I've spent much of the past couple of months studying the filming history of the Conejo Valley from the safety of my living room, and the research has produced more than its share of surprises.
The biggest surprise may be simply the volume of film production. As Hollywood expanded out beyond the San Fernando Valley by the mid-1930s, the Conejo Valley became a movie-making hot spot.
Whiteside Ranch, Hidden Valley, ca. 1920s (Thousand Oaks Library)
Settled largely by ranchers in the late 19th century, the region would eventually be transformed into a series of suburban communities including Agoura Hills, Oak Park, Westlake Village, Thousand Oaks and Newbury Park.
Technically, some of these communities fall outside of "Conejo Valley proper," but for the purposes of movie history it's useful to consider the region as a whole — what might be called the "Greater Conejo Valley" area.
The Conejo Valley runs east and west along the "Highway 101 corridor" starting at the western edge of the L.A. metro area, filling a gap between Calabasas, in the southwest corner of the San Fernando Valley, and the east end of the Ventura "mini-metro," which starts with the farm country of eastern Camarillo.
Westlake Village before development, ca. early 1960s (Ed Lawrence photo)
When development came a-callin' in Southern California, the Conejo Valley held out longer than some of its neighbors. Even as the nearby San Fernando Valley succumbed to suburban sprawl in the 1950s and 1960s, huge swaths of Conejo ranchland remained untouched.
Filming an episode of "Gunsmoke" on the Janss Conejo Ranch in 1960 (photo by Frank Knight)
As the demand for filming locations surged — especially in the 1950s, with the advent of television — Conejo Valley ranchers found that their land was well-suited for a lucrative new "crop" — movies and TV shows.
"The Hardy Boys: The Mystery of Ghost Ranch" (Disney, 1957): John Morrison Ranch
Almost overnight, any number of the region's ranches sprouted significant filming operations — Janss Conejo, Morrison Ranch, Russell Ranch, Lynn Ranch, French Ranch, Albertson Ranch and others.
"Bullets for Bandits" (Columbia, 1942): A distinctive large barn
The beauty of turning your ranch into a filming location was that you could still keep it as a ranch too. The ambiance of a rural ranch was often just what filmmakers were looking for — especially for Westerns.
"The Lone Ranger": signoff shot for the episode "Damsels in Distress" (premiered June 8, 1950)
And Westerns were big business in the Conejo Valley for a good four decades — Western movies from the '30s through the '50s, segueing to TV Westerns in the late '50s and '60s.
A number of the region's ranch buildings, including the barn seen in this photo and the two above it — they're all the same barn — began turning up in so many productions that the buildings became landmarks. Sadly, those landmarks are virtually all gone now — including the large barn.
But that doesn't keep us from searching for the spot where a famous movie building once stood. I began seeing the large barn in movies and TV shows almost from the time I began doing location research 12 years ago, and even though it captured my imagination right off the bat, it took me most of those 12 years to track it down.
"The Outlaw Stallion" (Columbia, 1954): The large barn, in Technicolor
As it turned out, other film historians were chasing the same mystery. I learned years later that Harry Medved, one of the top authorities on filming in the Oak Park-Westlake Village area, was also looking for the barn.
2016 flier and news report about the search for the "Mystery Ranch" (Ventura County Star)
Of course, Harry was searching for the entire ranch, which he and other researchers had taken to calling the "Mystery Ranch." I first got wind of their search at a presentation on Oak Park movie history back in 2016.
Mike Malone gets the word out about filming at Paramount Ranch
Harry had recruited another legend of the movie history community, Mike Malone, a longtime National Park Service Ranger and expert on filming at Paramount Ranch and Malibu Creek State Park, to help with the search.
"The Fighting Kentuckian" (1949): John Wayne and Oliver Hardy on Oak Park's "Mystery Ranch"
I'm lucky enough to count both Harry and Mike as friends and collaborators, and have benefited in my own research from their generosity and their expertise. After Harry and Mike spent years doing most of the legwork, they brought me aboard the "Mystery Ranch" mystery train just in time to help bring 'er in to the station.
"The Phantom Empire" (Gene Autry, 1935): A mystery begins
One key to the mystery was connecting the large barn to another heavily filmed Conejo Valley movie structure — a two-story house framed by large trees, which was a fixture in movies as far back as the silent era.
"The Red Pony" (1949): The two-story movie "house" reported in error to be in Agoura Hills
The house — which is believed to be a movie facade and not an actual house — has been widely reported by film historians to have been located near Chesebro Road in Agoura Hills — reports that we now know are false.
Chesebro Road exit off the 101 in Agoura Hills, Calif.
For years it was believed that the remains of this important filming location — including foundations and even one standing building — could be found on preserved public parkland along Chesebro Road, north of Highway 101.
I used to drive the 101 on a regular basis, and each time I blew past the Chesebro Road sign, I would start trying to pronounce the word "Chesebro" in my head. I settled on three main options: CHEESE-bro, CHEZZ-bro (where "chezz" rhymes with "fez") and the kind of Spanish-sounding chu-SEE-bro.
If you were to exit the 101 at Chesebro and head north, you could work your way to the site of the old John Morrison Ranch — but not before you encountered yet another facet of the "Chesebro enigma."
By the time you get the car parked you might start thinking you've crossed over into an alternate universe where nobody knows how to spell the word "Chesebro."
Google Maps tackles the Chesebro/Cheeseboro/Cheseboro area of Agoura Hills
Along with its multiple pronunciations — and I never did find out whether any of mine were right — Chesebro has at least three different spellings. Just ask Google.
If only actor George Chesebro, who played sheriffs and heavies in hundreds of B-Westerns, were still around, maybe he could sort it all out — pronunciation, spelling ... and how it all got so tangled up.
George Chesebro, left, with stuntman Eddie Parker on the Iverson Ranch ("Shadow Valley," 1947)
Chesebro was a regular on the Iverson Movie Ranch over the span of his 40-year career, but he was also the focus of persistent rumors that he owned a ranch on Chesebro Road in Agoura Hills. Some locals are convinced the road was named after his family — an assertion that tends to add fuel to the Chesebro controversy.
Blurb on the Chesebro situation from Susan M. Pascal's "Images of America: Agoura Hills"
Author Susan M. Pascal addressed the controversy — and introduced two additional alternative spellings — in her outstanding "Images of America" book on Agoura Hills. You'll find a link to her book at the end of this post.
While it might seem fanciful to go off on a tangent about place names with confusing spellings and multiple pronunciations, there's a serious reason for bringing it up in the context of movie location research.
The back of the John Morrison house (photos courtesy of Mike Malone)
The confusion over "Chesebro" is really just the tip of the iceberg — a symptom of a larger state of confusion about movie history in general, and in this case, about Conejo Valley movie history in particular.
The John Morrison house, with interpretive sign
Case in point: The former ranch house of Conejo Valley pioneer John Morrison. The building somehow escaped being flattened by developers' bulldozers when it became part of the park at Cheeseboro Canyon — and up until recently people could hike to the house. It even had its own interpretive sign.
The house burned down in 2018, but the sign survived
The house's circumstances soured, however, when it burned down in the Woolsey Fire in late 2018. The interpretive sign in front of the house survived the fire, as did the bathtub — and not much else.
The former John Morrison house and John Morrison tub
My pal Jerry Condit, a talented photographer and intrepid movie location explorer, visited the site soon after the fire, in early 2019, and documented the destruction — including snapping some cool shots of the bathtub.
John Morrison sat here ...
Jerry and I agreed that the bathtub belongs in a museum, but it's above both of our pay grades to make those kinds of important decisions.
Interpretive sign for what is now the John Morrison bathtub
The interpretive sign noticeably avoids saying anything about the site's history as a filming location, which was probably a smart decision by the parks people. You can click on the photo to enlarge it to read the text.
Any attempt to summarize the house's filming history could have easily gone wrong, considering that almost everything that has been reported about the location's movie bloodlines is incorrect.
The John Morrison house turns up in "The Rifleman" (premiered Sept. 30, 1958)
The John Morrison Ranch was not the major filming location that a lot of people think it was. The house did, however, make an appearance in the first two episodes of "The Rifleman," in 1958.
The John Morrison house as the ill-fated Dunlap Ranch in "The Rifleman"
The Morrison house appeared as the ranch where Lucas McCain and his son Mark, played by Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford, planned to settle down outside North Fork, New Mexico Territory — until the house was burned down by thugs in the show's second episode.
The new McCain Ranch set, located at today's Malibu Creek State Park
The father and son settled outside North Fork anyway, but in a new ranch set built at today's Malibu Creek State Park. "The Rifleman" did most of its filming at the site early on, but footage of the ranch continued to turn up throughout the popular show's five-season run.
The "Rifleman Ranch" area of Malibu Creek State Park, seen on Google Maps
Malibu Creek State Park was closed when I tried to go there recently, but I hear it has since reopened. Either way, the general location where the "Rifleman" set once stood can be pointed out using Google Maps.
The location is fairly well-known. You can find other Internet sites that attempt to pinpoint it, and if you were to go to the park — assuming it's open — I imagine the park staff could point you in the right direction.
The John Morrison house, sometime before the 2018 fire
Meanwhile, back at the John Morrison Ranch just off Chesebro Road in the Agoura Hills area, it's time to separate truth from fiction about the site's filming history — and there's quite a bit of fiction.
"Melinda Miles" episode of "Gunsmoke": An appearance by the John Morrison house
Besides its early "Rifleman" appearance, the John Morrison house did get filmed on occasion. One of the few examples I could find is the "Gunsmoke" episode "Melinda Miles," which premiered June 3, 1961.
With the recent reopening of the Cheeseboro Canyon park site following a shutdown of several weeks, I thought I'd go check on the status of the tree that stood near the house throughout at least a century of shared history.
The same tree, on a recent visit to the site
I was excited to find the tree still holding its ground — and retaining its shape from 60 years ago. Unfortunately, it was badly scorched in the Woolsey Fire, and the old oak's long-term outlook seems iffy at best.
A grand old oak — its glory days behind it
At any rate, much of the filming that has been attributed to the John Morrison Ranch and the Cheeseboro Canyon site has been misplaced, with the filming actually occurring about two miles northwest of there, in Oak Park.
The wrong location — the John Morrison Ranch — and the right location, two miles away
That's two miles as the crow flies, the distance between the burned-down John Morrison ranch house and another former ranch, which stood near the banks of Medea Creek — the "Mystery Ranch" of Oak Park movie legend.
"The Red Pony" (1949): The large barn is featured prominently
This "Mystery Ranch" in today's Oak Park, no longer a mystery, is where the large barn once stood.
"The Hills of Utah" (1951): The two-story house facade at Medea Creek
It's also where the two-story house facade was located — a facade that received a series of redesigns over the years for various productions.
The two-story facade in "Escape by Night" (Republic, 1937)
The house was configured as a Colonial-style mansion in the 1937 gangster caper "Escape by Night."
Even though the versions of the house seen in "Escape by Night" and "The Hills of Utah" look almost nothing like each other, by zeroing in on some of the details, you can begin to see the similarities.
"The Hills of Utah"
The area on the right side of the house was only minimally modified between the two movies.
"The Red Pony" (1949): Kid, red pony, massive tree ... and famous movie facade
Here's a color shot of the same set in "The Red Pony." This is closer to how the set usually looks — you'll notice that it's similar to "The Hills of Utah" as seen in the shot above this one, but it's still not exactly the same.
"The Outlaw Stallion" (Columbia, 1954): Similar but not identical
Five years later we see another color shot of the set, in "The Outlaw Stallion." The house color is about the same as in "The Red Pony," but now the facade has double porch supports, as it did in "The Hills of Utah."
"Tough Assignment" (1949): Donald "Red" Barry and Marjorie Steele at the facade
The set had a more bare-bones look in Lippert's "Tough Assignment."
"The Law of the Range" (1928): Early version of the house set (photo courtesy of Mike Malone)
This is the earliest appearance I know of by the two-story house set, all the way back in 1928. But the Medea Creek Ranch site's movie history goes back even further.
"Tumbleweeds" (William S. Hart, 1925)
The landmark William S. Hart Western "Tumbleweeds" also filmed at the Medea Creek site — before the two-story facade was built. If you look closely at the tree in this screen shot, it matches the shot above this one.
"The Durango Kid" (1940): Sons of the Pioneers at a Medea Creek Ranch bunkhouse
In addition to the two-story house facade and large barn, the ranch at Medea Creek included a number of lower-profile buildings also seen in the movies, including at least one main bunkhouse.
"The Outlaw Stallion": Some of the lesser-known ranch buildings
Among the other ranch features and movie sets at the site were several sheds, corrals, silos, coops and stables, along with a variety of small ranch houses.
"The Red Pony": A distinctive oak tree, located just north of the barn
But the most interesting features of the Medea Creek Ranch may be its trees — a few of which have survived. The tree seen here was located a short distance north of the large barn.
"The Outlaw Stallion": Another appearance by the distinctive tree
The same tree turns up again in this pensive promo still for "The Outlaw Stallion," featuring Philip Carey and Dorothy Patrick.
The same tree in 2020
Today the tree stands on a residential cul de sac in Oak Park, a short distance east of Medea Creek.
This shot from "The Red Pony" shows the positioning of the tree during the filming era, including its proximity to the north end of the large barn.
The shot features Robert Mitchum along with young actor Peter Miles. The camera angle is toward the east.
Another famous movie tree?
On the same cul de sac, just west of the previous tree, is another old oak that was once situated on the Medea Creek Ranch. When I first spotted this one I got my hopes up that it might be a famous movie tree.
"The Red Pony": The big oak always seen framing the two-story house
I was hoping it would turn out to be this one, which we commonly see draped over the left side of the big two-story house facade. But even though the two trees have a lot in common, they're not in exactly the same place — and with trees, that's a deal breaker. Sadly, it appears that this tree did not survive development.
"The Man From the Alamo" (1953): The Simi Ridge, northwest of the ranch
A number of landmarks can be seen in the hills surrounding the Medea Creek Ranch, and in many cases they help identify just where on the ranch — and where in Oak Park — various scenes were filmed.
The Simi Ridge in modern times, northwest of the Medea Creek residential area
The rocky ridgeline known to Conejo Valley residents as the Simi Ridge is often associated with filming in Lindero Canyon and the Westlake Village community of North Ranch — one canyon over from Medea Creek, to the west.
The Simi Ridge in May 2020
Recently the ridgeline has been a little greener than usual, following heavy spring rains. But the green never lasts long enough, and by the time I captured this shot it was already beginning its annual fade to brown.
Two prominent "Y"-shaped creek formations largely define the topography of the North Ranch-Oak Park area. Both Lindero Canyon to the west and the Medea Creek region to the east have sizable portfolios as filming locations.
The Simi Ridge and Lindero Canyon, west of Medea Creek, in "The Big Valley"
Lindero Canyon and the Simi Ridge, the rocky formation that seals off the canyon at its north end, have come up previously on this blog. I reported in 2014 on shoots in North Ranch and the Lindero area for "The Big Valley," "Gunsmoke" and other productions — you can click here to see that post.
A typical group of Oak Park foothills in today's landscape, looking northeast across Mae Boyar Park
But the Medea Creek area to the east of Lindero Canyon turns out to be a more significant filming site than even Lindero Canyon. With careful study, many of its rolling hills can be pinpointed as movie locations.
Oak Park's picturesque hills turn up again and again in movies filmed over a span of several decades. You may be able to match up the low foothills seen here with the recent shot above this one.
"Of Mice and Men" (1939): Looking south from the Medea Creek Ranch to Ladyface Mountain
Shots filmed on and around the Medea Creek Ranch with the cameras aimed toward the south often catch the landmark Ladyface Mountain among the background hills.
Ladyface Mountain, to the south of Oak Park and the Medea Creek filming area
The mountain remains a distinctive feature of the hills south of today's Oak Park.
The distinctive bumps along the ridgeline make Ladyface Mountain pretty easy to recognize.
Ladyface Mountain, south of the Medea Creek residential area
I've never quite figured out where the "lady" is hiding in Ladyface, but I imagine she's in there somewhere.
The south side of Ladyface towers over the Paramount Ranch Western town (pre-Woolsey Fire)
I do know that Ladyface Mountain is also a landmark from the other side, appearing in the backgrounds of many productions filmed at Paramount Ranch. The storied movie ranch is located on the south side of Ladyface in the Santa Monica Mountains, about three miles south of Oak Park.
Eagle Peak or Deerhill Peak, directly north of Oak Park and the Medea Creek area
To the north of the Medea Creek Ranch is another of Oak Park's defining geological features — a picturesque hill that rises above Deerhill Road.
The hill is known informally as Deerhill Peak or Eagle Peak — the latter in honor of the Eagles of nearby Oak Park High. A few people refer to the hill with affection as Kirk Douglas Peak, in recognition of its prominent cleft.
Kirk Douglas, the man who made Hollywood safe for cleft chins
Douglas, a three-time Oscar nominee, was known almost as much for his cleft chin as for his acclaimed film roles.
They're all Spartacus!
One of the most acclaimed performances for Kirk and his chin was the title role in Stanley Kubrick's 1960 historical epic "Spartacus," filmed in part in Thousand Oaks on what was then the Janss Conejo Ranch.
Kirk Douglas as Spartacus (1960)
The cleft was just one of Kirk's many nooks and crannies on display in the film.
Woody Strode and Kirk Douglas try to work things out in "Spartacus"
Despite what it might look like, this is NOT how Kirk Douglas got that cleft chin.
Michael Douglas gives his dad a kiss on the occasion of Kirk's 99th birthday
After "The Streets of San Francisco" became a hit TV show in the 1970s, Kirk Douglas became famous all over again for being the father of actor Michael Douglas, who starred alongside Karl Malden on the show.
The Hollywood icon died earlier this year at the ripe young age of 103, leaving behind a legacy that included roles in "Paths of Glory," "Lust for Life," "The Bad and the Beautiful" and many other classics.
"A Walk in the Sun" (1945): Kirk Douglas Peak, Eagle Peak or Deerhill Peak, on the left
His legacy also includes Oak Park's Kirk Douglas Peak — and just like its namesake, the hill turns up in its fair share of quality movies.
"The Red Pony": Looking north to Kirk Douglas Peak from the Medea Creek Ranch
Milestone's 1949 family pic "The Red Pony," starring Robert Mitchum, is one of the best showcases around for the Medea Creek Ranch — and of course Kirk Douglas Peak makes its presence felt.
"Out West With the Hardys" (1938): Kirk Douglas Peak to the north
Even in shots where the cleft is obscured, the peak can be helpful in identifying productions filmed in Oak Park. Here the hill oversees a bronc-busting session staged on the Medea Creek Ranch.
Kirk Douglas Peak looms over a neighborhood at the far northern end of Oak Park
In keeping with a pattern seen throughout much of the Conejo Valley region, suburban sprawl began closing in on Kirk Douglas Peak as far back as the 1960s.
Kirk Douglas Peak, as seen from the Medea Creek neighborhood
Today the peak lives in relative harmony with Oak Park suburbanites, providing a scenic backdrop to their slice of paradise while satisfying the wide-ranging interests of hikers, looky-loos and others who dare to venture outside.
Hills to the east of the Medea Creek Ranch (2020)
In almost any direction one might look from the former site of the Medea Creek Ranch, one can find backdrops today that match up with shots seen in the movies. This shot is taken looking toward the east.
Here are those same hills as they appeared in 1939 in Lewis Milestone's "Of Mice and Men." Taken on the Medea Creek Ranch, the shot includes part of the south face of the large barn.
A wider shot seen in "The Man From the Alamo" shows a little more of the same landscape from a slightly different angle in which the hill at the center flattens out a bit.
The hill, known as "Flat-Top" or "Flat-Top Hill" — although some longtime residents call it "Camelback" — can help pinpoint Oak Park filming locations, although it's easy to confuse it with other "flat-topped" formations in the area.
The same vista in 2020, with "Flat-Top" in the center of the photo
The angles aren't a perfect match — they rarely are — but they should be close enough to make it clear that we're looking at the same hills in the movie shots and the recent photos.
"A Walk in the Sun" (1945): More Flat-Top
Director Lewis Milestone again aimed the cameras at Flat-Top when he filmed his World War II movie "A Walk in the Sun." The bulk of the walking referenced in the movie's title took place in the Medea Creek area.
As we move south from Flat-Top — here we're looking more southeast — we see other hills that also match up with filming on the Medea Creek Ranch. In this shot Flat-Top is near the left edge of the frame.
"The Red Pony" (1949): looking southeast from the large barn
These hills have been captured on film many times, including in "The Red Pony," as seen here.
This hill is a big help in researching the location. Its patchwork markings make it instantly recognizable, whether it's in its winter/spring green or its summer "gold," and whether it's shot in color or in black and white.
"Of Mice and Men" (1939): the same hill to the southeast of the ranch
The patchwork hill stands out in the background of this screen shot from "Of Mice and Men."
Remember that "Lone Ranger" signoff shot we posted up above, showing part of the large barn near Medea Creek? Here it is again — and again we see the patchwork hill.
A fun fact about the Medea Creek Ranch is that it was once owned by two of the biggest stars of the radio era: the husband-and-wife team of Jim and Marian Jordan, who became famous as "Fibber McGee and Molly."
Wistful Vista — Oak Park's central open space area
The ranch became known as the Jordan Ranch when the couple owned it in the 1950s, and the Jordans' legacy lives on around Oak Park — especially in the expansive hilly area known as the Wistful Vista Open Space.
"Wistful Vista Mystery" game — merchandising from the "Fibber McGee and Molly" show
The name "Wistful Vista" is a playful reference to the old "Fibber McGee and Molly" radio show, where the couple lived at 79 Wistful Vista and made frequent references to their housing development, also named Wistful Vista.
And today's Wistful Vista, like just about everything else in Oak Park that rises above ground level, inevitably turns up in movies filmed on the Medea Creek Ranch — the Jordans' former ranch.
The same Wistful Vista ridgeline remains a part of today's residential landscape, as seen in this shot taken looking west from Conifer Street near Sabra Avenue.
"The Fighting Kentuckian": John Wayne defends Wistful Vista
An angular ridgeline that forms part of the northeast corner of Wistful Vista can been seen in the left half of the frame of this promo still for "The Fighting Kentuckian."
In a shot taken just in the past few weeks, the same angular ridgeline can be seen. The thick growth of trees in the foreground follows the bed of Medea Creek.
With the impressive filming history of the Medea Creek Ranch finally coming to light, it becomes clear that the Oak Park location was one of the most important production hubs in the Conejo Valley region.
Lindero Canyon: Final resting place of "Old Yeller" in the 1957 Disney tearjerker
Other sites in the region also boast exhaustive production resumes — notably nearby Lindero Canyon and Janss Conejo farther west, two filming locations we hope to explore in upcoming posts.
But it's exciting to be able to finally give Oak Park and the Medea Creek Ranch their long overdue spotlight — along with their proper place in Conejo Valley movie location history.
Oak Park: Sunset over Wistful Vista (Harry Medved photo)
Like the rest of the Conejo Valley region, Oak Park remains a beautiful place today — and its rich movie history just makes it that much more interesting.
Harry Medved has authored and co-authored a number of excellent books on movie history and the history of the Southern California region. I strongly recommend his "Hollywood Escapes," which details how to find a vast array of interesting movie locations.
Harry also played a major role in the fine collaborative effort "Images of America: Oak Park."
A head's-up about the Oak Park book: Be careful not to mix it up with a book with the exact same title that's all about the Detroit suburb of the same name. A link below will take you to the right book.
Here's a video about filming in Oak Park and North Ranch — the Westlake Village community centered around Lindero Canyon — from Marc Franklin of Franklin Creative Media, who worked with Harry Medved on the project.
Below are some links to Amazon, where you can buy Harry Medved's incredible book about exploring Southern California filming locations, "Hollywood Escapes," along with "Images of America: Oak Park" (the one about the California location) and Susan M. Pascal's "Images of America: Agoura Hills."