Here's what the Iverson Movie Ranch obsession is all about ...

For an introduction to this blog and to the obsession a growing number of vintage film and TV fans have with the Iverson Movie Ranch — the most widely filmed outdoor location in movie and TV history — please read the site's introductory post, found here.
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• To find specific rock features or look up movie titles, TV shows, actors and production people, see the "LABELS" section — the long alphabetical listing on the right side of the page, below.
• To join the MAILING LIST, send me an email at and let me know you'd like to sign up.
• I've also begun a YouTube channel for Iverson Movie Ranch clips and other movie location videos, which you can get to by clicking here.
• Here's a link to Garden of the Gods, the best-known section of the Iverson Movie Ranch (featured in the movie "Stagecoach," the "Lone Ranger" TV show and hundreds of other productions).
• To go right to the great Iverson cinematographers, click here.
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Sunday, October 8, 2017

Can we talk about "the Mattress"?

Saddlehorn Relay Station in an old Iverson family photo (ca. 1939-1940)

Following up on my latest post about the Saddlehorn Relay Station, let's focus in on a feature that can be seen behind the relay station in this Iverson family photo, toward the left of the frame.

I've been tracking this unusual manmade feature, which I call "the Mattress," for several years, because it keeps turning up in the backgrounds of movies and TV shows.

"Ghost Valley Raiders" (1940): The Mattress, out behind the Relay Station

There it is again, in "Ghost Valley Raiders." The Mattress can be seen in productions spanning two decades — making it unlikely that it was an actual mattress.

"Black Bandit" (Universal, 1938): Earliest known sighting of the Mattress

The Mattress was already hanging around before the Relay Station was built. When it first showed up in the Bob Baker B-Western "Black Bandit" back in 1938, the unusual piece was situated at the base of Batman Rock.

It appears to be a slab of concrete or plaster of Paris, and presumably originated as a foundation or other part of a movie set in the late 1930s — possibly in John Ford's epic 1939 Western "Stagecoach," which I'll get into below.

"The Adventures of the Masked Phantom" (1939): The Mattress, at the base of Batman Rock

Batman Rock is shot from an unusual angle in this sequence from the Equity B-Western "The Adventures of the Masked Phantom," which captures the Mattress still in position at the base of the rock.

Batman Rock is almost unrecognizable from this angle, as we usually see it with its "Buffalo Nickel" face on.

"Six-Gun Serenade" (Monogram, 1947): The Mattress in its later location

By late 1939 or early 1940, the Mattress had been moved a short distance to the west, where it was situated near a rock I call the Happy Slab — a holdover from my "silly rock names" period several years ago.

The Mattress would remain in this location for the next two decades. Most Mattress sightings, including this one in the Jimmy Wakely movie "Six-Gun Serenade," take place between 1947 and 1959.

"Six-Gun Serenade": The Mattress, just sitting there

"Six-Gun Serenade" provides what may be the best view of the Mattress. In fact, the boxy and unnatural-looking Mattress is seen so clearly in this shot, it's surprising that they left it in the movie.

The familiar Garden of the Gods feature the Sphinx is partially visible in the background, as is Sunset Peak, located a short distance southwest of the Iverson Movie Ranch.

"Wanted Dead or Alive" (1959): Steve McQueen rides past the Mattress

In a similar but more subtle shot from the TV series "Wanted Dead or Alive" — seen in the episode "Bad Gun," which premiered Oct. 24, 1959 — the Mattress appears to have a fake tree sitting on top of it.

However, a wider shot from the same "Wanted Dead or Alive" sequence reveals that the fake tree was situated behind the Mattress, not on it. It's not easy to see — you may want to click on the photo for a better view.

"Atom Man vs. Superman" (Columbia serial, 1950)

The Mattress is usually seen in that same exact spot, right in front of the Happy Slab.

It's possible that the Mattress was made of movie foam — the stuff used to make fake rocks. But it was exposed to the elements at least from 1938 to 1959, which would have been a long time for movie foam to hold up against Chatsworth's harsh weather extremes.

"Colorado Ambush" (1951) — the Mattress and, above it, the Happy Slab

The fact that the Mattress is always seen in the same general area — and almost always in one spot, in front of the Happy Slab — suggests it was heavy, which would have been a good reason not to move it around.

"War Horse" — episode of the TV show "The Lone Ranger" (premiered Oct. 20, 1949)

Still, the presence of the Mattress in the backgrounds of so many movies and TV shows indicates that production teams didn't realize the feature would stick out like a sore thumb. It's human nature to believe what we want to believe, and clearly they didn't want to have to deal with the stupid thing.

"The Lone Ranger" episode "War Horse": The Mattress at the center of the frame

Presumably it could have been moved out of the way with a crane. But it still had to end up somewhere, and on the Iverson Movie Ranch, it would have gotten in the way of filming almost anywhere it ended up.

"Stagecoach" (1939) — Batman Rock and the Happy Slab near the burned-out Lee's Ferry station

John Ford's landmark Western "Stagecoach" may hold the key to the origin of the Mattress. In this shot from the movie's Lee's Ferry sequence, we see the close proximity of Batman Rock and the Happy Slab.

When the stagecoach arrives at Lee's Ferry, the ferry station has been destroyed in an Indian attack. Just below the Happy Slab, we can again see what appears to be the Mattress.

If this is the Mattress, it's positioned in still another spot — northwest of the Happy Slab but separated from the Slab by some distance. My hunch is that this sighting represents the original use of the Mattress.

Promo still for "Stagecoach," 1939 (Jerry England collection)

A partial view of the Mattress in that same position — again, assuming it is in fact the Mattress — also turns up in a promotional photo for "Stagecoach."

The Mattress's unusual appearance in "Stagecoach" — including its unusual location — invites speculation that the feature was created as a part of the burned-out Lee's Ferry set for the epic.

The long shadows extending east in the promo shot indicate that the shoot took place late in the day.  

Zooming in on the center section of the promo shot, we get a better look at the Mattress, among other features.

The zoomed-in shot reveals that even a low-lying hunk of concrete casts a long shadow as dusk draws near.

The zoomed-in shot also highlights a chimney, a part of the destroyed Lee's Ferry set. The proximity here of the chimney and the Mattress suggests the two pieces are related.

Lobby card for "Stagecoach" showing stops along the coach's route

Could it be that director John Ford had the Mattress built so his Lee's Ferry ruins might include a more authentic fireplace, complete with a concrete floor, or hearth? An unusual lobby card for the movie offers a clue.

Lee's Ferry is represented on the lobby card by the ruins of a fireplace — suggesting that the feature, despite being barely noticeable in the movie, was important to the filmmaker. I can almost hear the notoriously meticulous John Ford barking at the production designer, "A chimney without a hearth? Seriously?!!? Build me a hearth!!"

Approximate positions of the Mattress over the years

While the origin of the Mattress remains speculative, its various positions have been documented in the productions filmed in the area over the years. This diagram illustrates its three known locations.

A proposed timeline for the Mattress

Even though "Black Bandit" came out in 1938 — ahead of the early 1939 release of "Stagecoach" — it makes sense to place the filming of "Black Bandit" after the filming of "Stagecoach," a big-budget movie that would have been in production for much longer than the B-Western "Black Bandit."

The zoomed-in version of the "Stagecoach" promo shot includes one of the best views we'll ever see of the Happy Slab in all its glory — even if it's not as "happy" as in some of its other appearances.

"The Roy Rogers Show" — "Phantom Rustlers" (premiered April 5, 1953)

A more typical shot of the Happy Slab, along with a weird view of the Mattress, appears almost 15 years later in "The Roy Rogers Show." I can't explain why the usually boxy Mattress looks like an overinflated air mattress here.

The "Roy Rogers Show" screen shot provides a look at the Happy Slab's "face" in a happy mood. The smile as it appears here and in other productions prompted me to start calling the rock the Happy Slab.

What remains today of the Happy Slab

Recent years have been less than happy for the Slab, ever since more than half of it was lopped off during condo construction. Today the rock's barely recognizable "stump" coexists with a cluster of mailboxes.

The Slab and Batman Rock, frequent co-stars during the filming era, remain close neighbors. Here's a recent shot of Batman Rock, on the left, and the stumpy Slab at far right.

"Stagecoach" (1939): The Happy Slab as a "Mini-Me" version of Batman Rock

In kind of an odd twist of fate, both Batman Rock and the Happy Slab have curved notches missing — one way to put it would be "bites" taken out of them — in pretty much the same place.

"Batman and Robin" (Columbia serial, 1949)

About 10 years later, we get a less cluttered view of the same key players in "Batman and Robin."

As usual, the Mattress is a part of the landscape.

"Viking Women and the Sea Serpent" (1957)

Even a pair of shapely Viking women can't conceal the potent screen presence of the Mattress, as we see in a shot from Roger Corman's Iverson Movie Ranch tour de force "Viking Women and the Sea Serpent."

The Mattress made one of its final film appearances in Corman's Viking movie, which has six different titles. The full title is a mouthful: "The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent."

For readers who might be interested in further exploring these sightings, I've included links below to some of the productions discussed in this entry.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Secrets of the Saddlehorn Relay Station revealed

Saddlehorn Relay Station looking south toward Garden of the Gods

Some of the biggest mysteries surrounding the Saddlehorn Relay Station, a heavily filmed movie set that stood north of the Garden of the Gods in Chatsworth, Calif., from about 1940-1970, have recently been solved.

When I reported on the old building earlier this year — a post you can read by clicking here — I raised a number of questions, chief among them being a familiar one: Which movie was it built for?

"Ghost Valley Raiders" (Republic, 1940)

Film historian Tinsley Yarbrough came up with what appears to be the answer to that question when he spotted the "Squaw Creek Relay Station" in the old Donald "Red" Barry B-Western "Ghost Valley Raiders."

"Squaw Creek Relay Station" in Iverson family photo (1939 or early 1940)

Some readers may recall from the earlier post that the "Squaw Creek Relay Station" turned up in an old Iverson family photo — and indications are that the building was newly minted at the time.

"Ghost Valley Raiders": Saddlehorn Relay Station as the "Squaw Creek Relay Station"

If "Ghost Valley Raiders" marks the first use of the relay station, the set would have been built by Republic Pictures — which makes sense given the studio's close relationship with the Iverson Ranch.

While almost all of the Hollywood studios filmed on the Iverson Movie Ranch at least occasionally, Republic made by far the most pictures at the ranch — estimated at more than 350, mostly B-Westerns and serials.

"Daredevils of the West" (Republic serial, 1943): The Upper Iverson Movie Ranch

A steady flow of business from Republic, founded in 1935, was one of the reasons the Iverson family expanded the ranch in the mid- to late 1930s, acquiring land to the north that would become the Upper Iverson. 

Original position of the relay station — west of Batman Rock in "Ghost Valley Raiders"

One of the big revelations from recent research into the Saddlehorn Relay Station is that the building had two different locations. When it was first built, it stood in close proximity to Batman Rock.

"Batman and Robin" (Columbia serial, 1949)

Batman Rock gets its name from Columbia's old "Batman" serials of the 1940s, where Batman — played back then by Robert Lowery — once struck a pose in front of the rock.

While the rock's remarkable features were carved by natural forces, its profile appears to draw inspiration from the "heads" side of a Buffalo Nickel.

Batman Rock in modern times

Batman Rock remains in place today, just off Redmesa Road at Horizon Place in the Cal West Townhomes. Due to the growth of surrounding foliage, some of its old "Buffalo Nickel" aura has been stripped away.

The Relay Station in its later location

Within about a year of its construction, the Saddlehorn Relay Station — known simply as the "Two-Story House" at the time — was moved to a second location. Batman Rock does not appear in this photo, as the rock and the relay station are now some distance apart. 

Saddlehorn Relay Station and the Saddlehorn area in 1952

Here's the layout of the Saddlehorn area, including the Saddlehorn Relay Station, as it appears in an aerial photograph from 1952 — one of the best overviews available from the filming period at Iverson.

The relay station can be seen in the aerial, positioned at the site where it stood for three decades. Even though the building burned down in 1970, it seems fair to call this its "permanent" location.

Running diagonally across the landscape is Iverson Ranch Road, which was the main road into the Iverson Ranch.

Batman Rock is the most prominent rock feature in the immediate area. The position of the rock's heavily filmed "Buffalo Nickel" west face is noted here in yellow.

This diagram indicates the approximate position of the relay station when it was first built, probably in late 1939, along with the set's later location a short distance to the northwest.

The building's two locations: Where they would be in 2017 (Google aerial)

The positions noted on the 1952 aerial translate approximately to these two locations in the current landscape. The area was heavily graded when the Cal West Townhomes were built, so nothing from the old days lines up well with anything in the modern world.

Batman Rock and in particular its distinctive west face remain essentially intact, although, as I mentioned up above, the feature's former glory is now partially shrouded in foliage.

The Saddlehorn Relay Station and the entire Saddlehorn area are named for Saddlehorn Rock, which is tucked back among the condos. It's a little out of the way these days, but it's still possible to get a good look at it.

Saddlehorn Rock in recent times, proving itself worthy of the name

Of all the rocks at Iverson that are named after real-world objects, this is one of them.

"Hands Across the Rockies" (Columbia, 1941): Saddlehorn Relay Station

The relay station did not stay long in its original location. By the time Columbia used it as a set for the Bill Elliott B-Western "Hands Across the Rockies" in 1941, the building had been moved to its "permanent" site.

The Saddlehorn Relay Station was filmed from all sides, but the most commonly used side was distinguished by an overhanging second story and three second-story windows. I think of this as the front of the building.

1952 aerial map: Arrows show the orientation of the building's front face

The building was rotated about a quarter-turn when it was moved. In its original position the "front" faced northwest, as seen in red here, but after the move it faced northeast, as depicted in light blue.

"Hands Across the Rockies": The camera is shooting toward the west

The hills in the background confirm that the "Hands Across the Rockies" shot is taken with the camera shooting toward the west. The building has been moved to its permanent location, where the front now faces northeast.

I can see why they would have hastily relocated the building from its original spot — a location that strikes me as not having been fully thought out.

As I mentioned above, the movie ranch's main access road ran right through the area. Iverson Ranch Road probably had more traffic on it than any other road on the ranch.

This would have created traffic problems between production teams filming the relay station and those trying to get to the ranch's other locations. The movie ranch was a busy place back in the early '40s, and it would have been the norm for several movies to be in production on the ranch at any one time.

As soon as it became apparent that the new relay station had a future as a movie set, it made sense to move it off the main road.

That's my theory, anyway.

Rare photo of the Saddlehorn Relay Station in its original location (1940)

It was Tinsley Yarbrough who first suggested, years ago, that the building had two different locations. It has been a hard theory to prove, but the above photo, whose origin is unclear, provides a number of clues.

The position of the Garden of the Gods to the south, relative to the relay station, makes it clear that the front of the building is facing northwest at this early stage in its evolution.

The "Squaw Creek Relay Station" sign can still be seen, although it's only partially attached. This pinpoints the date of the photo as 1940 — soon after the filming of "Ghost Valley Raiders," but before the building was tidied up.

The small shed seen in the picture does not figure into this discussion. This shed can be seen near the relay station in many productions, but it was easily moved and wound up in a variety of locations.

Undated photo of the Saddlehorn Relay Station in its later position

Comparing the 1940 photo with this one taken later, also seen at the top of this post, we see overviews of the relay station in its two locations, including two different alignments with the Garden of the Gods.

Also visible in the 1940 photo is a section of Iverson Ranch Road running past the relay station, revealing the uneasy proximity of the road to the front of the set.

In the later photo we can again identify sections of Iverson Ranch Road, but now the road runs behind the relay station and is situated some distance to the south of the building.

Saddlehorn Relay Station in "The Plunderers" (Republic, 1948)

Some readers may want to check out my previous post about the Saddlehorn Relay Station, from back in January — before some of the mysteries discussed here were solved. Please click here to see that post.

Can we talk about "the Mattress"?

I've also recently published a follow-up to this post that focuses on a feature appearing in this photo. You may have already noticed the unusual feature in the background, in front of the guy at the left of the frame.

I call it "the Mattress" for a reason that I think will become obvious if it isn't already: It looks like a mattress. It has an interesting story, which you can read by clicking here.