Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

Big Screen, Big Valley
First used for filming in 1903, the SCV continues to thrive as a movie-making mecca.

Douglas Fairbanks and his company of about two hundred came up from Los Angeles Tuesday by special train and autos and pulled off a moving picture stunt. We did not learn the name of the future film, but judging from what we saw, "Douglas at the County Fair" might be considered appropriate. The location chosen for the taking of the pictures was the vacant ground lying west of the depot. Market street from the drug store to the railroad track was decorated with yards and yards of bunting, signs, flags, etc., not omitting the "ice cream" stands along the way. There were about forty horses in the performance and these did their part by going through the antics which people pay to see at a country fair. A "special train" met by the committee was an interesting feature.

Altogether the performance at "Fairpoint," which was the name Newhall assumed for the day, was very entertaining and we did not have to pay the price of a ticket either.

So began The Signal's coverage in 1919 as its first local news story dealt with an industry that would contribute significantly to the development of the Santa Clarita Valley. It has influenced architecture in downtown Newhall, brought multi-level sound stages to the industrial center and caused thousands of cowboys — rhinestone and rough-riding — to thunder through our canyons.

Hollywood began using the canyons and streets of Newhall for Western movies in 1903. The first full-length feature known to have been produced in the valley was D.W. Griffith's "Ramona" (1910) starring Mary Pickford, shot over two days in April at Rancho Camulos. Soon after came "Broncho Billy's Christmas Dinner" in 1911, starring Newhall resident Gilbert Anderson. Newhall soon became the stomping grounds for stars like Charlie Chaplin, who filmed parts of "The Pilgrim" in Newhall, and Tom Mix, who used many downtown Newhall façades as one of his early "Mixvilles," where he and his crews staged brawls and horse races.

Mix built his own studio near the corner of Walnut and Market streets, from which he released his film "Western Blood" in 1918. He favored daring stunts and even "jumped" his steed, Tony the Wonder Horse, across the 90-foot-deep Beale's Cut. No actors — equestrian or human — were ever in danger, as cinematic magicians "painted out" a supporting bridge under the running horse.

In 1919, the nearest movies were shown in San Fernando at Cody's New Theatre. When the American Theater, the first in the valley, opened in 1941, adults got in for 30 cents and kids for a dime.

The valley also made its mark in the drive-in era, sporting two car-friendly theaters: the Mustang Drive-In in Canyon Country and the Corral Drive-In on San Francisquito Road [sic; Seco Canyon Road, just before San Francisquito]. Both are now memories.

Motion picture viewers were a discerning breed even in the early days of silent films. Movies were brought to Newhall by road crews who were criticized by their audiences on the front pages. The films were deemed to be "of ancient vintage and poorly projected." To quote one activist of the day, "The people of Newhall want up-to-date pictures or none at all."

In 1921, "The Half Breed" was being filmed in and around Newhall. And, although its real purpose was to provide shelter for silent film star William S. Hart's pintos, Elizabeth and Cactus Jake, the cabin on his Newhall property was a location for "The Testing Block." (Editor's Note: "The Testing Block" was released in theaters Dec. 26, 1920. Hart purchased the Newhall property Feb. 5, 1921.) Hart went on to use his 300-acre ranch as a location for many more films, including "Tumbleweeds," his last film.

In 1924, Ben Wilson Productions Corp. planned to build a studio on the Frank LaSalle Ranch in Wiley Canyon. Accessories, machinery and electrical light plants were planned by Wilson, who hoped to use them exclusively for cowboy films.

The same year, Bob Anderson built a Western façade on Walnut Street that included two old-time saloons (which, The Signal noted, were "for picture purposes only"), grocery store, blacksmith shop, bank, dry goods emporium and restaurant. Fox, Goldwyn, Thomas Ince and Wilson Studios were already in line to use the locations as soon as they were built.

Hart's hilltop mansion was seen in print ads across the country, as it served as a backdrop for a promotion of the 10 millionth Ford Model T automobile to roll off the line.

In 1940, Hart donated a lot in downtown Newhall as a site for a motion picture theater and lodge for American Legion Post 507. The entire town of Newhall went wild for their benefactor. Copies of The Signal sold out, people were so eager for the good news.

A year later, the American Theater opened with all seats reserved for opening night. It cost $25,000 to build, had 400 seats and the screen was framed by tan valances and drapery. Special prices for that event were 50 cents plus 5 cents tax. On the bill were "The Earl of Puddingstone" and "Here Comes Happiness," a newsreel and a cartoon. Hart, decked out in Western garb, made a grand entrance, which got a standing ovation. The event generated three pages of ads and copy.

Hart and his ailing sister, Mary Ellen, lived on "La Loma de los Veintos" or "Hill of the Winds" estate until his death in 1946. He left his mansion and the surrounding parkland to the people of Los Angeles County "so that the people who spent their nickels and dimes to watch my pictures could enjoy my home."

Hart still made headlines even after his death, as his son, William S. Hart Jr., who was left out of the will, filed a petition with the court objecting to "strangers as guardians" of his father's estate. After a long, drawn-out court battle, the court ruled against young Hart and the property became William S. Hart County Regional Park.

Just south of the "wild and wooly" downtown, another boomtown was growing. Trem Carr of Monogram Pictures built Western-style sets for some "B-grade shoot-'em'up" pictures. The sets were bought by Ernie Hickson and moved to a 100-acre parcel in Placerita Canyon. Soon the likes of John Wayne, Gene Autry, Bob Steele, Ken Maynard, Hopalong Cassidy, Charlie Starrett, Johnny Mack Brown, Roy Rogers, Mae West, Harry Carey Jr., Jock Mahoney, Clayton Moore and Glenn Ford would bring the legend of the West to life for the movie cameras. Following Hickson's death in 1952 the Monogram Ranch, as it was called, was purchased by Autry, who renamed it "Melody Ranch" after his radio show of the same name.

The ranch earned notoriety of a different kind in September 1955 when Signal publisher Fred Trueblood, on an errand to get more paper, heard the cries of a young boy in the "death trap pool" at Melody Ranch. Little Johnny Landis owed his life to Trueblood, who jumped in and held him above the surface until rescuers could assist the pair. The pool was part of a movie shoot and, as Placerita Canyon youngsters did so often, the youth had snuck into the ranch while it was vacant.

In 1962 a raging fire destroyed 17,200 acres of Placerita Canyon, taking with it most of the buildings of Melody Ranch. Billed as the worst fire disaster in Newhall's history, it leveled almost all the wooden structures and incinerated countless items of Western memorabilia. "There won't be any more Dodge Cities here," the caretaker said as flames engulfed the ranch. In 1991, the Veluzat family purchased what was left of Melody Ranch — now a 10-acre parcel — and have painstakingly restored the main street, christening it with the production of Disney's "Tall Tales."

A few years before the inferno and a few miles up the canyon, Walt Disney purchased the Golden Oak Ranch for use in his family-oriented films. A home for Walt was built (but never used) along with a handful of old-fashioned towns and a lake with a covered bridge. Soon shows like "Spin and Marty" were filmed there and shown nationwide, along with many nature and Western movies made by Disney. Since then, the location has been used for "Bonanza," "Roots" and "Little House on the Prairie."

Disney extended his good will to Hart Park in 1962 when Walt himself presided over a donation of a herd of buffalo to the park grounds, the descendants of which still graze the hillsides.

Other productions that delighted townsfolk with a glimpse of their favorite stars were "The Dukes of Hazzard," which made Warner Bros. Valencia Oaks Ranch in Pico Canyon their home; "Greatest American Hero," which used Hart High School as a base of operations; and the hundreds of commercials and movies that used spectacular Vasquez Rocks as a backdrop. It wasn't unusual to see a stagecoach waiting for a spaceship to finish a shot at the unique rock formations. Needless to say, it provided the perfect town of Bedrock for the modern stone-age family, "The Flintstones."

Even director Stephen Spielberg made his first feature film, "Duel," on Sierra Highway and Vasquez Canyon Road.

The local film business is not without its tragedies. Dick Kerwood, 32, father of two, was wing-walking as a movie stunt for the Franklin Farnum Co. in 1924 when he plunged to his death from 500 feet in the air. The most notorious accident was the "Twilight Zone" filming at Indian Dunes, where a downed helicopter killed actor Vic Morrow and two child actors. Wrongful death and criminal negligence charges were filmed, and later dismissed, against director John Landis and his production company. Filming at Indian Dunes is no longer permitted.

Today the valley is home to several sound stages and businesses that support the industry, including Santa Clarita Studios, Lindsey Studios, Magic Movie Studios of Valencia, Studio K, Shotmaker, Technicolor, Creative Presentations and AVG Productions.

In 1925, The Signal recognized the benefits of the fledgling movie industry, pointing out on April 2, "We Should Encourage the Motion Picture People." The editorial emphasized the value of the valley's "atmosphere" and "location."

"We venture to say that for every courtesy we have ever extended them they have reciprocated eventually with dollars and cents. ... We should not extend an 'icy paw' to an industry that brings so much added wealth and prestige to the community, without doing it any harm."

However, one of The Signal's own editors, A.B. Thatcher, didn't like movie folk or the people they attracted, writing in 1932, "It seems to me that those New York newspapers and picture men just about furnish the climax of damphoolishness when they chase an actress all over town to try to get her picture. But I suppose they think they have to do it so other damphools can see what she looks like."

It would be more than 50 years later before the SCV Chamber of Commerce would form a Film Development Committee specifically to attract the film industry. Now, nearly half of all permitted location activity in Los Angeles County occurs in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Studios that have set foot in the valley have nicknamed it "Newhallywood." The rest of the entertainment industry agrees. Would William S. Hart ever have dreamed the valley would become the site for "The Terminator" or a landing stop for the Starship Enterprise?

The Santa Clarita Valley has helped make the film and television industries the art form of the century.

And that's a wrap.

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