Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger
A while back I landed on an interesting article from 1986 about development on the site of the former Iverson Movie Ranch and in the nearby hills above Chatsworth, Calif., which were once home to other movie ranches — Bell Ranch, Brandeis and Spahn, among others. The article was posted on a website about Charles Manson, who around the time of the infamous Manson Family murders in 1969 was headquartered at the Spahn Movie Ranch, located catty-corner to the entry gate to Iverson, just across Santa Susana Pass Road. The Manson website has since gone away, but luckily I saved the article, which I've reprinted below.
The article, written by Los Angeles Daily News staff writer Michael Szymanski, ran in that paper on July 13, 1986. It refers to various upcoming development projects, most of which have long since become reality. One of the main sources quoted in the story is Clayton Moore, who played the Lone Ranger in the 1950s TV show, which shot heavily at Iverson. Sadly, Moore died in 1999. But here he speaks eloquently about the need to protect the area's movie legacy against development.
Here's the 1986 article from the L.A. Daily News:
Showdown at Spahn-Iverson Ranches
Developers Vie For Movie Land
Nowadays, it is trucks -- not horses -- that kick up clouds of dust near the red rock where long ago a masked rider reared his fiery steed and hollered a hearty "Hi yo, Silver."
Construction crews thunder past the Lone Ranger's old haunts in the hills above Chatsworth. A fence encloses the cave mine where the stranger who brought law and order to the Old West forged his silver bullets. The high-cliffed perch where his faithful companion Tonto would scout for trouble now overlooks the Simi Valley Freeway.
"Those hills bring you back to the thrilling days of yesteryear," said actor Clayton Moore, 72, the Lone Ranger for half his life.
"The Old West is right here in our back yard, the west corner of the Valley, and we can't lose it. There's nothing like it anywhere."
The Lone Ranger and Silver
On 1,011 acres of desert and scrub brush, hills and rocks, in the far northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley sit the Spahn and Iverson ranches, among the last bastions of wilderness in metropolitan Los Angeles.
This backdrop for B-westerns is now a battleground for competing economic, political and cultural interests: developers, environmentalists, movie buffs, preservationists, city and county governments.
Some construction is under way and more is planned -- including a 290-unit condominium project. But Los Angeles wants to annex the area as soon as possible from the county to limit development.
It is where Charles Manson and his "family" lived -- and murdered. The handful of residents today, hoping to erase the sinister side of the canyon's past, say hippies still roam the area.
It is where the rare pink salamander and nearly extinct Santa Susana tarweed plant survive with century-old stagecoach trails, ancient Indian sites and footpaths that linked Spanish missions.
It is where sandstone rocks balance precariously atop one another like totem poles. Others are cemented together -- relics of mythical forests, medieval castles, dense jungles and desert planets from more than 2,000 movies.
"It's where I'd mount my big stud horse Silver, and Jay Silverheels would mount Scout and we'd race through the hills and pretend it was the Civil War days of the Lone Ranger and Tonto," Moore recalled.
Jay Silverheels as Tonto
Today, plans are approved to build a private club with tennis courts, a school, a church for an expected 3,000-member congregation, and 290 two-story townhouses -- all within a year.
Movie fans and wildlife devotees are fighting development together but have mixed goals for this jagged terrain.
Stunt men want a museum and studios that could attract filming again. Environmentalists want untouched open space for animals, including a nature corridor under the freeway.
And the Lone Ranger?
"The Duke (John Wayne), Bill (William S.) Hart, Tom Mix, they all would like to have seen it stay the same as the days they filmed here, I'm sure," Moore said.
"But they're all in that big ol' ranch in the sky," he said, "and this ranch is the next closest thing to it."
Humphrey Bogart dug in these tall cliffs around Stony Point for "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." Gary Cooper stalked these dusty streets in ''High Noon." A Pakistani village was set there for Shirley Temple to tap into the nation's hearts as "Wee Willie Winkie."
The Iverson Ranch, where these scenes were once shot on its 600 acres, is now only 12 acres. Joe Iverson is 90 and frail.
"The Lone Ranger Rock, where he reared Silver at the beginning of the old TV shows, is right there," said Robert Sherman, caretaker of the Iverson Ranch and author of movie history book "Quiet on the Set!"
"This is the cave that Zorro poked his head out of, and there's where the chariot races were shot for 'Ben Hur,' " Sherman said. "And Elvis did 'Harem Scarem' near those trees."
It was Alaska for Charlie Chaplin's "The Gold Rush," jungle for parts of ''The African Queen," dinosaur territory for "One Million Years B.C." and a battleground for tanks and planes in John Wayne's "The Fighting Seabees."
Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers and Sherlock Holmes came to life in those same cliffs. Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, Ma and Pa Kettle -- they all filmed there.
Westerns reigned supreme on this desert set -- Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, ''Gunsmoke" and "Bonanza."
The Garden of the Gods, the most spectacular canyon in the area, was a favorite location. Now, much of it is owned by Cadillac Fairview Industrial Development Inc., a company that plans to donate 60 acres to the state. The rest will house condominiums.
The famous movie rocks of the Iverson Gorge now share space with the Cal West Townhomes
"The rocks will remain the dominant feature, of course; they are so much bigger than two-story buildings," said project manager Lawrence "Buz" Cardoza, the developer's agent.
Clark King, deputy director for the Santa Monica Mountain Conservancy that will take over the 60 acres, said he doesn't believe -- as Sherman dreams -- that movies will ever flourish in the area again.
"Too much development is being planned," King said.
Some filming goes on. Recent episodes of "Dallas" and "The Fall Guy" were filmed at Iverson's. Scenes of "Knight Rider" and "Murder, She Wrote" were filmed at the old Spahn Movie Ranch.
"Spahn Ranch has a bad history," Sherman said. "Folks around here sort of want to forget it."
"The Adventures of Spin and Marty" (1955) — Spahn Ranch, at the center of the shot,
as seen from the neighboring Iverson Movie Ranch
A cackling old woman huddling in a corner. Thousands of flies covering a western town. Wind buffeting a car on twisting Santa Susana Pass Road.
That's how Vincent Bugliosi recalls Spahn Ranch. He hasn't been back in the 17 years since he prosecuted Manson and his family and later wrote the best-seller "Helter Skelter" about the murders of actress Sharon Tate and eight others.
"It was eerie to know that this peaceful little ranch that you could see from the road was home to those who went out by night with missions of murder," Bugliosi said recently.
He remembers a ramshackle movie set featuring the Longhorn Saloon, the Rock City Cafe and the Undertaking Parlor. He saw long-haired youths hopping out of a bus laden with mattresses and psychedelic pillows and an old trailer where the Manson crew watched the first TV news reports of the 1969 killings.
"There was an unreality to the place," Bugliosi said.
Ranch owner George Spahn, 81 and blind, died soon after the Manson clan was captured. He tipped his large Stetson hat to investigators with his Chihuahua and cocker spaniel at his feet. Squeaky Fromme, the freckled redhead convicted of trying to kill then-President Gerald R. Ford in 1975, had looked after Spahn, who let Manson and his clan live there as long as they kept it clean.
These fields of yellow dahlias are where Manson played a small flute and his "loves" danced around him like wood nymphs with flowers in their hair.
It is where he breathed life back into a dead bird, his followers believed. And where he interpreted Beatles songs in his own bizarre way and justified wild LSD trips, sexual circuses and plots to kill "piggies."
"It's where the whole family practiced to become proficient shooters," said Steven Kay, a deputy district attorney who helped prosecute the case.
Kay had scoured for bullets in a nearby creek bed where Manson practiced shooting. Shell casings still line the creek bed.
The creek bed is where Manson members said they stabbed stunt man Donald ''Shorty" Shea, cut him into nine pieces and chopped off his head. Witnesses testified they heard him scream for 10 minutes.
Ten years after the trial, police found Shea's body buried near the creek bed. It wasn't mutilated.
Dozens of youths still wander the hills, Cadillac-Fairview project manager Cardoza said. He said the "hippies" have threatened workers and damaged property.
Sherman said he has chased out nearly 200 people living in caves near his house over the past year. Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies, however, who patrol the area from the Malibu station 25 miles away, say it is among the quietest areas in the county. Last year, deputies averaged about six calls a month with fewer than 10 felonies reported, Lt. Claude Ferris said.
Beer cans, women's underwear, adult magazines and graffiti mar the scenic rocks where Manson lived -- now owned by the state. Devil's Canyon, where Manson members hid from police, is closed. Painted "Helter Skelters" are barely readable on cave walls.
"The (Manson) family lived out there to get away from the city, for fresh air, just like anyone," Kay said. "It's just not somewhere I'd go for recreation."
The Spahn movie set burned in 1970 in a raging fire whipped by 80-mph winds. Ranch hands tried saving horses as the Manson girls clapped and danced.
From the opening to the TV series "The Lone Ranger" — Clayton Moore
in the title role, rearing up on Silver next to Lone Ranger Rock
"I just keep thinking how it must have looked to hear the horses crying and see the girls' faces as they screamed, 'Helter Skelter is coming down!' That sends chills through you when you think about it," Bugliosi said.
"No, it's not somewhere I'd go for recreation, either," he added.
The Santa Susana tarweed lives there, nowhere else.
The weedlike fern juts out of rocks. Its little flowers bloom in summer. Its leaves are sticky and sweet-smelling when rubbed.
"The plants would like nothing better than to be left alone," said Jan Hinkston, founder of the 17-year-old Santa Susana Mountain Park Association. She wants a corridor under the freeway for deer migration.
On a recent hike along the steep Old Stagecoach Trail, she popped purple elderberries in her mouth and pointed out violet-green swallows.
"Bandits attacked stagecoaches on this stretch," Hinkston said, near the Ventura County line. "It was the only trail opened to San Francisco during the Civil War. And see, you can tell where pickaxes were used to carve the road and you can see the gutters that were built for water runoff."
A multicolored tile inlaid in 1939 dedicates the trail, part of 178 acres listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Adobe ruins of the De La Ossa stagecoach station stand in the Chatsworth Reservoir area. A 1.5-mile railroad tunnel still used there was built in 1904. It once was the longest in the Western Hemisphere.
During a hike with Hinkston in 1969, former Los Angeles City Planning Director Cal Hamilton found an Indian leeching basin where tribes prepared acorns.
"After that walk, I vowed to work to preserve that area because I don't think the county has been particularly sensitive to control the growth here," Hamilton said at a recent public meeting. Before he retired last month, he called for a multi-jurisdictional board to buy private land and stop development in the hills.
"This is controversial, but we owe it to the public, to say nothing to the animals and plants," Hamilton said.
A city study points out that development would decimate the rare tarweed as well as the endangered satin-brown Chocolate Lily, the Maroon Monkey Flower and the twisting Dunn and Oracle oaks.
Lone Ranger Rock, the most famous of many movie rocks at the former Iverson Movie Ranch,
seen in the silent movie "Ben-Hur" (1925); the rock had not yet become known as Lone Ranger Rock
The study recommended the city annex the land because it has higher construction standards. Councilman Hal Bernson has worked for two years to get the land annexed, but the paperwork to start the process never has been filed.
"It's taken a great deal of research and red tape, but the bottom line is I don't want to see a lot of commercial junk here," Bernson said. "I want it to stay the lowest density, basically horsekeeping."
County officials have approved four projects in this corner of Supervisor Michael Antonovich's district. They will be allowed to go forward even if the city annexes the land, assistant city planner Nancy Scrivner said.
The projects are Cadillac-Fairview's condos, the existing 150 mobile homes in Indian Hills Trailer Park, the yet-to-be-built Faith Evangelical Church and Chatsworth Hills Academy.
Lone Ranger Rock as it appears today, in the Iverson Gorge in Chatsworth, Calif.
Most of the 220 registered voters -- who will decide the annexation issue at the next election -- live in the trailer park.
"The main reason people in the park want to be annexed into the city is because they want rent control," said attorney Ken Carlson, who represents the elderly residents who live in the "guarded community."
At the Thunderhead II Boarding Kennels, a sign says "Keep Out." The United Cerebral Palsy Spastic Children's Foundation has a large gate. Neighbors complain of gawkers, squatters, shooters, looters and dumpers.
"I'd just as soon shoot 'em as look at 'em," said Tom Buchele, who lives next to Spahn Ranch. "Every time one of (the Manson Family) gets up for parole, I have 500 people out here wanting to see where it used to be."
Because he has the only corral visible from the road, sightseers photograph Buchele's land, mistaking it for the Manson home. He has posted signs reading: "No hunting, firearms or motorcycles."
Next door, Frank Retz has three German shepherds and signs reading: "No Trespassing. All violators will be arrested and prosecuted."
Retz, 73, said he hopes by next year to use his 50 acres for 10 houses and an exclusive equestrian club with swimming pool and tennis courts.
"It doesn't bother me with this development across the street," Retz said. "People have to live somewhere. As long as they stay away from my property."
"I'm not afraid of anybody," he said. "I wasn't afraid of Manson when he was here. They were dopey kids who weren't normal."
Prosecutor Kay said Retz was friends with Shea, the murdered stunt man, and that if Manson and his crew hadn't been arrested they might have killed Retz next.
"I told those druggie Manson people to get out, and when they saw me they would run away because I told them I would beat them up to death," Retz said.
Across from Retz, the Faith Evangelist Church will be built next year, the Rev. Robert Ricker said. He said he wants to preserve the rugged spaciousness of the 70 acres -- while building a school, football field and retirement center.
"And we need parking spaces for hundreds, and ultimately, thousands of cars," Ricker said.
Despite the environmentalists' pressure, neighbors don't think development can be stopped.
"You aren't going to see someone scrap a $100 million project to preserve the tarweed," Sherman said. "I don't care how rare it is."
Bulldozers are grading Bulldog Hill, where stunt men chased outlaws, pulled them off their horses and fought them as they slid down hills.
"This is American heritage," Clayton Moore said. "You can't kill it."
Hollywood Stuntmen's Hall of Fame President John G. Hagner said he plans to raise money Sept. 7 for a stunt show museum by auctioning Phyllis Diller's wig, Kenny Rogers' belt buckle and other celebrity memorabilia.
"This is the real wilderness, and it's within spitting distance in a high wind of the city," said Jock Mahoney, 67, a popular stunt man for 40 years. ''But how are you going to stop progress?"
"Progress has gone too far," said Rainbow Red Feather, a granddaughter of the famed Indian chief Geronimo. "This is important heritage to our people, and I can't stand to see it go downhill."
She pitched a tepee on the land last year to protest proposed development.
The state has no plans for the 428 acres held by the California Department of Recreation and Parks. Deputy Regional Director Alan Ulm said he hopes the city eventually will attach it to Chatsworth Park nearby.
Developers said they think the public no longer is interested in westerns. Sherman's dream is a Universal Studios-like Wild West tour.
"Last year I saw a mountain lion at my front gate," Sherman said. "When I get to be his (Iverson's) age, there may not even be a bird left."
But that won't happen if the Lone Ranger can help it.
Moore lost Silver 13 years ago. He lost Jay Silverheels, who played Tonto, seven years ago. He lost his wife of 44 years, Sally Allen, eight months ago.
He doesn't want to lose the ranch.
"If it isn't developed, maybe someday -- we'll see -- I may go back," Moore said.
"And maybe," he added, "the Lone Ranger will ride again."