Winston Churchill said “History is written by the victors.” I’d like to append that with this corollary: “History belongs to those who record it.”
As a history buff–and especially as a Hollywood history buff–I love to hear about it all. “No detail too small” is my way of thinking. And I’ve found that those fine details can only be recalled by people who were there. And those of us who weren’t around at the time can only hear those stories if people take the time to write them down.
Recently, Richard Dixon contacted me to tell me how much he enjoys my daily Photo Blog posts and to share with me a reminiscence from his boyhood spent in Los Angeles. I enjoyed it so much I asked his permission to reproduce it here so that it, too, can become part of the public record.
by Richard Dixon
“Lady, if you don’t get your boy back out of the shot I will be forced to cast him in this movie”.
It was LeRoy Prinz, the Hollywood movie director, speaking. Everyone laughed, I turned bright red, and my Mom pulled me way back. The film being shot was A Boy and His Dog; the year was 1946. I was 11 years old and already fascinated by everything about the movies. This Warner Bros. production which, by the way, went on to win an Academy Award for Best Short Feature of 1947 was filming on location and I couldn’t help myself from being as close to the action as I could possibly get. You see, I was now living on a movie ranch. It had once been The Lasky-Paramount Movie Ranch back in the very early days of Hollywood film-making.
Cecil B. DeMille shot parts of Squaw Man there. DW Griffith shot scenes for Intolerance and Birth of a Nation, too. The studio had moved most of the standing sets up the coast to Agora in 1924 and opened the new Paramount Ranch there, but this entire area remained a film-shoot location and on this day, the movie was being shot, literally, right in our front yard.
Our family had been living in Burbank when my father was offered the position of manager of a part of this movie ranch, which was in the Hollywood hills just across the LA River from the Warner Brothers studio. We were on the east side of Mt. Hollywood facing the San Fernando Valley. It was the end of my Catalina Street adventure and the beginning of a very special time of my childhood.
The entire area was later bought by Forest Lawn and became Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills. It covered a thousand acres of wilderness and forest with standing sets here and there. Dry stream beds ran down deep gullies and there were mountain lions living in the caves up on the bare face of Mt. Cahuenga to the west. Although Hollywood was only a 20-minute drive over the Cahuenga Pass from our place, coyotes howled in the gully outside our house in the night creating the feeling that we were many miles from civilization. It was a boy’s living fantasy—and I was that boy.
You entered the ranch through a wooden gate on Hollingsworth Drive, which ran along the Los Angeles River just across from the Warner Brothers Studio. The roads from this point on were all dirt. Suddenly you would find yourself in a wilderness, removed from the clatter of the city. The remains of the old Lasky racetrack were on the left as you entered, and up ahead a ways was the Hudkins Brothers Ranch. This Ranch was mostly made up of stables housing movie horses.
Some of the most famous horses in film history had been boarded there over the years. Included among them was Trigger, who was purchased by Roy Rogers from the Hudkins Brothers back in, I believe, the early 1940s. Also Silver, of Lone Ranger fame, Smoky, and a lot of amazing stunt horses like those owned and ridden by Fred Kennedy, the great stunt rider of movie westerns.
There were also big barns housing all kinds of wagons, buckboards and stagecoaches just beyond the stables. We would drive through this area about three quarters of a mile up the road through a forest of mountain oaks and sycamores to our house situated at the foot of Mt. Hollywood.
My father was back in his element. Having been raised on a West Texas cattle ranch and possessing a true love for horses, he did not hesitate to leave his conventional job in Burbank to take up a position where he would be around horses every day. This was his real calling: to wake up in this beautiful setting every morning and work with horses all day long. A lot of the western stars of that time were friends of my father: Preston Foster, Bill Williams, Ken Curtis, and others. Some of these folks would visit us at the Ranch and it was exciting for me to see them in person.
On this property, there was a stable with about ten horses and a small heard of around thirty cattle that we kept fenced in an area of several acres. The horses were owned by wealthy businessmen and western actors who boarded them at our stable and rode mostly on weekends. The cattle were used in film shoots. We also had a paddock for exercising the horses, and were surrounded by beautiful, rolling woodlands where I would ride my beloved Idaho, a gentle bay mare that was my constant companion.
Each day after school, most Saturdays and Sundays, and every day during summer vacation, Idaho and I would venture out in search of film crews shooting in the area. Sometimes we would just wander through the lush oak woods, dreaming of being in an adventure movie among standing sets left from the old Lasky-Paramount days.
One summer day we headed over to Gopher Flats, a large open area about three quarters of a mile long and had a dirt track that was suitable for stage coaches, buckboards and horses to travel on.
Running parallel to the track was a paved road, which ran its entire length. This road was used by a camera car to film running horses or stage coaches. The camera car, usually a Woody station wagon with a camera and a couple of chairs mounted on top, would travel along with the action, a camera man and director sitting in the chairs on top filming the scene. What a thrill to witness these people work. I would watch these activities for hours on end and only leave when the sun was sinking, the usable light lost and the crew was packing up to head back to the studio.
As we approached The Flats that day, I saw that a large location shoot was under way. It was a Warner Bros. crew and they were setting up to film an unusual scene. They were shooting Stallion Road (1947) starring Ronald Reagan and Alexis Smith. Rounding out the other parts was Zachary Scott and Harry Davenport. Harry was the consummate character actor of his time but is best remembered for playing the old family doctor or the friendly country squire.
So, why was Gopher Flats chosen for the scene being shot? The script called for a scene at the beach, and believe it or not it made sense to use this unlikely location.
When I saw the film some time later I realized why they chose this place. The scene starts with Reagan and Smith riding in the shallow surf of Santa Monica beach. They save a small boy who is caught in deep surf and they come out of the water carrying the boy up on the sand and play out the scene at the water’s edge. The script called for a wilderness background, and because the beach at Santa Monica had a city background with cars whizzing by on the highway, the reverse shot had to be filmed at Gopher Flats. My lucky day!
Perhaps because I was riding a horse, I was always able to get right up to the edge of everything that was going on. No one ever asked me what I was doing there. This was all right with me because I was in a different world as I witnessed the magic unfolding before my eyes.
On a slope of the Flats thirty miles from Santa Monica, the Warners crew had spread sand over a large sloping area and scattered wet seaweed around. A fire truck was standing by with several large hoses that were fitted with nozzles that produced soapy water. When the director, Raoul Walsh, called “Cue water,” the hoses gushed forth and a mountain of foamy “waves” roared up the slope. As the water retreated, he called “Action!” and the players moved into frame carrying the small boy. The result was stunning to me—they were emerging from the surf! It was completely believable.
When this shot was cut together with the previously filmed ocean footage, the audience would never think for a moment that they had been visually “taken.” A year or so later, I saw Stallion Road in a movie theater and was thrilled to see the beach scene that I had witnessed being shot and, yes, I was taken in just like everyone else.
Over the next several weeks I watched other scenes being shot at various locations on the Ranch for this film, both day and night shoots. Returning home from a visit to my grandparents one evening, we drove right through a night shoot on the Ranch near our house. I remember looking through the car window at what was going on and wishing I could hang around to take it all in.
I have come to realize that this aspect of motion picture making is visual “fraud” in which the director and his team take bits and pieces of film footage, usually shot out of sequence, in locations far apart, then hand them over to a talented editor who in the darkness of the cutting room cuts and splices these various bits of business together into a seamless motion that glides across the screen. Yes, all of this is what makes me helplessly enamored with every aspect of movie making.
Over the three years that my family lived on the Ranch, I watched many films being shot on location there. Some I never knew the names of, but among the ones I do know are The Boy With Green Hair, The Perils Of Pauline, Hoppy’s Holiday, It Happened on Fifth Avenue and So Dear To My Heart.”
After three years on the Ranch, Dad took another job, managing a riding academy and I said a sad farewell to some of the most wonderful years of my youth. Those experiences were magical and unforgettable, and have, in some ways, influenced my entire life. Whenever I am in a nostalgic frame of mind, I can, even today, relive moments that made a young boy love every waking hour of the day.
Learn more information about the Lasky Ranch, see:
UPDATE: CITY OF MYTHS (book 8)
Yesterday, I got the manuscript for City of Myths back from my editor, so we are still on track for a release date of late February 2018.
For those of you who keep telling me “The longer the book, the better!” you’ll be pleased to know that she said it was such a tight manuscript that she only lost about 1000 words, which mean this one will definitely be the longest one yet.
UPDATE: MAREM PERFUME
A while ago I announced an exciting project that I and the Alla Nazimova Society have become involved in. New York perfumer, Caswell-Massey announced that they were releasing a new fragrance based on a personal perfume they formulated for Alla Nazimova in 1914. They sent me a sample of MAREM (which is Alla’s original name in Russian) and I am glad to report that it’s delightful. Recently they sent me this artwork so that we can see can get an idea of the bottle and the box. I’m excited to share it with you all today and will keep you posted about their launches, which are planned for sometime in the spring of 2018.
For tons of photos and information about the places and people mentioned
in the Hollywood’s Garden of Allah novels, visit Martin Turnbull on Facebook
and/or go to his Photo Blog on his website.
Hollywood’s Garden of Allah novels:
- Book 1 – The Garden on Sunset
- Book 2 – The Trouble with Scarlett
- Book 3 – Citizen Hollywood
- Book 4 – Searchlights and Shadows
- Book 5 – Reds in the Beds
- Book 6 – Twisted Boulevard
- Book 7 – Tinseltown Confidential
- Book 8 – City of Myths (due out February 2018)
- Book 9 – Watch this space for future announcements