Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Happy 4th!

Everybody has their own way of celebrating the 4th of July. I decided to forego barbecues and ballgames, and seek out the shooting location of the 1982 horror film “Poltergeist.” A few months ago, I wandered through Agoura Hills – where the neighborhood establishers were shot – but couldn’t find the main house. Turns out that the Freeling home didn’t implode… It’s just further north, on the far edge of Simi Valley.

Recently named one of the top ten safest cities in the U.S., Simi Valley is known mostly as the home of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the setting of the Rodney King trial. It’s also the unofficial home of the old Hollywood gunslinger: hundreds (some say thousands) of westerns were shot in the surrounding hills – many of them on movie ranches near the Santa Susana Pass. After I took photos of the "Poltergeist" house, I decided to head that direction.

My first stop was Corrigan Park, named for Ray “Crash” Corrigan, who purchased approximately 1,900 acres of land here in 1937, and opened it up to Hollywood filmmakers. In the following years, the Poverty Row studios (RKO, Columbia, Republic, Monogram, PRC) made dozens of low-budget westerns on the property, prompting Corrigan to build a mock mining town on the ranch in 1942. A few years later, a small village was built nearby for the 1946 Howard Hughes film “Vendetta.” One year after that, 20th Century Fox built sets for John Ford’s “Fort Apache,” starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Shirley Temple.

In the 1950s, the ranch was opened to the public as an amusement park. It remained in business until 1965. By then, fewer westerns were being shot on the premises – both because the popularity of the genre was waning, and because the ranch no longer had the same sweeping vistas. In 1966, the Simi Valley Freeway was built right through the middle of the ranch. That same year, no-budget filmmaker William Beaudine provided two onscreen death gasps: “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula” and “Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter.”

Sadly, all of the movie sets that were on the property have since been dismantled or destroyed by fire. Only about 200 acres of the original 1,900 acre ranch are currently accessible to the public… but they include the shooting locations of “Vendetta” and “Fort Apache.”

View from above "Vendetta Village," looking south

View from above "Fort Apache," looking west

Former site of Spahn Ranch, at the corner of Santa Susana Pass and Iverson Road

Further east on the Santa Susana Pass are the sites of two other noteworthy ranches: Spahn Ranch and Iverson Ranch. Spahn Ranch was the setting of only a handful of films – including Al Adamson’s unmemorable “The Female Bunch” – but it gained notoriety as the hideout of the Manson Family. Today, the property belongs to the Church at Rocky Peak… and they are not especially welcoming to morbid curiosity-seekers. Just as 10050 Cielo Drive (the site of the Manson Family murders) was demolished, Spahn Ranch has essentially been wiped off the map.

Iverson Ranch
has a much more welcoming reputation. As a filming location, it predates Corrigan Park by more than two decades, and is allegedly “the most photographed location ranch in motion picture history.” Over the years, it played home to Tarzan, The Cisco Kid, The Lone Ranger, Batman, Superman… It was also the site of Roger Corman’s directorial debut, “Five Guns West.”

The ranch was subdivided among subsequent generations of the Iverson family, and much of it was sold to real estate developers. The most recognizable portion of the original movie ranch – known as “The Garden of the Gods” – has been preserved by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

Lower Iverson

Garden of the Gods

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