Friday, October 28, 2011
The 1962 Cold War movie "Panic in Year Zero," starring and directed by Ray Milland, with Jean Hagen, Frankie Avalon, Mary Mitchell and Joan Freeman, tells the story of the Baldwins, a family that escapes Los Angeles just before a nuclear attack and starts a new life in the wilds of what we now know was the Iverson Movie Ranch. The movie features some of the more interesting shots of Iverson to survive from its later years as a working movie location.
The adventure begins innocently enough ...
The above shot is taken on the former Republic Pictures backlot in Studio City, Calif., where countless B-Westerns were also shot. It shows the start of what was supposed to be a normal family vacation — this was before the bomb fell — and we can see that the neighbor's house, at the left in the above shot, is a converted barn. The same barn, formerly known as Melody Ranch, was seen in a number of Gene Autry's Republic movies along with many other Westerns. (Gene later used the name Melody Ranch for his own movie ranch in Newhall.) As it appears here, converted to something like a large suburban house, the same building also reportedly functioned as the family home on the TV show "My Three Sons." The Republic lot went through many incarnations over the years — it was originally the Mack Sennett-Keystone lot, then home to Mascot Pictures before Republic took over — and eventually became CBS's Radford lot, which it remains today. (The barn, however, is long gone.)
In a pivotal sequence in "Panic in Year Zero," the Baldwin family looks back on L.A. and gets the bad news in the form of a massive mushroom cloud. The shot is taken from Santa Susana Pass Road between the San Fernando Valley and Simi Valley, which was the main road between the two valleys before the 118 Freeway went in. (The 118, completed around 1969, effectively wrote the epitaph for both Iverson and Corriganville, two of the most important movie ranches of the old Hollywood era.)
Another view of the mushroom cloud, without the family in the picture, reveals a distinctive rock at the bottom of the shot, which is a key to finding the location today. While it's hard to make out in the distance, much of the Lower Iverson Movie Ranch appears in the shot, just above and to the right of the large rock near the bottom center of the photo. The shot is taken from a short distance west of Iverson.
Here's another shot from the movie with the same general view before the bomb hits, where it's a little easier to make out the Lower Iverson in the background, along with a portion of the still relatively undeveloped San Fernando Valley, circa 1962. You may be able to spot Garden of the Gods and other Iverson features. (Click on the photo to enlarge it if needed.)
Here's what the site looks like today. The spot can be easily found — thanks to that one distinctive rock — and is viewable from a turnout along the side of the road. Here again, Iverson is visible near the center of the shot. The Rocky Peak Church also appears in this shot — the white complex with a red roof, just above that distinctive rock — and some of the condos and other features of the modern-day Iverson Ranch are also seen.
As the bomb turns loose millions of panic-stricken Angelenos on the highways, the Baldwin family seeks refuge in the wilderness, which means Iverson. Here they arrive at a secret camping area, through a gate marked by a couple of formidable boulders that can still be found on the Upper Iverson. In other movies this pair of boulders had horses and stagecoaches riding between them on a regular basis.
Here's a better look at the rock on the right. To me it looks kind of like a duckbill. Today these same two rocks frame a private driveway, shown in the photo below.
I don't have the right angle, but this rock — the one that fills much of the right half of the shot — is the same "duckbill" seen in the shot above. I'm sorry to report that the duck's bill was shaved off to allow for a wider driveway. (You can see in the shot of the trailer above that it's a tight fit.)
Deeper into the backcountry, the Baldwins drive past a familiar rock formation, at the top left in the photo, seen in many old Republic serials and B-Westerns. I call it Smiling Lion. An interesting touch here is the bridge, which apparently was just a temporary construction for this movie that was then quickly torn down. It appears to cross the tiny creek that traverses the Upper Iverson. (I've been calling it Iverson Creek, because what else would it be. But I have since learned that some of the hikers and other people who are familiar with the area call it Fern Ann Creek or Fern Ann Falls Creek.)
Here's a modern view of Smiling Lion, again not exactly the right angle — it looks more like a grouchy lion from this angle. But you get the idea.
In a twist that's either ironic or coincidental, depending on how you define those terms (a lot of people get it wrong, so I won't even try), this shot of the family car and trailer continuing the journey across the Upper Iverson contains a barely visible and yet significant sighting. In the background, at the very top of Oat Mountain, toward the left of the photo, is a tiny white circle. (You can see it better if you enlarge the photo by clicking on it.) This is believed to be a radar dish, part of the Nike missile base that is known to have occupied much of the top of Oat Mountain during the Cold War. The base, known to insiders as LA-88, was operational from 1956 through 1974 as part of the nationwide Nike missile defense system. A detailed history of the Oat Mountain Nike facility can be found here.
Here's a shot of more or less the same section of Oat Mountain in more recent times. The radar dish is no longer seen, although other electronic equipment is visible. During the years since things cooled off with the Soviets, much of the area atop Oat Mountain has been converted to microwave towers for use by cell phones and other mobile devices. If anyone is feeling nostalgic for the "good old days" of Nike missile bases in the hills above L.A., don't be. The Nike base atop Oat Mountain was an artifact of the period before even the 1980s-era Strategic Defense Initiative, when the prevailing doctrine of nuclear defense was "mutually assured destruction" — the same nightmare scenario that plays out in "Panic in Year Zero."
Here's another section of Oat Mountain, just to the west of the shot above. This shot provides a pretty good look at some of the equipment in place today atop the mountain, presumably mostly microwave towers. However, the white building that is the most prominent feature at the top of the hill, seen to the left of center, has been there for decades and does show up sometimes in the productions. I'll post some examples later, but I've seen it in the TV show "Bonanza," among others. I've traditionally assumed it was part of the base, but I don't know what its function is today. I do know that at least part of the property atop Oat Mountain remains in military hands. I've seen a few videos of the former Nike site in recent years (here's one of them) and it appears to be completely dismantled. But I wouldn't be surprised to find out they're still keeping track of things from up there — even if they're no longer ready to fire off a nuclear warhead in the blink of an eye.
One last shot from "Panic in Year Zero": Later in the "camping trip from hell," dad and his teenage son — Ray Milland and Frankie Avalon — go hunting, with the rock wonderland that is the Lower Iverson's Upper Gorge in all its glory in the background. This shot is taken from the camera mount in Garden of the Gods.
The Middle Iverson Ranch Set also appears in "Panic in Year Zero," and those shots can be seen here. (Scroll down to about the 14th and 15th photos to see the "Panic in Year Zero" stuff.)