Just Like a Movie

By H. ALLEN SMITH

 

Even in California, Pioneertown rates as something special. For here is an entire community—schools, saloons, dusty streets—that was built to provide a permanent set for Western movies.

The San Bernardino Mountains lie 100 miles due east o Lost Angeles, fingering down into the hot desert country where movie stars sometimes caper on a Saturday night. Deep within these mountains, on the sloping wall of a canyon that is actually called Rattlesnake Gulch, lives a hermit named Bill Kramer. He has been there, occupying a comfortable little cabin, for twenty years. His lungs were seared by gas in the first World War and one day in the 1920’s an Iowa doctor told him he had only six months to live. Kramer headed west, picked a place where he could die alone, and began building his shack.

He had a few friends in Southern California and these friends made it possible for him to stay in Rattlesnake Gulch without ever setting foot outside his rugged little valley. At intervals these friends would claw their way to Kramer’s place, fetching provisions and books and magazines. He kept a pen of homing pigeons against the possibility of his someday suffering a stroke—he had but to release a pigeon to notify his friends that he was in trouble. He gloried in solitude and led a life of contentment, save for periods when he took down with a virus common to hermits, and began writing poetry.

A couple of years ago Bill Kramer’s serenity was interrupted by violent activity on the wall of the canyon opposite his hideaway. It sounded as if the prehistoric mastodon and titanotherium had come back to California and were still mad at each other. Kramer investigated and found that small groups of men were blasting and banging a road through the gulch. Occasional visitors to his shack told him that a brand-new town had been started a dozen miles to the southeast in the direction of Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms. This meant, to Kramer, that civilization with its juke boxes and jeeps and jet-propelled lawn mowers was pushing hard in his direction. The day came, of course, when he could no longer hold his curiosity in check.

The people of the new community called Pioneertown were astonished, late one afternoon about a year ago, to see a tall gaunt man with hair hanging to his waist appear suddenly at the lower end of their main street. Their astonishment was mild compared with that of the Hermit of Rattlesnake Gulch.

Before his eyes stood a Western town straight out of the 1880’s. The main thoroughfare was wide, unpaved and dusty. Horses stood at hitching racks up and down the street. There wasn’t an automobile in sight. A stagecoach drawn by four horses came round a corner and pulled up before the Red Dog Saloon. All the men in view wore cowpuncher clothes and some of them had bushy whiskers and many had guns slung at their hips. And a woman came out of Nell’s Ice Cream Parlor wearing a pert sunbonnet and hoopskirts.

Pioneertown today is much the same as when Bill Kramer saw it a year ago. There are more buildings and more people. But if you stand at the head of the long main street you will not likely see a single article that suggests you are living in the middle of the twentieth century. There are no velocipedes in Pioneertown, for even the kids travel on horseback. Pioneertown is a huge movie set, with this difference—it was not built to be torn down when the camera crews depart. It is an actual, functioning town, and behind the rustic facades of the saloons and the gambling halls are men and women carrying on business just as they carried on in Bucyrus, Ohio.

The man responsible for Pioneertown is a villainous character named Dick Curtis. He is one of a multitude of Hollywood people whose faces and mannerisms may be familiar to you, though you probably wouldn’t be able to identify them by name. He is a big strapping man with a black mustache, and he has been playing in the movies since 1917, when he appeared with Wallace Beery and Blanch Sweet in The Unpardonable Sin. On the screen he is usually an unprincipled varmint who shoots novel characters in the back to inflict a fate commonly described as worse than death on any attractive young lady who crosses his evil path. Privately he is a soft-spoken, thoughtful man, given to idealistic dreaming. Pioneertown was one of his dreams.

Some years ago Curtis lent an old lady twenty-five dollars to pay a doctor bill, and when she found herself unable to return the money, she gave his a deed to a few square feet of California sand somewhere north of Los Angeles. After a while Curtis sold the sand lot for a hundred and fifty dollars. He took the money to a Southern Pacific land agent and said, “Put this in some more sand me.” The original investment of twenty-five dollars pyramided until the actor awoke one day to the fact that he owned a considerable piece of property somewhere out in the desert. He had never seen it, and he assumed it to be nothing more than a large parcel of solid sand, worthless to anyone but a manufacturer of hourglasses. So he went out to look at it and had to ride horseback to get to it, and when he did reach it, he had his dream.

There is something about the bleak terrain in and around the Mojave Desert that inspires men to envision themselves as small-scale empire builders or, at least, founders of screwy communities. Not long ago an attempt made to start a “guest ghost town”—a resort built around a deserted mining community and retaining all the features of a ghost town except the very thing that makes it a ghost town—and absence of inhabitants. There was the case of George Bright, a Negro official of the Los Angeles Fire Department, who had a dream of establishing a little empire for people of his race, with himself as emperor. Bright went into the desert and built a three-storied castle for himself, using stained glass in the windows, each room featuring a different color, so that the desert would look fiery red from the master’s bedroom chartreuse from another, purple from another, and so on. He laid out streets—seven running north and south, and named for the days of the week; twelve running east to west, and named for the months of the year. Each prospective follower who came out from Los Angeles was given an intelligence test. On arrival he was taken before the “emperor,” who asked him, first, to name the days of the week. If he passed that, he then had to name the months of the year. If he wasn’t able to recite these two lists, he was banished at once. Bright never did get his empire functioning; he took sick and died, and today his castle is all that remains of his dream.

The property that Dick Curtis had acquired lay in the middle of a natural bowl, completely surrounded by low mountains and four miles long, and is 4000 feet above sea level. Thirty miles to the south, at the foot of snow-capped San Jacinto, lies Palm Springs. To the east is the booming resort called Twentynine Palms. Higher in the mountains to the northwest are the lake resorts, Big Bear and Arrowhead.

Dick Curtis, being a movie man, was struck by the fact that this land he owned and the land surrounding It contained every variety of scenery needed for exterior shots in the production of cowboy movies, lacking only the Western town. He sat on his horse and visualized such a town set squarely in the middle of the big bowl. He knew that one of the nagging problems in the production of Westerns is the expense of transporting whole companies to location sites—not alone the actors and directors and cameramen but the electricians the carpenters, the prop men, the extras, the livestock, the costumes. Why not, he said to himself, a real town built in authentic Western style, with most of these essential people living it, with all the equipment and personnel right on the spot, and even sound stages for interior shooting?

Curtis took his dream back to Hollywood and began talking to his friends in the movie business. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry got interested, and the singing group known as Sons of the Pioneers, and Bud Abbot and Russell Haden—known as “Lucky” in the Hopalong Cassidy pictures. Before long, Curtis had seventeen partners, each of whom put up $500. He formed a corporation and soon had possession of 32,000 acres, encompassing the entire valley. This was in the summer of 1946, and by March of the following year, Pioneertown’s first building was up.

The history of Pioneertown since then, brief as it is, has its unhappy side. The town went through a semi-hysterical boom period. Los Angeles real-estate operators took over, hauling busloads of prospects out and selling homesites to them. In order to maintain absolute control over the architecture along the main street, the corporation refused to sell business property, but simple leases it. There was much high-flown talk about how Pioneertown was going to be another Palm Springs, only bigger and better. Before long the original motion-picture-set idea had been submerged and the talk was all of big resort hotels and fancy dude ranches and swimming pools that would be only a foot or two shorter than Lake Erie.

This period of land selling came to an end and left Pioneertown groggy and gasping for breath. Dick Curtis stepped aside and Russell Hayden was elected president of the corporation. Curtis is no longer active in the management of Pioneertown, though he remains one of the chief stockholders and probably owns more land than anyone else. The latest appraisal of Pioneertown properties shows a value in excess of $1,500,000, so it is clear that Curtis has parlayed his original dab of sand into a small fortune. He has recently gone into the production end of Western pictures.

At the time Curtis took his departure, it began to look as if the whole project would end up as another ghost town; there seemed to be no valid reason for anyone sticking around. Efforts to lure the movie people were futile; the producers ignored the natural wonders of Pioneertown and took their location companies to New Mexico or Arizona. Yet the hardier people stuck. There was a nucleus of about 200 men and women stubbornly refusing to surrender. Maybe the name of their town suggested it to them, for the “pioneer spirit.” They fancied themselves as possessing the character and quality of the first Americans who struggled through the mountains to settle the West. They drew themselves together into a tight little community, resolved to stay on, presenting a united front against the mounting hardships. Some of them went on with the work they had started, constructing their own business establishments. One of these was A. E. Thompson. Using his own two hands and with only with occasional help from others, he built his spacious and solid-looking bowling resort, timber by timber and nail by nail, even down to the intricate operation of laying the five bowling alleys. “At least,” he said, “I’ll have something to sit and look at when I get it finished and, anyway, I got nothing else to do.”

The first restaurant was an old-time Western chuck wagon. Today at the lower end of the main street stands the Golden Stallion, representing an investment of $75,000. Up to now I have deliberately refrained from writing down the name of the main thoroughfare; it represents the only shameful deed the pioneers have committed; they christened it Mane Street. The Golden Stallion restaurant building, like many other of the town structures, is walled with old railroad ties cemented together. It was erected by two Chinese from San Francisco and, Frank Jew and Frank Gee, who were attracted to Pioneertown by the prospect of its being a fashionable playground for people in high-priced cars. In the opinion of unprejudiced visitors, no better food is available any Chinese food is available anywhere in the United States than at the Golden Stallion. Close by the restaurant is the community’s hotel, the Pioneer Townhou to se. It, too, is constructed of railroad ties and was designed for possible use as a movie set. Its rooms are comfortable and modern, yet from the outside the long one-story structure has the look of an old-time army barracks. Opposite the hotel is the Pony Express Station—built of ‘dobe to conform to its name when viewed from one side; on the other side it becomes the town’s filling station.

The broad main street has gas lamps extending down its center. The charter of the town corporation forbids the street ever being paved, and signs at either end and warn: HORSELESS CARRIAGES AIN’T ALOUD ON MANE STREET. Automobiles and trucks use roadways back of the two rows of business buildings. There are about thirty business buildings. There are about thirty business buildings. And structures along the street, and room for thirty or forty more. At the upper end is the community corral- a busy place, since everyone in town has a horse. One modest structure bears the lettering PIONEERTOWN GAZETTE. An Ohio war veteran named Roy Brown edits the paper (subscription Price Per Year $2, or One Poke of Gold Dust).

The eagerness of the townspeople to capture the flavor of the Old West, or, rather, the West as depicted in the cowboy movie, is reflected in Editor Brown’s adventures. Many of the permanent residents have been associated in the past with the production of Western pictures and some of them are ex-actors, and they are all inclined to dramatize the day-by-day life of the town. It is traditional in the horse opera that the newspaper editor is persecuted for taking courageous stands for law and order. Thus we find Editor Brown the central character the central character in impromptu dramatic productions. Whiskered citizens stomp up to him carrying bullwhips and six-shooters, and allow as how he better quit attackin’ Black Bart er he’ll wake up some mornin’ and fid his press smashed and his print shop burnt to the ground and hisself atwangin’ a harp in heaven.

Such little scenes are staged for the amusement of the townspeople themselves or again for the edification of tourists and visitors from Los Angeles who swarm in on the week ends. There are other noisy doin’s, put on for the purpose of startling the tourists, such as a loud lynching in which a realistic dummy is used (“He driv a ottymobeel up Mane Street!”). And the stagecoach holdups are carried out to the last detail, even to shooting the lock off the iron box containing the gold bullion.

Occasionally there are real feuds and quarrels, but as a general thing the fraternal feeling of the townspeople is such that they use one another’s automobiles and horses without asking permission. If someone gets in trouble, through sickness or other emergency, such as the time Curt Bash’s house burned to the ground, the entire town quickly bands together to take care of the situation. During the period of bitterly hard times, nobody went hungry. When there was nothing else to be done the menfolk of the town went out in gangs and worked at building the road which eventually will bring a stream of visitors down the mountains from Big Bear and Arrowhead. They worked on roads, or helped raise houses, or joined forces to put down the big concrete slab which is used temporarily for open-air dancing on Saturday nights. In time this platform will support an auditorium for the showing of motion pictures and for the use of a Little Theater group which is already forming in the town. Directly behind the slab is a site marked off for a large swimming pool.

Nobody in Pioneertown sits around and mopes. There’s always a card game going on behind the Red Dog Saloon, but most of the citizens find other things to do. Some of the men have mining claims out in the hills—the region is rich in minerals, including, some people say, platinum, and including, others insist, uranium; the abandoned Rose mine, from which $7,000,000 in gold was taken, is just beyond Bill Kramer’s cabin. There is always hunting for deer, bear and quail. The town maintains one of the few troops of mounted Boy Scouts in the country. Social life centers around the activities of the Rawhides, a riding club which organizes weekly horseback expeditions into remote valleys. There is a Jeep Club, and the businessmen have there own organization. The community church is used weekdays as a school, taking children up to the sixth grade.

There are “characters” aplenty in and around the town, including two men known only as The Swede and George the Indian, who lives in Pipes Canyon and are reputed to have a secret gold deposit back in the hills. They built themselves a nice house of natural stone, which they occupy with an assortment of pigs, chickens and goats, and they usually welcome anyone who stumbles into their neighborhood with a chorus of blasts from a shotgun. A dozen miles on the opposite side of town lives a bald and bitter little man called Hardrock Harry. He does not shoot at visitors with a shotgun; he uses a rifle. He believes that a fortune in gold lies just below the ground surrounding his shack, and that Los Angeles gangsters have found out about it and are trying to murder him. Having been assured that he shoots only at imaginary enemies and has yet to maim a mortal, I went out by jeep to call on him.

“He sees butterflies,” someone told me. “Be sure and ask him about the butterflies.”

He came out of his cabin with a bricklayer’s hammer in his hand and regarded me with suspicion until I told him I was writing an article for The Saturday Evening Post. He relaxed at once. “That’s who I write for,” he said. When I asked about his gold, he tightened up again and flickered his eyes around, never looking me in the face, and I wasn’t looking him in the face either, but kept my eyes on that long-headed hammer. He pointed to a mound of tailings on the other side of a gully and said, “I went over there one day and stuck a shovel in them tailings and found out they’s a fair amount of stuff in that pile. About two million dollars, I’d say offhand. You can have it if you want it.” His manner indicated plainly that $2,000,000 was a trifling sum alongside what he had on his side of the gully. Finally, I asked him about butterflies.

“You missed ‘em by two days.” He said. “They come through on Friday goin’ north. Millions. Trillions. Skillions! All the same kind and all the same size you couldn’t see the mountains for the butterflies. Each one flies zigzag and the ones up ahead use a telegraph system to tell the ones behind how to fly. Two hours it took ‘em to pass here and they camped overnight in a field up around that hill yonder.” I didn’t dispute him about the butterflies, though other people said they had never seen more than six, maybe eight, butterflies together at any one time.

Pioneertown’s future appeared quite hopeless in the summer of 1948 when Philip N. Krasne, a Nebraska-born lawyer turned movie producer arrived for a weekend. Krasne is boss of the company which turns out the Cisco Kid pictures, starring Duncan Renaldo and Leo Carrillo. The producers of low-budget Westerns have been aptly described as the true geniuses of Hollywood; their schedule requires that actual shooting of a picture take no more than seven or eight days. There must be no slip-ups, and nothing short of death ever halts production. A delay of a single day can almost obliterate the producer’s profit, so absolute co-ordination of effort is essential. Every conceivable emergency must be anticipated. Just recently a company on location in New Mexico recruited a band of real Indians for a raid on a wagon train. At the last minute it was discovered that the Indians knew nothing of the uses of the bow and arrow. An expert archer had to be called in to show them how to hold the bow, how to draw the string and how to release the arrow. A detail had been overlooked and an entire day was wasted.

Krasne knew what Dick Curtis had known—that one of the major expenses comes from the necessity of transporting an entire company from Hollywood to location sites. He looked at Pioneertown itself and found it perfect. And the variety of spectacular scenery, all contained within the valley, was even more impressive. By care, by jeep, on horseback and afoot, he and Renaldo scouted the eighty square miles belonging to the Pioneertown Corporation. They found forests of Joshua trees and forests of pine; there were desert vistas that might have been lifted right out of Death Valley, and willow-lined river beds, and tableland covered with cactus and sagebrush and, more important than all else, rock. Mountain peaks and cliffs and chasms and canyons, and sweeping hillsides strewn with immense boulders.

One day of inspection convinced Krasne. He not only arranged for the production of future Cisco Kid pictures in and around Pioneertown; he acquired the movie rights to the entire area, and then built a sound stage on the main street—it is disguised behind a sign which says, HAY, GRAIN & FEED. After that, Krasne formed a separate company which rents out all these production facilities to other producers.

Up until this last summer only two pictures had been produced in Pioneertown. Krasne made one and Gene Autry made one. However, business was picking up on the day I arrived in town. Already on the job was a company from Columbia Pictures, shooting a serial about the pony express. Krasne and Renaldo had come out from Hollywood to scout locations for their next Cisco Kid production; they planned to start shooting the day the Columbia unit finished. That same morning Niven Busch drove in with a group of technicians, looking for a place to film a picture Busch had written and which he planned to produce as an independent, with his wife, Teresa Wright, as star. Busch arrived in town openly skeptical; by evening he was demanding, “Why the hell didn’t somebody tell me about this?” He signed up.

Pioneertown can prosper from this sort of activity. Each company brings in from 50 to 150 persons. They must be fed and housed and entertained. If, as strongly indicated, the producers of Westerns begin using the location regularly, then the influx of tourists will increase. Highway 99, one of the principal auto routes through the Southwest, passes twenty-five miles to the south and a paved road branches off to the town. Already at that turn-off sign has been erected: PIONEERTWON—THISAWAY.

The major difficulty at the moment is that of working out an arrangement with the labor unions in the film industry, an arrangement under which almost all of the key personnel needed in the production of a Western would live right in Pioneertown. Producer Krasne foresees the day, not far distant, when everybody in town will be available to work as an extra, and when the permanent residents will include electricians, carpenters, bit players, set dressers, wranglers, and all the other specialized workers needed to turn out a picture. Right now Jack Benton, who writes the screenplays for the Cisco Kid Pictures, is building himself a ranchhouse on the edge of town and has become a permanent resident. There are a number of carpenters and electricians with union cards living in the town, and a handful of union-qualified extras. Even with this small beginning, Krasne estimates that he has cut the production cost of a picture by about $30,000—meaning that actual shooting takes about three days less than it would elsewhere. This saving, of course, would be considerably greater if he had, say, 80 percent of the personnel living in the town.

The pioneers of Pioneertown, then are once again talking about prosperity. For a while they all but forgot the dream that Dick Curtis had—the dream of a town styled for the production of Western movies. They lost themselves in visions of bigger things—the idea that their community would become a playground for the spenders from Beverly Hills and Park Avenue. Now they are back on the original beam, and so thoroughly pleased with the way things are going that they wouldn’t bat an eye if a zillion butterflies came zigzagging up Mane Street headed for Hardrock Harry’s place in the hills.

THE END