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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
"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.
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 ...
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.
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