell in love with the town at first glance. De Marco became a member of the local film commission, where he helps promote movie-making in Pioneertown. Rock stars like Sheryl Crowe have shot music videos here; and there’s usually a TV commercial company or two that will want to rent the facility for a few days every month.
Just days earlier my wife and I had been thinking seriously about relocating in Pioneeertown. Then, from De Marco I learned that further development has been put on a permanent hold. With the present land owners fearful that the area’s water-table might not be able to support any more growth, there simply will be no more water meters installed. This edict is also true for the digging of new wells. It’s no wonder that back in the 1960s when former Cleavland developer, Benton Lefton, planned this colossal community--The California Golden Empire--that the venture ultimately fell through. This grandiose ready-made city would have encompassed the entire valley surrounding Pioneertown. Back then, the LA Times reported that The Golden Empire would include “500 two-acre lots, and 500 other large sites ranging in size from two to 22 acres. Provision has been made for cluster homes and townhouses in areas totaling 1,000 acres. Another 1,000 acres each has been allocated to shopping centers and other commercial enterprise(s), an industrial area and community use--such as parks, churches, and recreational areas. Larger parcels suitable for ranches, summer camps, and other similar uses total 3,000 acres.” Quite grandiose indeed, considering the size of the water-table.
De Marco invited me to drop by Pappy & Harriett’s Pioneertown Palace on my way home. “That little adobe bar and grill is a great place to go on Saturday and Sunday afternoons,” he pointed out, “for a beer, hotdog, and some good ol’ Pioneertown hospitality.” When I spoke to Harriett Allen, the proprietor, she told me that Pappy & Harriett’s has been an essential element in Pioneertown for 28 years. “My little honky-tonk is the goin’ist place around,” she said. “We’re the centerpiece of this unique little community; people not only come here to eat and be entertained, they come from all around for everything from marryin’ to buryin’!” And if you happen to be in Pappy & Harriett’s at the right time, you could be lucky enough to catch superstars like Eric Burdon, Donovan, Victoria Williams, and Eddie Veddor of Pearl Jam--just a few of the famous folks who have dropped in on Harriett Allen to exchange a song for their supper.
When the sun began to drift toward the Western horizon, I started my drive away from Pioneertown with a warm feeling in my heart after a day of fun and enjoyment, meeting the delightful people who make up this unique community’s present-day citizenry. Frankly, an experience I’ll never forget. In my rearview mirror, I could almost visualize Roy Rogers and Gene Autry riding along--side by side--into the sunset. Gene, of course, was singing Back in the Saddle Again, while Roy harmonized with his own Happy Trails To You. Indeed, Pioneertown’s trails have proved to be Happy ones.
Directions from the Coachella Valley: Take Interstate 10, go north on route 62 to Yucca Valley; look for the Pioneertown sign, turn left (north), follow the road for four miles and you are there!