Here's what the Iverson Movie Ranch obsession is all about ...

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• Here's a link to Garden of the Gods, the best-known section of the Iverson Movie Ranch (featured in the movie "Stagecoach," the "Lone Ranger" TV show and hundreds of other productions).
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Saturday, April 27, 2019

Solving one of the biggest mysteries about "The Lone Ranger"

"The Lone Ranger": The so-called "original" opening sequence

The opening sequence to the TV series "The Lone Ranger" — the "original" version of the opening, as it has come to be known — has been a source of controversy, mystery and misinformation for years.

The biggest question has always been: Where was it filmed? And finally, almost 70 years after "The Lone Ranger" first went on the air in 1949, we know the answer.

Early "Lone Ranger" opening: The Ranger and Silver at Rabbit Dry Lake

The sequence, which features the Lone Ranger riding Silver across flat terrain with rocky hills in the background, was shot on Rabbit Dry Lake, just outside the tiny desert community of Lucerne Valley, Calif.

Location of Rabbit Dry Lake in Southern California's Mojave Desert (Google Map)

Situated in the high desert northeast of Los Angeles, Rabbit Dry Lake is part of a region with a long history of filming centered around the Victor Valley, Apple Valley and Lucerne Valley.

Rabbit Dry Lake in 2019: The same location where the early "Lone Ranger" opening was filmed

The site of the "Lone Ranger" shoot remains largely untouched today, although a few modest structures have popped up in the background. I don't want to jinx it, but the place seems unlikely to "go condo" anytime soon.

Early opening to "The Lone Ranger": No, it's not filmed in Lone Pine

The "Lone Ranger" opening sequence has been attributed in error to various locations — I know a lot of people think it was filmed in Lone Pine, Calif. That's what I used to think too, because that's what I kept hearing.

Visitors to Lone Pine's outstanding film history museum are shown a video about the region's movie history — and even that clip includes narration stating in error that the "Lone Ranger" opening was filmed in Lone Pine. The goof is a reminder that it's not as easy to get this stuff right as film historians often make it look.

Inside the museum: Bogart's 1937 Plymouth Coupe from "High Sierra" (1941)

An updated version of the clip is said to be in the works that will, among other things, correct the "Lone Ranger" info. Click here to learn more about the museum and about the movie history of the Lone Pine area.

Rabbit Dry Lake, 2019: The "Lone Ranger" background, labeled

I recently took part in an expedition to Lucerne Valley along with location researchers Don Kelsen and Cliff Roberts, and this trip erased any remaining doubts about the location of the "Lone Ranger" opening.

As you can see in the two shots above, with the peaks in the background labeled "A" through "I," everything matches between the "Lone Ranger" shot and my photo taken at Rabbit Dry Lake.

Above is a video of the early opening sequence. The discussion in this post is all about the first 20 seconds of the clip — the segment shot at Rabbit Dry Lake. Most of the rest of the clip is filmed on the Lower Iverson in 1949.

Rabbit Dry Lake in the "Lone Ranger" opening: Shot in 1954

As it turns out, this so-called "original" opening isn't original after all. When the first episode of "The Lone Ranger" premiered on ABC on Sept. 15, 1949, the Rabbit Dry Lake footage was still five years away from being shot.

"Message to Fort Apache": "Lone Ranger" episode premiered Sept. 23, 1954

We know that the segment was shot in 1954 because additional footage from the same shoot appears in episodes from early in season four of the TV series. This stagecoach shot turns up in the season's third episode.

The peaks identified here as "F" and "I" are the same ones designated with those letters in the shot up above from the opening sequence. From this angle, peaks "G" and "H" are hidden behind peak "I."

Peaks "F" and "I" can be seen again in this photo from the recent expedition. Also note peak "J" and the group of three rocks identified here as "K."

Even though the angle is not the same, all of the same features can be identified in the "Lone Ranger" shot. The location at Rabbit Dry Lake where this was filmed is near where the opening sequence was shot.

The same hills from virtually the same angle, as seen in a Google Street View

I didn't know yet about the stagecoach shot at the time I visited Rabbit Dry Lake, so I did not get a photo matching the shot. But the angle can be matched almost exactly using Google Maps.

Once again, peaks "F," "I" and "J" can be readily identified, along with "K," the group of three rocks.

"Lone Ranger" shooting site at Rabbit Dry Lake (2019)

Here's another recent shot of the area where both the stagecoach sequence and the opening sequence were shot.

The "Lone Ranger" stagecoach shot is taken here

The yellow rectangle shows the approximate framing for the shot of the stagecoach.

Here we see how the stagecoach shot and the opening sequence overlap. The background framed by the blue rectangle identifies the same opening shot seen above with the peaks labeled "A" through "I."

Comin' at you: Clayton Moore returns as the Lone Ranger in the season 4 premiere, "The Fugitive"

The backstory on the Rabbit Dry Lake shoot for "The Lone Ranger" remains the subject of speculation, but the way I see it is that it was linked to the return of Clayton Moore to the TV series.

John Hart: The "other" Lone Ranger

As hard-core "Lone Ranger" fans know, Clayton Moore sat out the third season of the show. Whether he was fired or was just holding out for more money has never been fully settled, but either way, Moore was replaced for all 52 episodes of season three by actor John Hart.

John Hart and Claire James in "Jack Armstrong" (Columbia, 1947)

Hart was a journeyman actor for the most part, but before he slipped into the Lone Ranger's saddle in 1952 he had appeared in a string of B-Westerns, and even played the title role in the serial "Jack Armstrong."

Jay Silverheels soldiers on as Tonto alongside John Hart's Lone Ranger in season three

But try as he might, Hart has never been widely embraced by "Lone Ranger" purists, and season three is almost universally considered to be the low point for the TV series.

Silverheels and Hart talk shop on one of the show's trademark hokey studio sets

And for good reason. Regardless of what one might think of Hart in the role of the Ranger, the show's production standards had been slipping for some time, and they bottomed out in season three.

Season 3: Tonto negotiates some cringeworthy fake rocks

If nothing else, whoever was in charge of making the fake rocks for the show during season three should have been fired — and they apparently were, before season four went into production.

Season 4: Slightly improved fake rocks

The producers wisely got rid of the laughably bad fake rocks seen during the third season, and when Clayton Moore returned for season four he was greeted by a world filled with moderately more realistic fake rocks.

Clayton Moore on the rocks in "Texas Draw," early in season 4

I'm not trying to suggest the season four rocks might fool anyone over the age of 7 into thinking they're real, but at least they weren't so horrible that viewers felt like they had to look away.

"Bonanza Town" (Charles Starrett, 1951): Pretty bad fake rocks

My philosophy on fake rocks has always been that the more effort they put into making them, the worse the rocks ended up looking. In this example from Columbia's "Bonanza Town," someone was clearly trying too hard.

"The Deputy" (TV Western, 1961): Worst fake rocks ever?

But I don't think I've ever seen any worse fake rocks than these — a regrettable moment from the Henry Fonda TV series "The Deputy." Still, the season three "Lone Ranger" fakes are almost as bad.

Season 4: The Lone Ranger gets his Yakima Canutt on at Rabbit Dry Lake

Back at Rabbit Dry Lake, the "Lone Ranger" producers used the shoot to help spruce up the overall look of the series. Here's a high-speed stage stunt worthy of John Ford's epic 1939 Western "Stagecoach."

Ford may have in fact inspired "The Lone Ranger" to come to the Lucerne Valley. Ford filmed the climactic Indian attack in "Stagecoach" on Lucerne Dry Lake, barely a stone's throw from Rabbit Dry Lake, at the end of 1938.

"Message to Fort Apache": Third episode of season four, premiered Sept. 23, 1954

The stage stunt in "Message to Fort Apache" gives us another chance to mark up the background hills. The eye tends to be drawn to the triangular section of rocky hill highlighted here.

The same rocky hillside in 2019

It's part of the same background we keep seeing — the hills along the northeastern edge of Rabbit Dry Lake. The angle is a little different between the two shots, so it's hard to match up individual rocks.

"Sky King" touches down at Rabbit Dry Lake in "Dead Man's Will" (premiered Feb. 22, 1958)

"The Lone Ranger" wasn't the only classic TV show to film at Rabbit Dry Lake. "Sky King" used the location from time to time in the mid-1950s, and I'm pretty sure the plane would actually land and take off from the dry lake bed.

Here's a photo from the recent expedition that matches the "Sky King" shot.

"Chimney Rock," one of Rabbit Dry Lake's most distinctive features, marks the location of the 1867 "Battle of Chimney Rock," said to be the last battle between Indians and settlers in California.

Rabbit Dry Lake remains an active filming location today, although these days it seems to be mainly used for car commercials. Check out the amazing 2019 Honda Civic spot above, shot entirely at Rabbit Dry Lake.

Here's a screen shot from one of the recent Honda Civic commercials filmed at Rabbit Dry Lake.

The shot includes not only Chimney Rock, but pretty much all of the landmarks seen in this post.

Keeping in mind that none of the angles are identical, this is more or less how three of the shots discussed above would be framed against the backdrop of the Honda Civic ad. The peak above the car appears in every shot.

Jeep also went to Rabbit Dry Lake — and other spectacular locations — for the above 2019 SUV spot, which is currently airing. The opening shot is Rabbit Dry Lake, but don't miss the spectacular Lone Pine shot at 19 seconds.

"Triple Justice" (1940): Rabbit Dry Lake

Filming on Rabbit Dry Lake goes back well before the TV era. Here's a shot from the George O'Brien Western "Triple Justice" filmed a short distance southeast of where "The Lone Ranger" and "Sky King" were shot.

The same location in 2015

Photographer and film historian Jerry Condit snapped this photo matching the background of the George O'Brien shot on a visit to Rabbit Dry Lake in 2015.

"Message to Fort Apache" ("The Lone Ranger"): More Lucerne Valley footage

There's still work to be done in and around Lucerne Valley, where plenty of filming history remains undiscovered. For example, we know "The Lone Ranger" filmed elsewhere in the area, including this stagecoach scene.

Background matches the hills south of Lucerne Valley

The hills in the distance provide a good starting point for narrowing down the location. I was able to find a match on Google Maps for the section of hills outlined here in yellow.

The same hills can be seen in an old Google Street View

This shot is taken in a remote area that hasn't been visited by the Google Street View cameras in years. But even this crude shot from 2008 is sufficient to recognize the same background hills.

"Smoked Trout Rock"

My favorite feature in the "Lone Ranger" shot is this rock, which I call "Smoked Trout Rock." If your family used to get the bony smoked trout from Ralphs, as we did when I was a kid, you probably know what I'm talking about.

On a preliminary exploration of the site, I was able to find the area where the stagecoach shot was taken — and where "Smoked Trout Rock" should still be found today.

The site can be identified by a couple of rocks sticking up at the top of a rocky hill — I've been calling them the "Devil Horns." But sadly, my main goal — to stare Smoked Trout Rock in its wary eye — remains unfulfilled.

The "Devil Horns," as they appear in "The Lone Ranger"

I'm sure Smoked Trout Rock didn't just "swim away." But accessing the site poses challenges that kept me from coming face to face with it — which means I'll be headed back out there soon for another try.

Shout-outs to Tom Hiatt, who helped jump-start the search for the "Lone Ranger" location; my co-pilot, research partner and navigator Cliff Roberts, who kept us on track on the long drive to Lucerne Valley and back; and Lone Pine historian Don Kelsen, whose insights are invaluable as we continue to untangle the threads running through Lone Pine, Lucerne Valley and other historic filming locations.

"Off the Beaten Path" is a series of posts that stray from the usual subject matter of this blog, which is the Iverson Movie Ranch. Past subjects have included Corriganville, Bell Ranch, Pioneertown, Franklin Canyon, Oak Park, Paramount Ranch, various parts of Chatsworth and other old filming locations. You can see all of the "Off the Beaten Path" posts by clicking on the term "Off the Beaten Path" in the long index of labels at the right of the page, or by clicking here.