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Saturday, November 10, 2018

Paramount Ranch burns down

The Western town set at Paramount Ranch — before Friday's fire

There's so much tragedy to go around in the fires that are currently ravaging much of California, it may not seem like a big deal that an old movie set was among the casualties. But Paramount Ranch is a cool spot with a ton of history, and its loss is a painful one for the area's community of movie location fans and researchers.

The Western town area at Paramount Ranch on Friday, Nov. 9 — after the fire came through

The damage is still being assessed, but indications are that the structures throughout the park, including the famed Western town, are close to a total loss.

Map of the Woolsey Fire and Hill Fire as of 9 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018

Paramount Ranch never had a chance — the blue "X" on this fire map marks the location of Paramount Ranch, with the blue "Y" indicating nearby Malibu Creek State Park, another historic filming location. Both sites were in the direct path of the Woolsey Fire as it raged from near Chatsworth in the north to Malibu in the south.

I've noticed in some of the TV coverage, and here again on the fire map, that a lot of people are getting "Woolsey" wrong. It's "Woolsey," not "Woosley." The name comes from Woolsey Canyon, near where the fire started.

Destruction on the Paramount Ranch, Friday, Nov. 9

The bulk of the destruction at Paramount Ranch happened on Friday, Nov. 9, as the Woolsey Fire, and to a lesser extent the Hill Fire to the west, tore across the Santa Monica Mountains, wreaking havoc in West Hills, Calabasas, Thousand Oaks, Malibu and other communities.

While most of the ranch's structures were destroyed, a few buildings, seemingly chosen at random, did manage to survive. Among the survivors, as indicated here, was the "train station" set.

Another little piece of good news in this photo is that it appears the grand old oak tree that was adjacent to the old horse barn got through the fire without much damage — even though the barn itself was destroyed.

The Paramount Ranch Western town in 2017

I know I'm not alone in saying this, but the old horse barn, which had survived from the ranch's early days, was especially dear to my heart. You can see it on the right in this photo of the Western town by Jerry Condit.

I was lucky enough to see a couple of presentations inside that barn in recent years by Mike Malone, a retired park ranger who spent much of his career at Paramount Ranch and continues to document the site's film history.

"The Trumpet Blows" (1934): The old horse barn

While much of the Western town was built more recently, the horse barn was one of the ranch's oldest buildings. It's seen here in 1934 in Paramount's "The Trumpet Blows," starring George Raft.

It's sad to have to say this, but I believe this is all that's left of the barn, which had been renovated in recent years and was outfitted for use as a sort of quasi-soundstage.

Looking again at the 1934 photo, we can see that same old oak tree, back before it grew as "old and wise" as it is today. The tree has accumulated its share of nicknames over the years, including the Grandmother Oak and the Witness Tree, having borne witness to decades of history.

The Grandmother Oak in all its grandeur, in May 2018

I was lucky enough to snap this shot of the grand old tree in "full flower" on a visit to Paramount Ranch back in May. Portions of the old barn can also be seen behind the tree, starting in the lower left corner of the frame.

Notice the two smaller trees in the photo taken Friday.

The two smaller trees are younger than the Grandmother Oak, and had not been planted yet in 1934.

Let me call your attention to the "medium-sized" of the three trees, which is located at the north end of what is now the ruins of the old barn.

The Western town set looking east

It's the same tree seen in this photo, which is also posted at the top of this blog entry. The tree is seen from opposite directions in the two photos — looking west in the fire damage photo, and looking east in this shot.

Something that would be easy to miss in the 1934 shot is this tiny shed in the background.

"The Silver Star" (Lippert, 1955) — a similar shed in the same general area

I initially thought it was the same shed that turns up in 1955 in the Edgar Buchanan-Marie Windsor Western "The Silver Star." As it turns out, they're two different sheds, although they were similar in shape and size.

The "Silver Star" shed in 2010

The "Silver Star" shed was still standing when I visited Paramount Ranch in 2010. The good news/bad news for the shed is that it was spared from the fire — but only because it was already gone. It had been removed without permission by a film crew shooting on the ranch, just in the past two or three years.

Two of the "modern" buildings on the Western street, photographed in 2010

Unlike the old barn and a few other buildings, much of the town set as we have known it in recent years isn't all that old. For example, these two buildings went up in the 1980s, soon after the National Park Service acquired the former Paramount property. The yellow building on the left was used as an actual house.

The same two buildings (center and right) soon after they were built in the 1980s

This shot from the 1980s shows those same two buildings, along with the refurbished "Saloon" on the left, not long after construction and renovations were completed by the National Park Service. The Park Service took over the land in 1980 and got busy sprucing up the place soon afterward.

The Saloon in 2017, photographed by Jerry Condit

The Saloon would become one of the Paramount Ranch Western town's most identifiable and most frequently filmed buildings. This is what it looked like as recently as last year.

The Saloon, dressed up for a scene in season two of HBO's "Westworld" (2017)

On another visit the same year, Jerry was able to catch a shot of the Saloon as part of a scene of apparent mayhem for the second season of the hit HBO sci-fi Western series "Westworld."

The Western town as it appeared before 1980

Going back a few decades, this is what the town looked like around the time the Park Service first got ahold of it circa 1980. Paramount was already long gone — the studio had owned the property since the 1920s, but sold it in 1943. The town seen here was built by one of the later owners, William Hertz, starting in the 1950s.

The original silent-era Paramount Ranch town set — located north of the modern town

Going back another 50 years — and about a half-mile north — we can see the original town set in a promo still for Paramount's 1931 movie "Gun Smoke." Not to be confused with the modern town, this set was situated in its own little valley to the north, on land that has since been developed into residential housing.

The Sheriff's Office in 2010

Even though the Western town that burned down this week was not the original Paramount Ranch town set, it was a nice set in its own right — and a big tourist draw.

Jam session at the 2018 Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Festival, Paramount Ranch

Since 1990, the Paramount Ranch has hosted the Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest and Folk Festival, with one of its trademark attractions being spontaneous bluegrass jam sessions in the Western town.

Here's a jam from this year's festival that broke out beneath the Grandmother Oak. Just look at the size of those dual tree trunks behind the pickers. The old horse barn can be seen in the background too.

Behind the scenes on "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" (CBS, 1993-1998)

The modern town set has its own significant filming history, including a long run as home base for the CBS drama series "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" in the 1990s.

"Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman": Jane Seymour and the 1990s-era church

During the years when Jane Seymour was on the ranch filming "Dr. Quinn," the show had a church building set off by itself, not far from the town.

"Westworld" (HBO, ca. 2016): A new church appears near the town

Two decades later a different church was built in almost the same spot, this time for "Westworld."

The same scene in 2017 (Jerry Condit photo)

When Jerry Condit visited the ranch in 2017, he snapped a photo of the church matching the framing of the "Westworld" shot above. At this point the town and church were still "dressed" for "Westworld."

"Westworld" (2016): The Paramount Ranch Western town

Here's another shot from "Westworld" filmed on the Paramount Ranch, and if this one looks familiar ...

... it may be because the framing nicely matches Jerry Condit's 2017 photo seen near the top of this post.

The "Westworld" church and graveyard (Jerry Condit photo)

Here's another shot of the "Westworld" church, still dressed up for the series, complete with adjacent graveyard.

The "Westworld" church after the TV series wrapped — minus its steeple

When they were ready to move on from Paramount Ranch, the "Westworld" producers had to be talked into leaving the church behind. They reluctantly agreed, but insisted on removing the steeple to prevent the church from being easily identified as the one seen in the TV series.

 The Western street, including "Hotel Mud Bug," with the "Westworld" church in the distance

This recent shot gives a good idea of the proximity of the "Westworld" church to the Western street — and provides a look at the hotel, which has had a sign reading "Hotel Mud Bug" since 2009.

The Grandmother Oak — and surprise, the "Westworld" church — after Friday's fire

Here's a shot from just after Friday's fire that, as ominous as it may be, contains a message of hope. While the hotel, barn and other town buildings are now gone, we again see the Grandmother Oak — largely intact, albeit presumably in shock. But the big surprise here is that the "Westworld" church survived the fire.

Hotel Mud Bug in 2010

Here's a closer look at the Hotel in 2010, when it already had its "Mud Bug" sign.

"Big Money Rustlas" (filmed at Paramount Ranch in 2009, released in 2010)

The "Mud Bug" sign was added to the Hotel during filming on the movie "Big Money Rustlas" in 2009.

"Under the Tonto Rim" (1933): Storage buildings that would later form the Western town

Much of the 1950s-era Western town was created by adding false fronts to buildings that were already in place by the early 1930s, many of which were used at that time for storage.

This shot from Paramount's 1933 production of Zane Grey's "Under the Tonto Rim" shows a number of the storage buildings that would later form a portion of the modern Western town.

Also visible in the "Under the Tonto Rim" shot is a little bit of the old horse barn.

The old storage buildings (silent film era)

Here's an even earlier view of the old storage buildings, believed to be from the silent era. The open building on the right was used to house Paramount's "rolling stock," such as stagecoaches and carriages. This photo and the next one are from displays created by Marc Wanamaker that were featured during events at Paramount Ranch.

Paramount's "rolling stock," circa 1927

Some of the rolling stock is visible in this shot from about 1927, which also includes a gathering of vintage cars. The wide, open storage building would become known as the Pavilion.

The Pavilion in 2010

In its later years the Pavilion was usually filled with picnic tables, although it could be reconfigured for use as a concert venue during the annual Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Festival. The building perished in Friday's fire along with the Saloon, the Hotel Mud Bug, the old horse barn and the rest of the town.

The beauty of Paramount Ranch before the fire: The town nestled below Ladyface Mountain

I want to give a special shout-out to Mike Malone, who has devoted much of his life to preserving the legacy of the Paramount Ranch and spreading the word about the film history of the Santa Monica Mountains. Mike's outstanding research has enriched everyone who loves movie history and filming locations.

Mike Malone conducts a Paramount Ranch tour a few years ago
Mike not only suffered a personal loss with the devastation at Paramount Ranch, but also was forced to evacuate his home and continues to have to live with the uncertainty of wondering what the fire will do in the days ahead. My heart is with you, Mike — and a heartfelt thank-you for your great work and great friendship.


molly nims said...

wonderful memories and great tribute to a horrible loss

Mark Sherman said...

I've heard from news sources that the fire was moving so fast that nothing could be done. I don't know much about this ranch or the movies or TV shows that were shot there...Thanks as always, for a very good job.

Carla Bollinger said...


Great reporting of the Paramount Ranch fire devastation and tribute, history and visuals. My heart goes out to Mike Malone, former park ranger and Paramount Ranch historian. His friends, the Paramount Park Rangers, State and National Park Service, lost their park residences in this fire. Beyond the loss of structures and homes, the soul of film history smolder in the burnt rubble. May the human spirit survive the recent tragedies.

Unknown said...

I'm so grateful you posted all these pictures as all I heard here in Phoenix is that the Paramount Ranch movie set burned and it broke my heart. Another one bites the dust. Just so very sad. We appreciate the Iverson Movie Ranch site SO MUCH. Please make sure you continue doing your wonderful work in preserving the movie history so dear us old western movie fans. Thank you and our hearts and prayers go out to Mike Malone and all those who kept it alive.
Greg Stewart

Laura said...

Excellent report -- so very sad. Thank you for taking the time to share this with us in such detail, Dennis.

Best wishes,

Unknown said...

Can't really add more to what has already been said. So much history lost. So sad.

The Big Valley said...

These fires have been so devastating to so many people. Your compassion is so evident, and your dedication will keep this film history alive despite these destructive forces. We do appreciate your sharing all of this information with your readers.