Western Trips

Western Trips

Friday, September 9, 2011

Movie Ranches

An off the beaten track yet fun and entertaining stop during your western U.S. road trip would be the "movie ranches" which were major settings for Hollywood westerns. Most have closed but there are a few that would make a great addition to your western vacation trip planner. 

The Start of the Movie Ranches


old tucson studios
Old Tucson Studios, Photo Courtesy James G. Howes
The movie ranches really had their start in the 1920's when western movies started to take hold. With the public's large appetite for western movies the first movie ranches popped up in southern California. That was where the Hollywood studios were and in the early days much of the surrounding land was undeveloped.

The studios had a difficult time recreating battle scenes and other large scale shooting on their back lots and sound stages therefore the outdoor movie ranch solved the problem. The mountains of southern California also helped with the natural setting the producers needed and wanted.

Most Popular Movie Ranch Locations

The most popular and best suited western movie locations were in California, Arizona and Nevada. For the movie to have more realism and a larger scope the productions were often filmed "on location". This meant that the production crew which might be substantial had to work out of town.That fact in a way brought upon an entirely new problem because shooting on location cost more money, usually much more money, and movie production after all is a business. A movie studio needed to keep expenses in check.The labor unions required extra pay for out of town work. On top of this the studios had the costs of housing the production staff.

old stagecoach route
Courtesy of PKM, CC Share-Alike 3.0
The solution at the time was for the studios to invest in undeveloped land, or sometimes in actual ranches, to create their own outdoor western settings. The natural settings of southern California canyons were a great substitute for old west scenery.

The photo left shows a portion of the Old Santa Susana Stage Route in the area of the old movie ranches north of LA. Most of the movie ranches were close to Los Angeles, usually within about 30 miles and north of the city in the Simi Hills. The relatively short distance away from Los Angeles and the studio lots also helped solve the out of town union wage concern.

After the end of World War Two and the explosive growth of many U.S. cities, the property value around a city like Los Angeles increased greatly. The property acquired by the movie studios in the 1930's was eventually sold off. In most cases they turned into subdivisions and in others they ended up as regional parks. Some of these parks are still used from time to time for movie production.

An interesting short story related to this subject is Hollywood on Route 66.

The California Movie Ranch

1911 chatsworth california
Chatsworth,CA 1911

The most popular southern California movie ranch was probably the Iverson Movie Ranch located about where the San Fernando Valley meets the Simi Valley north of Los Angeles above Chatsworth, CA.

About one year before William Mulholland built an aqueduct to bring water to Los Angeles a movie studio representative approached the Iverson's about using their land for movie shooting. The Iverson's struck movie gold.

The old western movies were in vogue. The list of productions shot at the Iverson Ranch is almost unending. The ranch probably had more filming per square mile than any other land in the U.S. The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), Stagecoach (1939), They Died With Their Boots On (1941), Carson City (1952), Frank and Jesse James (1948).

he rock where Clayton Moore reared his horse at the beginning of every Lone Ranger television episode is located at the Iverson Movie Ranch. The 1959 television series Bonanza spent their first two years shooting at Iverson.

Eventually the studios were shooting in other locations and the western movie genre was in decline. Iverson was the location for many old west classic movies and television shows. In 1970 much of the ranch was destroyed by a California wildfire and in the 1980's the ranch was eventually sold off. It wasn't long after that the ranch land was subdivided and roads put in. The other much used movie ranch north of Los Angeles was the Spahn Ranch which like the Iverson faded into old west history. Today the site of the old Spahn Ranch which was also destroyed by a 1970 wildfire is part of the Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park.

The Old Tucson Studios

picture of john wayne
John Wayne
One of the most popular movie ranches which was built in 1939 prior to World War Two was the Old Tucson Studios. Many high profile cowboy movies were filmed in Tucson. The studios are just 15 minutes west of Tucson Arizona and is the site of more than 300 movies and TV productions including the John Wayne movie, Rio Bravo and the Kurt Russell movie Tombstone. The Old Tucson Studios survived after the war and today is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the southwest.

Eaves Movie Ranch


Another popular movie ranch is the Eaves Movie Ranch located about 15 miles south of Santa Fe New Mexico. Once part of a cattle ranch, the Eaves Movie Ranch started to lure Hollywood studios in 1962. Television advertising spots were shot at Eaves including some of the old Marlboro cigarette ads. The first big budget movie shot at the ranch was in 1969 with Cheyenne Social Club starring Jimmy Stuart and Henry Fonda. Gene Kelly of Singing in the Rain fame got together with J.W. Eaves and constructed a small western town. The Eaves Movie ranch is still used today for various television and movie productions. Part of the Russell Crow movie 3:10 To Yuma were shot at Eaves.

Bonanza Creek Movie Ranch
tom mix
Western star Tom Mix, circa 1919

New Mexico is also home to the Bonanza Creek Movie Ranch located about 8 miles south of Santa Fe.

Today it is a working cattle ranch and also used for movie/TV productions. It's first set was built in 1980 for the film Legend of the Lone Ranger. There is one movie town and two home sets. One unique thing about Bonanza Creek is that all buildings are four sided with electricity and running water. Somewhat different from the generic facade front used in much film shooting.

The Western Movie Genre

old western studio set
Old West set, Universal Studios
The western genre ebbed and flowed in popularity. Clint Eastwood starred in several vintage movies such as "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" which had a positive effect in reviving western films. The popular movie "Tombstone" with Kurt Russell also did well and helped keep the westerns in the public's eye.

The years between the mid 1930's through the 1950's were probably the highpoint of the western genre and the time in which some of the greatest westerns were filmed. The western genre is funny in as much as when you think it has faded into the past, someone comes out and produces another one which ends up being well received by the viewing public. Back in 1969 that was the case with "True Grit" starring John Wayne. This very well received old west movie won John Wayne an Oscar for Best Actor and remained one of the best old west vintage movies.

If you have an opportunity to visit the Old Tucson Studios you may also want to add two additional stops to your southern Arizona trip planner. Tombstone and Bisbee are located from 80-100 miles southeast of Tucson and make terrific side trips. Both are fun and educational and fit well into a old western themed vacation.

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images from the public domain)

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