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Sunday, September 4, 2016

Annie Oakley shoots up the Iverson Ranch

Gail Davis as Annie Oakley

TV's first female action hero was Annie Oakley, played by Gene Autry protege Gail Davis.

"Annie Finds Strange Treasure" (premiered March 6, 1954): Gail Davis as Annie
with kid brother Tagg, played by Jimmy Hawkins

The TV show "Annie Oakley," from Autry's Flying A Productions, ran in syndication for three seasons, from 1954-1957, with ABC keeping the show on the air in reruns into the mid-1960s.

"Dilemma at Diablo": Tagg at the Reflecting Pool on the South Rim

The cinematography in "Annie Oakley" could be stunningly beautiful, as in this sequence where Tagg visits the Reflecting Pool, below Wrench Rock on the Upper Iverson, to say goodbye to his pet toad, "Smoothie."

The Upper Iverson's North Rim, as seen in "Annie Joins the Cavalry"

About half of the 81 episodes of "Annie Oakley" were filmed at least in part on the Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, Calif.

Gail Davis in "Indian Justice" (premiered July 29, 1956)

The series shot extensively on location, also filming at Melody Ranch, Vasquez Rocks, Ingram Ranch, Bronson Canyon, Corriganville, Pioneertown, Lone Pine and a number of other California sites.

"Annie and the Leprechauns" (premiered Sept. 2, 1956)

The series was filmed primarily by cinematographer William Bradford, a veteran of the B-Westerns and a longtime Gene Autry collaborator. Bradford knew his way around the Iverson Ranch and knew where to find a crooked tree branch when he needed one.

Bear Tree, on the Upper Iverson, in 2014

The same crooked tree branch seen in "Annie Oakley" can still be found today, in a section of the former Upper Iverson Ranch that the Iverson family called Oak Flats.

Annie arrives at the Middle Iverson Ranch Set, with the Bunkhouse at right,
in "Annie and the Lacemaker" (premiered July 15, 1956)

The wealth of Iverson Movie Ranch footage seen in "Annie Oakley" provides a snapshot of the ranch as it appeared during the mid-1950s — a period when the site was a hub of filming activity for early TV Westerns.

The real Annie Oakley

The real-life Annie Oakley, who lived from 1860-1926, was more complex than the fictionalized and largely sanitized version presented in the TV series, whose target audience was kids.

Gail Davis in "Diablo Doctor" (premiered March 13, 1955) — Cactus Hill in background

But Davis created her own flesh-and-bones version of Annie, who refuses to be easily dismissed. With Annie as the centerpiece of her legacy, Davis remains one of Hollywood's most important Western heroines.

"Overland Telegraph" (RKO, 1951): An upside-down Gail Davis at right

For Davis, the role of Annie Oakley was a step up from the hapless leading ladies she was required to play as she honed her acting chops in a series of B-Westerns during the late '40s and early '50s.

"Overland Telegraph" (1951): Gail Davis learns the ropes

The telegraph pole predicament in which Gail's character found herself in "Overland Telegraph" — a predicament that found its way to the lobby card, above — positioned her conveniently for a gallant rescue by a cowboy hero.

That's just when two cowboys happened to ride up, showing impeccable timing. The scene was filmed on the South Rim of the Upper Iverson — presumably with a stunt double doing most of the physical suffering.

The two trail pardners — matinee idol Tim Holt and sidekick Richard "Chito" Martin — jumped at the opportunity to help a pretty lady, with Holt taking the word "jump" literally.
While both men liked what they saw in Davis, Holt took the more hands-on approach.

I think this was the Old West equivalent of getting the digits.

Here's where Holt's matinee idol looks came in handy, as Davis quickly warmed up — transforming from panicky damsel in distress to mega-cutie pie.

Gail Davis as Annie Oakley

But it was as Annie Oakley that Davis really found her groove. The actress lobbied heavily to get Gene Autry to cast her as Annie, and it became her signature role. 

Davis as Annie, with mentor Gene Autry

Family members have said Davis remained "Annie" for the rest of her life. Along the lines of Clayton Moore's lifelong embrace of his "Lone Ranger" character, Davis stayed in character even after the show ended.

The spirit of Annie Oakley extended to other family members, too, as seen in this photo of Gail and her daughter, a young Terrie Davis.

Like many of her male cowboy hero counterparts, Davis parlayed the popularity of her TV character into her own series of comic books.

Davis also had something many of the cowboys didn't — her own coloring book.

Gail Davis takes aim on the Iverson Ranch in "Annie Finds Strange Treasure"

I promised Annie would shoot up the Iverson Ranch, so let's get to it. In this photo, Annie is about to get the better of three bad guys in a shootout at the Cave Rocks, where the mobile home park swimming pool is now located.

Tagg sticks his neck out during the gunfight

The precocious Tagg lived up to his name by tagging along on many of Annie's adventures — and getting in more than his share of trouble. He sometimes helped solve crimes, but here all he's doing is risking getting himself shot.

Lofty rides the South Rim in "The Robin Hood Kid" (July 1, 1956)

The other man in Annie's life was beefy Deputy Sheriff Lofty Craig, played by Brad Johnson.

Annie and Lofty in the Eucalyptus Grove on the Lower Iverson in "Tuffy" (premiered Feb. 3, 1957)

Lofty was Annie's partner in crime fighting and her co-conspirator in any mild romantic tension in the series.

Annie and Lofty in the Garden of the Gods in "The Tomboy" (July 17, 1954)

It was never "official" that Lofty was Annie's boyfriend, but there was no denying he was smitten with Annie.

"Dilemma at Diablo" (premiered Sept. 9, 1956): Annie and Lofty on the South Rim
(Turtle Rock in the background)

Whether Lofty's feelings were reciprocated was left up to the viewer to decide, but the show did drop hints.

L-R: Jimmy Hawkins, Gail Davis, Eve Miller and Brad Johnson in "Sure Shot Annie"

When the gang meets the stage in "Sure Shot Annie," Lofty offers some neighborly help to a pretty new stranger in town, played by Eve Miller. The show's home town of Diablo was based at Melody Ranch in Newhall.

As Lofty shows the new arrival to her room — and Tagg gushes about how beautiful she is — Annie's body language betrays her jealousy. Annie later gets the best of her rival by busting her for a bank robbery.

Matt and Kitty on "Gunsmoke": Were they or weren't they?

The intentionally ambiguous relationship between Annie and Lofty became a model that was later employed to great effect on "Gunsmoke," where Matt and Kitty kept fans guessing for years.

"The Tomboy" — Lofty and Annie shoot it out with the badmen in Garden of the Gods

But when it came down to it, Annie and Lofty were inseparable — especially when they were out rounding up a succession of outlaws, varmints, owl-hoots and bad hombres.

"The Robin Hood Kid" — Iverson Gorge in background

Annie could do just about anything — ridin', ropin', shootin' ... the whole package.

Lofty, at right, brawls with an outlaw on the balcony of the Hotel in "The Runaways"

Lofty's main job was beating people up, something he did regularly.

A bone-jarring punch from Lofty sends the badman through the balcony railing to the street below. This scene takes place on the Iverson Movie Ranch Western street.

"A Tall Tale" (June 17, 1956)

Let's get back to shooting up the ranch. In "A Tall Tale," Annie blasts away before Lofty clears leather after the pair rides up on some outlaws holed up at the Miner's Cabin.

"A Tall Tale": Shootout at the Miner's Cabin

Annie keeps 'em pinned down from behind — what else — a rock.

The Miner's Cabin, in "A Tall Tale"

This is what the Miner's Cabin looked like in the "Annie Oakley" episode. Located on the Upper Iverson, the heavily filmed hideout is also known as the Lone Ranger Cabin and played a role in that TV series too.

Miner's Cabin foundation in 2016

The stone foundation of the Miner's Cabin remains in place today on the South Rim. Entropy has taken a toll on it, but the foundation is the only relic of its kind on the former movie ranch.

Annie rides Target in "Annie and the First Phone" (premiered July 22, 1956)

Annie's horse in the series was Target, who I hear was played by at least three different Palominos.

"Sure Shot Annie" (premiered April 17, 1955)

Another episode, another rock to hide behind — not only did Annie always shoot straight, she always managed to do it without ruining her makeup.

"Annie Joins the Cavalry" (May 22, 1954)

We don't usually get to see Annie from this angle, but we did in "Annie Joins the Cavalry," during an interesting sequence (interesting from a rock standpoint) shot on the Upper Iverson's North Rim.

One of the interesting things about the sequence is an impromptu Cavalry graveyard dug near some of the rocks of the North Rim. I'm hoping to get out there soon to look for this spot.

"Annie and the Six o' Spades" (July 31, 1954)

In "Annie and the Six o' Spades," Gail Davis climbs on top of the Grove Cabin as she maneuvers to get the drop on some bad guys.

Gail works her way across the roof.

Eventually, Gail, or Annie, establishes a strategic position above the porch and starts spraying bullets around.

"The Runaways" (premiered July 24, 1954)

In "The Runaways," Annie shoots up the Iverson Western street. First she hovers outside the Hotel, where some nasty outlaws are hiding.

She smashes the window — with authority. Annie is even more worked up than usual in this episode because the bad guys roughed up her kid brother.

Then blammo, she starts taking care of business. Annie apparently never actually killed anyone on the show. She typically would shoot guns out of people's hands, leaving a lot of bad guys with hand injuries.

Davis and Johnson on the Iverson Western street in "Tuffy"

Another episode where much of the action took place on Iverson's Western street was "Tuffy," which aired near the end of the show's final season.

Lead bad guy Slade, played by B-Western veteran Harry Lauter, hassles two youngsters in Trap Rock; the kids are Tagg, left, played by Jimmy Hawkins, and Tuffy, played by Barry Froner

The Iverson Western town set plays a rundown town called Trap Rock, where Annie's brother and his new pal Tuffy get in a scrape with a couple of badmen before Annie can ride to the rescue.

Behind-the-scenes shot from the filming of "Tuffy"

I was lucky enough to get ahold of a couple of behind-the-scenes shots taken when "Tuffy" was filming on the Western street in late 1956. That's child actor Froner in the black hat, being attended to by the crew.

Outside the Sheriff's Office in Trap Rock (behind-the-scenes shot)

Another behind-the-scenes shot includes the two bad guys and the two kids. The guy on the horse is Slade's second-in-command, Jake, played by Joe Cranston.

Joe Cranston, as Slade, captures Tagg outside the Sheriff's Office

Jimmy Hawkins, who played Annie's brother Tagg, had a big-time career as a child actor, including a role in the classic "It's a Wonderful Life" when he was just a tot. He quit full-time acting in his 20s.

Bryan Cranston and his father, Joe Cranston, at the "Godzilla" premiere in 2014

Joe Cranston was the father of acclaimed actor Bryan Cranston, best known for his four-time Emmy-winning role on "Breaking Bad." The elder Cranston had a handful of acting credits from 1952-1961.

This is what the scene outside the Sheriff's Office looks like in the actual TV episode, as the outlaws take the boys hostage.

Dickie Jones descends the rock "Water Turtle" in "Annie Helps a Drifter" (June 5, 1954)

This shot of an Upper Iverson rock I call Water Turtle captures an unusual angle. Actor Dickie Jones made four guest appearances on "Annie Oakley" before launching his own Autry-produced show, "Buffalo Bill, Jr."

"Grubstake Bank" (premiered Dec. 16, 1956)

Another nice shot of Water Turtle, taken from a more typical angle, appears in the episode "Grubstake Bank." I think it's a case of either you see it or you don't, but I always see a water turtle when I look at this rock.

"Annie Finds Strange Treasure" — fake rock in front of Split Rock

Images from the TV show have played a valuable role in historical research. In this example filmed in late 1953 or early 1954, a fake rock is seen in front of Split Rock on the Lower Iverson.

I had never seen this fake rock until it turned up in "Annie Oakley" — or at least hadn't noticed it. It's unlikely that the installation of the fake was related to the TV series, but the show sure gave us a good look at it.

"Overland Trail" TV series — episode "The O'Mara's Ladies" (premiered Feb. 14, 1960)

Whoever put the fake rock in place, my guess is that it was done to make Split Rock a little harder to recognize. This shot of the same area from the TV show "Overland Trail" a few years later illustrates what Split Rock looked like with the fake rock removed — you couldn't miss the prominent vertical crack.

Split Rock in 2015

Split Rock remains in place today, although the small rock in front of it is no longer around — and obviously, the fake rock is also long gone. Access to this spot is challenging, as the rock is now enclosed inside the fenced area surrounding the swimming pool for the Indian Hills Mobile Home Village.

"The Runaways": Stuffy Singer, left, and Jimmy Hawkins approach the Western street

I got a surprise when I was watching the episode "The Runaways," in which Tagg and his friend Billy, played by Stuffy Singer, run away to the Iverson Western street.

I noticed a rock in the center of the frame that didn't seem to belong there. Sure enough, the rock turns out to be a fake — in fact, it's the same fake rock that was seen in front of Split Rock in "Annie Finds Strange Treasure."

The fake rock was probably just being "stored" here to get it out of the way. But with the heavy schedule of filming that was taking place at Iverson around that time, it happened to get caught on camera — lucky for us!

"Annie and the First Phone"

In another historically significant sequence, a shot of Annie riding along a road framed by two stone towers documents a combination of surviving and non-surviving rocks.

The stone sentinels at the left and right of the frame form a "rock gate" through which riders could be filmed making an entrance. These two stone towers remain in place today on land that is open to the public.

The "rock gate" as it appears in 2016

A recent photo reveals that the two towers continue to guard the road today, although these days the road is a footpath leading to the condo area. In my research I use the name "Lone Owl" for the rock on the left.

"Annie and the First Phone" — Annie rides past Lone Owl

As the sequence continues, we get a good look at Lone Owl — and we see that it's Gail Davis on the horse.

Lone Owl in 2016

Here's another look at Lone Owl from a recent expedition to the former location ranch.

The rock gate area today (Bing bird's-eye view)

If you can find a place to park near the end of Redmesa Road, you're almost at Lone Owl and the "rock gate." Parking tends to be tight there, but you can also get to the rocks by parking on the east side of the Redmesa "loop" and hiking up the Garden of the Gods Trail.

My "Annie Oakley" research took a big leap forward when I recently bought the DVD set "Annie Oakley: The Complete Series," where I found all the "Annie Oakley" shots you see in this post. After years of struggling with bad prints of the show, I was pleasantly surprised by the picture quality.

If you're interested in obtaining your own copy of the complete "Annie Oakley" DVD set, please click on the link above, which will take you to where you can buy the set on Amazon.

1 comment:

Mark Sherman said...

Always unexpectedly good! Thanks!