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

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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Are these the mythical "rusting carnival rides" I heard about as a teenager? And what's their connection to silent movies filmed at Chatsworth Lake?

When I was just out of high school and living in the West San Fernando Valley, one of my buddies relayed an exciting rumor that some old carnival rides were supposedly rusting in a canyon out past the end of Roscoe.

"The Swooper" — obscure vintage carnival ride

What could be better than finding a bunch of old carnival rides out in the middle of nowhere? I should point out that these photos represent our fantasy of what those rides might be — and are nothing like what we actually found.

"The Round-Up" — Remember this thing from the '60s?

In fact, what we actually found was nothing — not a single rusty carnival ride could be found within hiking distance of the end of Roscoe. But I'll fill in that part of the story momentarily.

While we're on the subject of rusty carnival ride-related memories from our youth, does anyone else remember the old trucks that used to come around with actual functioning carnival rides in the back of the truck?

I got to ride on one of these as a young boy when the truck showed up at a Saturday morning pancake breakfast in the parking lot of our neighborhood Ralphs. Remember when those pancake breakfasts used to be a thing?

I know the pancake breakfast tradition never died in some communities, and hopefully they'll be open for business again soon. I wouldn't say I'm jealous, exactly, but I'm feeling a little nostalgic right about now.

High button shoes

In my neck of the woods, it's fair to say the Saturday morning parking lot pancake breakfast went the way of high button shoes. And if you get that reference, there's a good chance you're even older than me.

One local celebrity who was known to eat pancakes was Chucko the Clown, who showed his face a time or two in our local Ralphs parking lot. Well, not his face, exactly, but he was there.

Chucko may have been more of a wildman than we realized. Know what I mean???

Chucko the Birthday Clown, aka Charles Runyon

But this was before clowns were recognized as evil, as they're widely perceived to be now. This isn't Chucko's mug shot, as far as I know, but if he had one it would probably look like this.

The first time I went to visit my friend Brian, who lived in Woodland Hills, I was surprised to see Chucko's Circus Wagon parked near Brian's house. It turns out Chucko lived on the same street.

The Wienermobile in its "space age" phase, circa late 1950s

Speaking of wild times, the Wienermobile used to drop by the Ralphs parking lot too. Not the bright, shiny one they have out now, but the old retro one, which, like most things that are old, was way better.

The 1969 Wienermobile — one of the "wieneriest" years

I remember when it used to be commonplace to see the Wienermobile driving down the freeway, which almost never happens anymore. I wouldn't say I miss it particularly, but it's one of those "things that make me go hmmm."

Lasso phenom Montie Montana (Jerry England collection)

Back in the day the fun would sometimes continue even after we went to school. Famous cowboy Montie Montana — another Valley resident, like me and Chucko — came to Beachy Elementary one time and did rope tricks.

"Die Fledermaus": My TWO worst field trips

The Montie Montana visit almost made up for the two times I had to take fields trip to the opera, and saw "Die Fledermaus" BOTH TIMES. I've always wondered whose horrible idea that was.

Here's a little sample. Look, I'm grown up now, and can appreciate the opera ON SOME LEVEL. But in the fourth grade, not so much. I think this was what eventually drove me to rock 'n' roll. But I digress ...

Tilt-a-Whirl model — pre-rusted!

The old carnival ride trucks came in a number of variations, featuring Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, Tilt-a-Whirls and other rides. The one I remember best just had clunky old cars rumbling around on a small oval track.

Welcome to your childhood dreams come true ...

The car ride seems to be the hardest to find. I couldn't even find any photos of it — but I can vouch for it from personal experience: Not only did it exist, but it was a blast to ride, at least for an 8-year-old.

Ferris wheel model — in baby blue!

The trucks also came in blue. This one's the so-called Ferris wheel model, which carted around what had to be the world's smallest Ferris wheel — just four cages, but yeah, I suppose technically it's still a Ferris wheel.

Ferris wheel model in the more traditional red

I got so obsessed with the old carnival ride trucks a while back that I was trying to buy one, which was a really dumb idea. Fortunately, I couldn't find the clunky car ride version, and I dropped the plan.

Once upon a time, the trucks were a big enough deal that people were running ads to encourage entrepreneurs to get started in the carnival ride truck business.

Even back then, someone got the idea to use a woman in a skimpy outfit to bring attention to the ride.

Anyhoo ... let's get back to the end of Roscoe and the quest to find rusty carnival rides in the field. In those days, the "end of Roscoe" represented the frontier to us — the closest thing we had to an unexplored "Wild West."

Roscoe Boulevard ended at Valley Circle, and anything west of that was pure adventure. We had never heard of Dayton Canyon, which I learned only years later is the "official" name for the canyon west of Roscoe.

We never did find any carnival rides, but we spent a fun day looking for them, then it was on to the next adventure. I didn't think much about the rides again for the next 50 years or so, but I always just figured they weren't there.

Dayton Canyon in 2020: Bring on the cookie-cutter houses

Fast-forward a half-century and now they're developing the holy bejeezus out of Dayton Canyon. The bad news is they're turning another natural area into Lego-Land, but there's some good news too.

Today's Dayton Canyon: Two new roads extend west

With new housing comes better roads, and these days you can just drive out to places it once took all day to hike to. If you had a mind to, in 2020 you could search for old rusty carnival rides just by driving around.

Blended in, sort of, with the new residential units, new roads and new concrete stuff is an old farm. When I was out there the bleating of sheep could be heard along with the noise of construction workers hammering and yelling.

The old farm in Dayton Canyon

The farmer, who appears to be dug in for now, got a new road out of the deal. Whether it will make up for having hundreds of new neighbors seems unlikely, but maybe the developers tossed him a few other perks too.

Two items of interest on the farm property

Here's the kicker: The farmer has at least two items on his property that are pertinent to our story. Both of them are super-old rusting heaps — and I'm not exactly sure what they are.

One of them looks like it's probably an old step van, or something in that ballpark. No, it's not a carnival ride, but it's fairly unusual, and there's no denying that it's rusty.

It's not hard to imagine that it may well have already been sitting there 50 years ago — and, who knows, maybe it helped jump-start the rumor about the carnival rides.

This is the other rusty object. I don't know what it is, but the rig appears to include a track or truck chassis. I have to admit, I can't rule out carnival ride on this one.

I don't think either rusted hulk is a candidate for a restoration — they're more like yard art after all this time.

The "step van" may be the more "primo barn find" of the two pieces — at least as yard art goes. But are they connected to the rumors from 50 years ago? Who knows! It just strikes me that it may not be pure coincidence.

Adjacent to Dayton Canyon to the northeast is a community that even most people who live in the San Fernando Valley have never heard of, called Lakeside Park, out at the far western end of Chatsworth.

The Lakeside Park Carousel in Port Dalhousie, Ontario, Canada

As it turns out, there's a famous carousel by the same name — the Lakeside Park Carousel. It's even on Wikipedia, so you know it's a big deal. But in this case, it IS just a coincidence. 

Canada's Lakeside Park Carousel

The Lakeside Park Carousel is in Canada and has nothing to do with Chatsworth's Lakeside Park. Even so, imagine finding this thing out rusting in an old farm field. That'd be something.

Lakeside Park looking west from the Chatsworth Nature Preserve (Google Maps)

Meanwhile, Chatsworth's Lakeside Park, situated at the west end of the former Chatsworth Reservoir, rises uphill as it extends west from Valley Circle Boulevard.

Promo still for the William S. Hart movie "Three Word Brand," 1921 (Jerry England collection)

Sometimes you can catch a little bit of what would later become Lakeside Park in the background of old silent movies filmed at the Chatsworth Reservoir. The best example I've seen is this promo still for "Three Word Brand."

The promo photo is shot on property surrounding what was then the Chatsworth Reservoir. The camera looks toward the west, capturing some of the hills above Lakeside Park.

The same hills are easy to recognize in contemporary shots of Lakeside Park and the hills to the west.

The "Three Word Brand" shot also captures the familiar Chatsworth formation known as "the Kestrel," which I've blogged about before. You can read more about the Kestrel by clicking here.

Another feature that can be seen in the 1921 promo still is the group of rocks noted here.

Zooming in on the top left corner of the "Three Word Brand" photo, we get a better look at those rocks in the distance.

The same rocks, photographed on a recent visit to Lakeside Park

These rocks today are a part of the landscape of Lakeside Park.

Perched on a small hilltop overlooking western Chatsworth, the rocks' closest neighbors are the homes that have been built high up in Lakeside Park.

"The Toll Gate" (1920): A cabin by the lake

Many other movies also shot at the Chatsworth Reservoir during the silent era — especially in the early 1920s. Another William S. Hart Western, "The Toll Gate," featured a cabin near the northeast shore of the Peninsula.

The same ridge above Chatsworth Lake Manor (Google Maps, 2020)

The "Toll Gate" shot of the cabin is taken looking toward the north, and it's easy to match it up with the hills above Chatsworth Lake Manor — even though the two shots are taken 100 years apart.

The rocks noted here are located high up on Thompson Avenue, above Lake Manor. The white rectangular object inside the yellow outline is a water tank.

The same rocks can be spotted in the shot from "The Toll Gate" — well before the water tank was put in.

"The Squaw Man" (1914): Alpine hikers on those same rocks?

I believe these are the same rocks where a group of hikers ran into trouble in the "Alpine sequence" from Cecil B. DeMille's "The Squaw Man," Hollywood's first feature film.

The "Alpine sequence" from "The Squaw Man"

I reported on the discovery of the Lake Manor shooting location for the "Alpine sequence" back in August 2019. Please click here to see an analysis of that historic movie shoot.

"The Toll Gate": Chatsworth's Twelve Apostles

A wider shot of the cabin in "The Toll Gate" reveals a Chatsworth landmark north of the reservoir: a distinctive line of sandstone boulders above Lake Manor, known to locals as the Twelve Apostles.

Only the eastern portion of the "12 Apostles" formation is visible in the shot — maybe 10 Apostles' worth. But the overall formation is really more than 12 Apostles wide.

It's hard to settle on an exact number of "Apostles" who make up the sandstone formation — or exactly where the landmark begins and ends. But it wouldn't cut it to call the thing "the 20 or so Apostles."

Another shot from "The Toll Gate," taken a short distance west of the cabin location, shows a section of the Peninsula, which jutted out across the western half of the reservoir.

A clump of rocks appearing in the shot, situated at the base of the Peninsula, helps pinpoint the shooting location.

The same clump of rocks can still be identified, clinging to the east side of the Peninsula near what was once the waterline.

A wider shot of the modern landscape puts the shoot in perspective. The rocks are again highlighted here inside a light-blue oval. The "lake" has been empty since the water was drained following the 1971 Sylmar Earthquake.

Today the Peninsula extends out onto a dry lakebed. This shot is taken looking northwest.

The main filming area for "The Toll Gate" appears to have been east of the Peninsula, along what at the time was the southern shore of the lake.

The Peninsula largely defines the western half of the former reservoir. After years of efforts by local activists, the property, including the Peninsula and the dry lakebed, was designated a nature preserve in 1994.

The landscape has changed a number of times in the 100 years since "The Toll Gate" was filmed, including when the two main dams were rebuilt in the early 1930s to increase the size of the reservoir.

"The Man Behind the Gun" (1953): Chatsworth Reservoir in the background

Back when the lake was still a lake, it appeared numerous times in the backgrounds of movies filmed in the hills above Chatsworth.

The Peninsula added a nice accent to the scenic body of water, and made it immediately recognizable.

Promo still for "Tess of the Storm Country" (1922): Mary Pickford at Chatsworth Lake

But the heyday for filming on the property surrounding the Chatsworth Reservoir was the early 1920s. Even Mary Pickford, who was famous at the time as "America's Sweetheart," showed up to prance around beside the lake.

"Tess of the Storm Country": Fishing village on the south shore of Chatsworth Lake

The bulk of the action in Pickford's "Tess of the Storm Country" takes place in what has been described as a "timeworn" fishing village. An elaborate set was built along the shore of Chatsworth Lake to portray the village.

Great attention was paid to detail in the construction of the fishing village. If a similar set were to be created today, it might be done using computer graphics.

A number of the reservoir property's stunning oak trees, many of which were already quite old when production took place almost a century ago, were incorporated into the village set.

"Tess of the Storm Country": The fishing boats go out onto Chatsworth Lake

Atmospheric shots of the lake and fishing village are featured, some of which employ the color tints that were in vogue in the early silent film era.

An oak tree emerges from the recently filled lake

We occasionally catch a glimpse of a large oak tree growing right out of the water. When the reservoir was filled, a process that was completed in 1919, they apparently just left some of the trees there to fend for themselves.

Within a few years, any trees whose roots had been submerged would presumably be dead.

Translating the delicate expression "timeworn" into real-world terms, the people in the fishing village live in what modern folk would consider extreme poverty.

Up above the village, atop a small hill, looms an imposing mansion. I have to assume that the mansion and other features toward the top of the frame were added through the use of a matte painting.

"Tess of the Storm Country": The view from the mansion

Much of the plot of "Tess" concerns relations between the "hill-toppers," who live in or near the mansion, and the residents of the fishing village below, whom the hill-toppers regard as a blight on their otherwise gorgeous view.

A title card that appears early in the film, part of a discussion among members of the Graves family who live in the mansion, sums up the hill-toppers' position.

That marvelous view from the mansion includes a feature that may be familiar by now: the Peninsula, stretching across Chatsworth Lake. The shot depicts the feature's eastern profile.

The Peninsula from the same side, as it appears today

It takes some doing to capture the Peninsula from the same angle in today's world, but I did manage to come pretty close by driving around what today is a suburban neighborhood just east of the dry lakebed.

The yellow rectangle highlights the approximate section of the Peninsula that's visible in the shot from "Tess of the Storm Country" showing the view from the mansion.

Mary Pickford, as Tess, peers out the window of her house in the fishing village

Mary Pickford stars as Tess. Even back in 1922 she was reprising a role she had already played in the movies, in a 1914 version of "Tess of the Storm Country."

For the 1922 remake, Tess's ramshackle house in the village was built on a pier extending out over the reservoir.

One of the character's favorite hiding places is in a rowboat moored under the house.

A short distance offshore, near Tess's house, are a couple more of those submerged trees.

Full circle: A lone oak marks the return of the trees

As if in an act of defiance, the oak trees may be mounting a comeback. A half-century after the lake was drained, we can now find a few lone soldiers taking on the challenge of repopulating the dry lakebed.

"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, Thousand Oaks, San Fernando, Bell Ranch, Pioneertown, Franklin Canyon, Oak Park, Paramount Ranch, Rabbit Dry Lake in Lucerne Valley, 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.