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

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Sunday, September 20, 2020

On location with "Gunsmoke," Part 2:
The Janss Conejo Ranch in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

"Gunsmoke" episode "The Big Con" (1958): Dennis Weaver on the Janss Conejo Ranch

"Gunsmoke" began filming regularly in the Conejo Valley early in season three, and never left. The show continued to do much of its location filming in the region for the next 18 years, through its final season in 1974-75.

Janss Conejo's landmark bluffs in the "Gunsmoke" episode "The Prisoner" (May 19, 1962)

"Gunsmoke's" long stand in the Conejo Valley started in 1957 with a residency on the Janss Conejo Ranch, whose trademark rocky bluffs are a familiar sight to fans of many of the most popular TV Westerns of the '50s and '60s.

Historical photo of the bluffs and the Janss Conejo Western town (Thousand Oaks Library)

The bluffs could stand on their own, but they also made appearances as a backdrop to the Janss Western town, as in this image from noted Conejo Valley historian and photographer Ed Lawrence.

The Janss Conejo Ranch as "Hollywood" — not true, but not far from the truth

The Ed Lawrence photo has become one of the iconic images of the Janss Conejo Ranch — and has even been used by photoshoppers to present amusing, if misleading, spoof images of the ranch.

Just making sure we're all on the same page ...

It may seem silly to point this out, but humor me — people can get the wrong impression when they see "photographic evidence" of things that never happened.

"Spartacus," directed by Stanley Kubrick (1960): The Janss Conejo Ranch

But putting up the Hollywood sign at Janss Conejo would have made sense on some level. The ranch was a major filming location for several decades — especially in the '50s and '60s.

"Laramie" episode "No Place to Run" (1963), shot on the Janss Conejo Ranch

As Hollywood's focus migrated to the small screen in the 1950s, Janss Conejo became one of the top locations for TV Westerns, including "Gunsmoke," "Rawhide," "Laramie," "Wagon Train" and many others.

Matt Dillon plies his trade on one of Janss Conejo's many outdoor sets

While much of the filming location's identity is associated with its dramatic rock outcroppings, the Janss Conejo Ranch also offered a wide array of ranch sets and other movie buildings, which we will delve into below.

Thousand Oaks, showing location of Wildwood Regional Park (Bing Maps)

Much of the land that once made up the sprawling Janss Conejo Ranch has been preserved as Wildwood Regional Park, a popular hiking destination situated today in northwest Thousand Oaks, Calif.

"Bat Masterson" episode "A Grave Situation" (1960): Bat arrives below the rocky bluffs

The ranch's two main buttes have been known by various nicknames over the years — Saddleback Mountain, Stagecoach Bluffs and others. Today they're officially part of a formation known as Mountclef Ridge.

Janss Conejo's rocky ridgeline as part of Thousand Oaks' current landscape

The bluffs can still be seen from vantage points throughout Thousand Oaks. I took this shot earlier this year looking northwest along Avenida de los Arboles, approximating one of the most common movie angles.

The old movie road runs along roughly the same route as today's Avenida de los Arboles, and if you were to drive northwest to the point where Avenida ends, you'd come to the main parking area for Wildwood Park.

Wildwood Mesa: Janss Conejo's most famous movie backdrop

The ridge on the left, sometimes called Wildwood Mesa, is probably slightly more photogenic than its neighbor on the right, and in terms of movie history, it's Janss Conejo's defining feature.

Wildwood Mesa: The "Big West" in Hollywood's backyard

During the ranch's peak filming years, Wildwood Mesa's rocky ridge was called on regularly by the studios as a convenient, cost-effective alternative to more distant "Big West" locations such as Monument Valley.

The stage arrives at the Wagon Springs Relay Station below Wildwood Mesa

For this shot from the "Gunsmoke" episode "How to Kill a Woman," the "Wagon Springs Relay Station" was set up in a small adobe below Wildwood Mesa. The episode premiered Nov. 30, 1957, during season three.

Joel McCrea and George Chandler at the same adobe earlier in 1957 in "Gunsight Ridge"

The small adobe building that housed the relay station was already in place by the time "Gunsmoke" arrived at Janss Conejo. The building appeared earlier that same year in the Joel McCrea movie "Gunsight Ridge."

"Gunsmoke": The "Gunsight Ridge" adobe — with a "relay station" sign added

The use of the adobe by "Gunsmoke" was part of a pattern for the TV series early in its run at Janss Conejo. The show rarely built its own sets during this period, preferring to take over sets left behind by other productions.

"Gunsight Ridge": The beginnings of the Janss Western town

"Gunsight Ridge" contributed other structures, too. The small adobe and a nearby larger adobe complex, both apparently built for "Gunsight Ridge," provided the building blocks for what would evolve into a full Western town.

"The Run to Tumavaca" ("Laramie," Nov. 10, 1959): The "Gunsight Ridge" adobes, repurposed

Two years later these same adobes would resurface in "Laramie" as the Mexican village of Tumavaca.

Tumavaca in "Laramie": The future Janss Conejo Western town

Earlier versions of a town in the same location are said to have existed as far back as the '40s, and possibly even into the '30s. But these are rarely seen, and the town as we know it has its roots in these late 1950s adobes.

Adobe sets at Janss Conejo, circa 1957 (Thousand Oaks Library)

This historical photo dates back to roughly the same period as the "Gunsight Ridge" and "Gunsmoke" shoots. These early structures would later give way to more traditional Western movie town sets.

Matt and Chester arrive at the relay station in "How to Kill a Woman"

When Matt and Chester reach Wagon Springs in the "Gunsmoke" episode, it appears there's already been some unpleasantness — at least for that one guy with his arm in a sling.

Matt Dillon pumps up for another staredown with death in "How to Kill a Woman"

Sensing that he might soon have to engage in some gunplay, Dillon sizes up the competition — and presumably, also runs through his affirmations. ("Because you're the fastest, you've killed the most gunfighters, etc.")

Nearby, one of the other characters appears to be doing his affirmations too — unless he's just enjoying the unobstructed view of the landscape south of Wagon Springs.

The same view as it appears today

That landscape's main features remain largely intact today, but as you can see, the view is no longer unobstructed. A residential neighborhood has been built in the middle of it — a recurring theme in the Conejo Valley.

Dillon and the affirmations dude compare notes about vests

For a while it's unclear just who faces the task of throwing down against Dillon — but this guy gets out of it, apparently by distracting the marshal with his snazzy new vest.

Pernell Roberts at Janss Conejo: A gunfighter about to commit a sizable faux-pas

Then comes the big reveal, and womp-womp, it's soon-to-be "Bonanza" star Pernell Roberts — whose tough gunfighter character is about to learn one of "Gunsmoke's" cardinal rules: Squaring off against Matt Dillon might be a good career move in Hollywood, but it's a bad idea from a health standpoint.

Dillon gets down to business as Wildwood Mesa provides backup

When the moment of truth arrives, the nasty bit of business takes place against the backdrop of Wildwood Mesa — as if we couldn't have guessed.

Pernell Roberts goes into his well-rehearsed "pirouette of death"

And Pernell delivers the expected histrionics at his end — in the form of a delightfully cliche-riddled death spiral worthy of being emulated by adolescent boys in neighborhood "cowboys and Indians" skirmishes the world over.

"Joe Dakota" (Universal, 1957)

Wildwood Mesa surfaces in a lot of movies and TV shows, including plenty of Westerns. Here's a shot of it in the Jock Mahoney Western "Joe Dakota," which pulled up stakes at Janss Conejo just before "Gunsmoke" moved in.

"The Saga of Hemp Brown" (Universal, 1958)

When I first started seeing the bluff in movies and TV shows, I figured it must be somewhere like Arizona, Utah or New Mexico. It still surprises me sometimes when I find out another one of Hollywood's go-to Western landscapes is right here in the SoCal 'burbs.

Wildwood Mesa before the rain, as seen from Tarantula Hill (ca. 2017)

Two beautiful photos of Wildwood Mesa that I found online, both taken from Tarantula Hill to the south, showcase two of the many "moods" of the bluff — before and after the winter rains.

Wildwood Mesa, again from Tarantula Hill, after a rainy winter (ca. 2017)

This shot reveals the Mesa in its fleeting green vestments, the result of a particularly wet rainy season. While !'ve never hiked Tarantula Hill myself, I can't say I'd recommend it, for reasons that should be obvious.

Wildwood Mesa in its current role as part of Wildwood Regional Park

Today the rocky bluff is the cornerstone of one of the most popular hiking areas in Southern California. Meanwhile, the location's movie history appears to be fading from our collective memory.

Wildwood Regional Park with its "civilian" hikers (non-movie historians)

The folks wandering around Wildwood on any given day tend to be well dialed in to the natural beauty of the place, but I've chatted with hikers at the park and they're often surprised to hear about the movie stuff.

Taking another look at the shot of Chester from the top of this post, we see that the bluff we've been mostly talking about — Wildwood Mesa — is part of a larger formation, along with its neighbor to the east.

The overall formation is known today as Mountclef Ridge. I understand the "clef" part of the name stands for Cal Lutheran Educational Foundation, a reference to the university that now sits near the east end of the formation.

Mountclef Ridge in a recent photo

The ridge in its entirety is so wide that it's hard to get it all in one photo, but here's a recent shot that comes close, taken looking northwest from one of Wildwood's many hiking trails.

The three main components of Mountclef Ridge

For the purpose of studying the area I found it helpful to break down Mountclef Ridge into three main components, which I identify as M1, M2 and M3, for "Mountclef 1, 2 and 3." "M1" is just another name for Wildwood Mesa.

The full span of M3, looking north (Google Maps)

M3 is much wider than either M1 or M2, but because of its relatively uniform shape from one end to the other, it tends to defy efforts to subdivide it into smaller elements.

It can be a challenge to differentiate the chameleon-like M3 against the backdrop of other hills, so I've highlighted it here. I also recommend clicking on these photos to see larger versions.

Matt, Chester, Doc and Co. below M3 in "The Big Con" (May 3, 1958)

While it's not nearly as distinctive as either M1 or M2, M3 does have its own appeal — and the feature gets plenty of screen time in "Gunsmoke" and other productions.

M3 in the season seven "Gunsmoke" episode "Indian Ford" (premiered Dec. 2, 1961)

Given the sheer expanse of M3 and its position along the northern edge of one of Janss Conejo's busiest filming areas, it would have been all but impossible to film at the ranch without capturing at least a partial shot of M3.

"Durham Bull" (March 31, 1962): More M3 in "Gunsmoke"

Recognizing M3 in the background is a bit of an "acquired taste," but once you look closely at enough "Gunsmoke" episodes, you get to where you can't help but notice it.

One of Janss Conejo's many ranch sets, seen in the "Gunsmoke" episode "Cale"

M3 also tends to pop up in the background behind some of Janss Conejo's main ranch sets. This example comes from the episode "Cale," which premiered May 5, 1962.

The background feature can be a big help in determining the locations of sets. We'll take a deeper dive into some of Janss Conejo's "Gunsmoke" sets later in this post.

"Gunsmoke" episode "Stolen Horses": A small Indian village below the Lower Butte

Out beyond the eastern end of M3 and Mountclef Ridge lies a striking natural feature known as the Lower Butte. This rocky ridgeline appeared regularly not only in "Gunsmoke" but also in feature films and other TV Westerns.

"Flaming Star" (1960): Janss Conejo's Lower Butte

Here's a shot of the Lower Butte in the Elvis Presley movie "Flaming Star." The movie filmed much of its outdoor action on the Janss Conejo Ranch.

Bing aerial showing the major outcroppings of the former Janss Conejo Ranch

As this map shows, the Upper and Lower Buttes extend east beyond the main ridge. Much of the area is occupied today by houses, and Cal Lutheran University can be seen to the east of the buttes.

Zooming in for a closer look at the buttes, we can see that the Lower Butte Trail runs between the upper and lower ridges. The hiking trail, accessible from Wildwood Avenue, is what's left of an old movie road.

The Upper and Lower Buttes, looking north (Google satellite shot)

This 3D satellite view provides a better idea of what the Upper and Lower Buttes look like today. A little bit of the town of Moorpark, to the north, can be seen at the top of the frame.

"Gunsmoke" episode "Cale": A farm set below the Upper and Lower Buttes

Some of the best views of the features can be found in movies and TV shows — including "Gunsmoke." In the background of this shot we can see both the Upper Butte, on the left, and the Lower Butte, on the right.

Clint Eastwood works the prairie below the Lower Butte on "Rawhide"

In the "Rawhide" episode "Incident of the Running Man," which premiered May 5, 1961, Clint Eastwood and the other cowpunchers could be seen riding around below the Lower Butte.

Period-appropriate hairdo?

By the way, is that a haircut that a cowboy would have really had while out on a cattle drive in the 1800s?

"Spartacus" (1960): The famous "I'm Spartacus!" sequence, filmed on the Lower Butte

One of the most dynamic appearances by the Lower Butte is in the 1960 Stanley Kubrick epic "Spartacus," where parts of the famed "I'm Spartacus!" sequence were filmed in a wide gap in the formation.

The same location in 2020 — "Spartacus Draw" (Jerry Condit photo)

I don't know whether this location was previously known, but I found it earlier this year while I was in the midst of researching "Gunsmoke" locations. My pal Jerry Condit snapped this nice matching photo in June 2020.

I've taken to calling this gap in the ridgeline "Spartacus Draw" in honor of the Kubrick film. It's a useful feature to know about because it shows up in a lot of other productions too.

"Flaming Star": A familiar gap in the Lower Butte

Remember that shot we looked at a moment ago from "Flaming Star"? It's set right below Spartacus Draw.

"Gunsmoke" episode "Cale": Matt and Chester ride out below Spartacus Draw

As Matt and Chester head out from one of the Janss Conejo farm sets in "Cale," we can easily spot Spartacus Draw at top right. The feature can be found in many "Gunsmoke" episodes.

"Cale": A lone rider crosses the plain

In another shot from "Cale," we see a rider traversing open country, and once again, Spartacus Draw adds its distinctive accents to the scene.

"Gunsmoke" episode "Hard Virtue" (premiered May 6, 1961)

In this shot from the episode "Hard Virtue," we see Spartacus Draw in the background, along with part of a cabin in the foreground. This cabin is the centerpiece of a farm set that stood at Janss Conejo for some time.

"Hard Virtue": Front of the main cabin on the Potato Cellar Farm

I call this set the Potato Cellar Farm because one of its identifying features is its potato cellar, located a short distance from the main house. The set appears not only in multiple "Gunsmoke" episodes but also in feature films.

"Gunsmoke" episode "Nina's Revenge" (premiered Dec. 16, 1961)

In the episode "Nina's Revenge" we get a side view of the cabin spotlighting the structure's unusual shape. Look closely and you'll see Spartacus Draw in the background.

"Flaming Star": Pre-"Gunsmoke" appearance by the Potato Cellar Farm

Before the house was used for "Gunsmoke" it appeared in the movie "Flaming Star." It's likely that the house was built specifically for the Elvis movie, but its origin has not been pinpointed.

"Flaming Star": A heavily armed Elvis comes a-callin' at the Potato Cellar Farm

Here's a shot of Elvis standing on the front porch of the house with his six-shooter in one hand and a rifle in the other. Based on the background hills, the camera is facing south.

A while later Elvis has calmed down and we see him from the opposite angle — and at last we get a look at that potato cellar we've been hearing so much about. That's it behind Elvis' infamous hips.

"Gunsmoke" episode "Bad Seed" (Feb. 4, 1961)

If the set was built for "Flaming Star," "Gunsmoke" didn't waste any time swooping in on it. The Elvis movie was in production from August-October 1960, and by February 1961, about six weeks after the release of "Flaming Star," the Potato Cellar Farm was making its first of many appearances on the CBS Western.

A few highlights are worth pointing out in the "Bad Seed" screen shot. We again see the potato cellar, and get a sense of its distance from the house; and the house looks almost exactly the same as it did in "Flaming Star."

I also want to call attention to the unusual corral fence seen in "Flaming Star." As long as "Gunsmoke" was moving in on the set, the corral was fair game too.

"Stolen Horses" (April 8, 1961)

"Gunsmoke" ran pretty much the same shot, minus Elvis and the potato cellar but including the corral, in the episode "Stolen Horses," which premiered a couple of months after "Bad Seed."

"Stolen Horses": Looking west from the Potato Cellar Farm, with its familiar fence

Like the main house, the corral fence was virtually unchanged from "Flaming Star." Well, someone did see fit to prop up a wagon wheel against it. The view to the west includes a wide shot of Mountclef Ridge.

For old times' sake, here's another breakdown of M1, M2 and M3.

"Flaming Star": Hey you in the Vikings hat — you're in the shot!

Virtually the same shot can be found in "Flaming Star," but with a little less fence and a little more Wild West ambiance. It's beginning to look as though "Gunsmoke" drew a lot of inspiration from "Flaming Star."

"Hard Virtue": The stripped-down cabin front

When "Gunsmoke" realized it was time to start tweaking the look of the set, the first thing to go was the roof over the front porch. In "Hard Virtue" we see the new leaner, meaner cabin front, which brings out the faux brick facade.

"Nina's Revenge": A more evolved version of the house

But bigger changes were still to come — including a mildly amusing "That's so Hollywood" quickie cover-up where they slapped a fake wooden facade over the existing fake brick facade.

"Nina's Revenge": The "new look" Potato Cellar Farm

The show also added a barn, a windmill and a new corral, and presto-change-o: They had a whole new set — especially once the "Gunsmoke Traveling Chickens" went to work.

"Flaming Star" (1960): The town set at Janss Conejo

"Gunsmoke" also took its inspiration from "Flaming Star" when the show needed a Western town set, taking over the same town that was left behind when the Elvis movie wrapped.

"The Squaw" (Nov. 11, 1961): The TV show rides into the town set

The same buildings seen in "Flaming Star" were repurposed for the "Gunsmoke" episode "The Squaw," which premiered about a year after the release of the movie.

"Flaming Star": A wide view of the main town set looking southwest

This wider shot of the town as it appeared in "Flaming Star" includes similar background features to those in a shot we examined in connection with the Wagon Springs Relay Station. Both sets stood in the same area.

The townsite as it appears today

Today the site remains largely intact, and the background hills can be readily matched up. The location is immediately adjacent to Avenida de los Arboles, near the main entrance to Wildwood Regional Park.

"How to Kill a Woman": Just east of the Wagon Springs Relay Station

Although the angles vary, the "Flaming Star" shot connects with this "Gunsmoke" shot that we matched above, taken just east of the set for the Wagon Springs Relay Station.

The view today looking south from Avenida de los Arboles

The scale of the vistas at Janss Conejo can be breathtaking in person, especially when we're able to place them in the context of the site's rich filming history.

A wider view of the same area in modern times

An even wider vista can be seen from the same spot, again just standing next to the roadway on the south side of Avenida de los Arboles. The overall view is even wider than this, but this is all I could get into one photo.

Notice the section of the photo circled in red. This group of hills is positioned southwest of the mesa at Janss Conejo where the Western town previously stood.

The same hills can be seen in this shot of the town from "Flaming Star."

The same hills in the current landscape, southwest of the former townsite

Zooming in on that area in the current landscape, we can see how well the hills as they appear today still match the shot from "Flaming Star."

The view looking directly west from the same spot: Wildwood Mesa, or M1, on the right

And it doesn't end there. From the same vantage point along Avenida de los Arboles, moving the camera a little farther to the right, until it points due west, we reconnect with our old friend Wildwood Mesa.

The location of the former townsite in today's landscape (Bing aerial photo)

The town set, adobes and Wagon Springs Relay Station were located on a mesa adjacent to Avenida de los Arboles. The townsite outlined in red is also the approximate spot from which all of the above vistas were taken.

Bird's-eye view of the Janss Conejo town and ranch sets, 1967 (photo by Frank Knight)

This fascinating photo posted by the Thousand Oaks Library, taken by Frank Knight in 1967, offers further insights into the layout of the main set area at Janss Conejo as it existed during the filming days.

Location of the town set and mesa in 1967, looking east

Taken at a time when the ranch's filming operation was beginning to wind down, the photo shows the exact location of the town set, along with the mesa that survives today as a reference point for where the town was.

Closeup of the town as it appears in the 1967 photo

The photo, which is taken looking east, is detailed enough that we can zoom in for a pretty good overview of the town. The road running through the center of town would later evolve into Avenida de los Arboles.

Suburban sprawl closes in on the filming area

The 1967 photo also captures the advance of development, in the area outlined in blue. In doing so the shot documents one of the biggest reasons the era of filming on the ranch property was about to come to an end.

In addition to the town set, a number of ranch sets can be seen in the photo. These are just a few of the many movie sets that were sprinkled throughout the Janss Conejo Ranch.

Zooming in on one of the sets — the "Creekside Farm"

Here's a closer look at one of the ranch sets in the 1967 photo, which I call the "Creekside Farm." Of the three ranch sets noted in the photo above this one, this is the one nearest the townsite at the bottom of the photo.

Where the various sets were once located (Bing aerial photo)

Translating the information from the 1967 photo to the current landscape, I was able to pinpoint the locations where each of these three ranch sets once stood — and to identify all three of the sets individually.

"Gunsmoke" episode "Extradition, Part 1" (Dec. 7, 1963): Creekside Farm

Each of the sets has its own story. We talked about the Potato Cellar Farm above, and we'll get to the Rock House in a moment, but the Creekside Farm provided one of the biggest surprises of my Janss Conejo research.

Creekside Farm in the "Gunsmoke" episode "Miss Kitty" (Oct. 14, 1961)

The Creekside Farm appears repeatedly throughout several seasons of "Gunsmoke," and can also be seen in other productions. If you're thinking it has a familiar "feel" to it, there's a good reason.

"The Rifleman": The McCain Ranch, at Malibu Creek State Park

It's the same set that played the McCain Ranch throughout the five-season run of "The Rifleman." The buildings were moved, but if you look closely at them in the two photos above, you can see that they're the same set.

Creekside Farm — formerly the McCain Ranch — in the "Gunsmoke" episode "Old Fool" (Dec. 24, 1960)

The two locations, on the other hand, are completely different, with the original "Rifleman" set location at today's Malibu Creek State Park about 18 miles southeast of the ranch set's new location at Janss Conejo.

"Rifleman" episode "The High Country" (Dec. 18, 1961): The show continued to use footage of the
McCain Ranch at Malibu Creek State Park, even though the set moved to Janss two years earlier

Footage of the McCain Ranch shot at Malibu Creek State Park continued to appear throughout all five seasons of "The Rifleman," but after season one it was all recycled footage, shot before the set was moved.

"The Fourflusher" (May 3, 1960): Lucas and Mark on a soundstage replica of the McCain Ranch

"The Rifleman" blended the recycled shots of the original ranch at Malibu Creek with a replica of the set built on a soundstage — and only on rare occasions did the show revisit the original set following its move to Janss.

"Gunsmoke" episode "Cale": The former "Rifleman" set

This shot from the "Gunsmoke" episode "Cale," which also ran higher up in this post, again captures the Creekside Farm — in other words, the former McCain Ranch from "The Rifleman," following its move to Janss Conejo.

The distinctive "stepped" chimney is one of the trademarks of the set's main cabin — a bit of trivia that might help you spot the set in "The Rifleman," "Gunsmoke" and other productions.

"Gunsmoke" episode "Call Me Dodie" (Sept. 22, 1962): The Rock House as the Pleasant Valley Orphanage

Situated a short distance southeast of the Creekside Farm was an unusual two-story building. One of Janss Conejo's more upscale sets, it is known today as the Rock House.

The Rock House is transformed into a Cavalry camp in "Rawhide"

The Rock House became Camp Henley, a Cavalry outpost, in the "Rawhide" episode "Incident of the Running Man," which premiered May 5, 1961.

A wide shot of Camp Henley from the "Rawhide" episode shows some of the surrounding terrain — and reveals that the producers went to a fair amount of effort to set up tents and what-not for the camp sequences.

"Wuthering Heights" (1939): Another big stone house in the same neighborhood, 20 years earlier

One big myth looms over the Rock House among movie location fans who know "just enough to get it wrong," which is a lot of us. The myth is that it's the same building that was seen in the 1939 movie "Wuthering Heights."

The big stone house from "Wuthering Heights" (Gerald Olsen collection)

"Wuthering Heights" did film at Janss Conejo back in 1938, and the big stone house was built on the neighboring Olsen Ranch. But it was almost two miles and two decades removed from the Rock House that would later be seen in TV shows of the '50s and '60s, and the two houses are unrelated to each other.

Judi Meredith and John Doucette at the Rock House on "Bonanza"

The Janss Conejo Rock House made it into the age of color TV — barely — thanks to this appearance on the "Bonanza" episode "Knight Errant," which premiered Nov. 18, 1962.

Later in the 1960s, a decaying Rock House awaits demolition

Images of the Rock House as a deteriorating movie set were captured within a few years after its "Bonanza" appearance in historical photos posted by the Thousand Oaks Library.

If you look closely at the photo you can see the rooftops of houses — a sign that suburban development has already begun to encroach on the area. The land where the Rock House stood would soon be swept up in it.

"Gunsmoke" episode "Unwanted Deputy" (March 6, 1960): Two Bridges Farm

One of my favorite sets at Janss Conejo proved to be among the hardest to find. I call it "Two Bridges Farm" in honor of the two plank bridges over a small creekbed that provide access to the ranch set.

Two Bridges Farm's dual plank bridges

Like most of the sets at Janss Conejo, the Two Bridges Farm was filmed extensively, including numerous appearances in "Gunsmoke." It may have been Janss Conejo's most frequently filmed ranch set.

Marshal Dillon gets down to business on the Two Bridges Farm

This is the same set where we saw Matt Dillon pop out for a good old-fashioned shootout in a photo near the top of this post. The shot comes from the season six episode "Shooting Stopover," which premiered Oct. 8, 1960.

"Man of the West" (1958): Overlooking Two Bridges Farm from the south

Some of the best shots of this gorgeous ranch set can be found in the Gary Cooper movie "Man of the West," filmed in CinemaScope and presented in a wide aspect ratio.

Gary Cooper approaches the main ranch house on the Two Bridges Farm

As Cooper arrives at the ranch set we get a good look at the house, along with a partial view of one of the two plank bridges.

The Two Bridges Farm ranch house and barn, in "Man of the West"

Directed by Anthony Mann, "Man of the West" brought a solid cast to Janss Conejo, with Julie London, Lee J. Cobb, Royal Dano, Arthur O'Connell and Jack Lord among those joining Cooper at the location.

Peering out from the set, Cooper spots a rider on a nearby hill

This shot looking northwest from the Two Bridges Farm captures the set's two plank bridges and a number of nearby hills, with M1 visible in the distance.

I've noted M1 in the background along with the bridges, which aren't always easy to see.

"Man of the West": Overview of the Two Bridges Farm looking northwest

The ranch set's idyllic location is showcased in this shot from the movie, where we again see M1 and the rest of Mountclef Ridge in the background at top right.

Former Janss Conejo set locations in today's Thousand Oaks (Bing aerial photo)

I was eventually able to pinpoint the former location of the Two Bridges Farm, near what today is the corner of Columbia and Sidlee in Thousand Oaks. The set was situated almost two miles from the main filming area.

Low hill on the former Janss Conejo Ranch — 2020 Bing aerial

Another noteworthy feature is a hill that looks something like a fingerprint on the map, right in the middle of a busy filming area. The hill remains undeveloped today even after everything around it has been built out.

"Blood Money" (Sept. 28, 1957): Matt and Chester near the low hill

This hill is a common sight in "Gunsmoke," and even though its profile is less striking than some of Janss Conejo's signature features, it does have a trademark hump.

The hump is more than enough to make the hill readily identifiable, and it comes in handy if we're trying to pinpoint where certain scenes were shot.

"Dooley Surrenders" (March 8, 1958): There's that hump again 

In researching "Gunsmoke" I quickly realized I needed a name for this hill I kept seeing, and I started calling it the "Blue Whale."

An actual blue whale

I suppose this goes without saying, but the name "Blue Whale" is based on the hill's similarity in shape to the sea creature of the same name. As you may have already noticed, they have that hump in common.

"The Imposter" (May 13, 1961): a glimpse of the Creekside Farm, below the Blue Whale

The Blue Whale was located near several of the key Janss Conejo ranch sets, and can often be seen in the background of scenes featuring those sets.

"The Imposter": The Blue Whale lurks at top left

In another shot from the season six episode "The Imposter," featuring part of the main town set, we again find the Blue Whale in the background. The familiar hump can be seen all the way in the top left corner.

"Flaming Star" (1960): The Blue Whale works its way into the Elvis movie

The Blue Whale had its roles on the big screen too. Here it appears in all its glory in "Flaming Star" — and we also get another peek at the Potato Cellar Farm in the background, at right.

"Small Water" (Sept. 24, 1960): Blue Whale and its hump

It's usually the "business end" of the Blue Whale — the hump end, that is — that turns up in "Gunsmoke."

The Blue Whale in 2020 (Jerry Condit photo)

Today the main filming area adjacent to the Blue Whale has been filled up with houses, as seen in this photo taken earlier this year by film historian Jerry Condit.

The three largest movie location operations in the Greater Conejo Valley Region

The Janss Conejo Ranch was just one of three mega-filming operations in the Conejo Valley, along with the Agoura Ranch and the Albertson Ranch. "Gunsmoke" filmed at all three ranches during its 20 years on TV.

The Medea Creek Ranch in 1935 — part of the Agoura Ranch filming operation

To review some of our recent research on the Agoura Ranch — and in particular the Medea Creek section of the ranch — I encourage readers to click here to see the item we published back in May about Medea Creek.

"How to Kill a Woman" ("Gunsmoke," Nov. 30, 1957): Janss Conejo's Mountclef Ridge

We will continue our study of filming in the Conejo Valley region in the weeks and months ahead, and will continue to examine "Gunsmoke" along with the other TV shows and movies that filmed in the area.

Here's a clip of the famed "I'm Spartacus" sequence from the 1960 Kubrick film "Spartacus" featuring Spartacus Draw at Janss Conejo. The sequence is pieced together using a number of locations, but the wide shots showing the large group of slaves are filmed at Janss.

Thanks a ton, Aaron!

I want to give a special shout-out to my buddy Aaron St. John, a dedicated "Gunsmoke" fan who has been a huge help in tracking down details about the show's fascinating relationship with the Conejo Valley.


Unknown said...

Fantastic detective work, Dennis! So fantastic that you're able to piece this altogether for posterity and with a sense of humor! Keep up the great work!

Adamsgal said...

Such a fascinating site with so much information. Really appreciate your efforts in this, especially when it relates to Bonanza or Pernell Roberts. Thank you.


Fantastic Research! Always look forward to your posts....thank you

Wild Bill said...

This is outstanding, Dennis. The photos are fascinating. All in all, this is one of your best ever posts. Regards from your Blighty correspondent, Wild Bill.

Jeff wheat said...

Awesome Dennis. You do such fabulous research. I’m working out of town and it was such a great treat to read your new post. Thanks for all you do for the history of movie making at Iverson and surrounding areas.

The Big Valley said...

Simply Amazing! As stated above, this is definitely one of your best ever posts. So much wealth of detail, and the research that you have compiled is worthy of a book!

Anne Schroeder Author said...

Fascinating. I remember watching Gunsmoke being made from our vantage point on my grandfather Olsen's farm next door. I include more photos of the Norwegian Colony and the Conejo Borchards in my book, "Branches on the Conejo Revisited" if people want to know more. Out next week on Amazon and B&N.

Kenneth Skinner said...

Thank You !!
I've wanted to know where / what the "Twp Bridges" set was for years, and I had hopes you would find it ! Thanks again,

Ken Skinner

Unknown said...

Can anyone pinpoint the site of the Doniphon Ranch,
from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”
Thanks Rob

Swami Nano said...

Sure. The Doniphon Ranch is the same set identified in the post as the "Potato Cellar Farm," located on the former Janss Conejo Ranch in Thousand Oaks. You can pinpoint the location using the various maps included in the post.
Thanks for your comment, Rob!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification on Doniphon Ranch. I live nearby and trying to pinpoint it.

Do you think the brick facade house at Potato Cellar Farm used in Flaming Star is the same house used for Doniphon Ranch, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?


Swami Nano said...

I think so, but I'd have to scour some of my research materials to say for sure. It's been a long time since I saw "Liberty Valance."
The set was continuously being renovated, and I know it underwent some modifications for "Liberty Valance," but beyond that I would be hesitant to try to confirm anything off the top of my head.
If you'd like to email me we can get into it more there — it's easier to do back-and-forth stuff offline. (