I’m glad I was born in the heart of the west.
The west is in my soul.
I’m glad that I’m livin’ where life’s at its best,
The best old ranges roll.
Because I’m up with the lark at the break of each dawn,
I ride till the sun turns gold.
In the sky he always was and he always will because
The west is in my soul!
– Sons of the Pioneers, one of the founders of Pioneertown
There’s a certain intrigue to old Western movie sets. Not only do they recall an earlier era of television and filmmaking, they rekindle a time and place of yesteryear. Pioneertown, located in the Morongo Basin region of California’s Inland Empire Metropolitan area, is one such movie set, but with a particular twist – it wasn’t only for filming, it also housed cast and crew, in effect becoming a living movie set. Built in the 1940’s by A.E. Thompson with funding from Roy Rogers, Dick Curtis, and Russell Hayden, Pioneertown helped breathe life into a memory, and continues to do so today.
Dick Curtis discovered the location while on horseback and developed a concept for an all-inclusive filming location with Russell Hayden, Roy Rogers, and a few members of the Sons of the Pioneers. “Bet you didn’t know we darn near named the place ‘Rogersville’,” Hayden once said, “but after some spirited discussion we named it Pioneertown in honor of the Sons of the Pioneers. That way, no one man was getting top billing.”
By 1946, construction was in full swing, but Pioneertown was without any takers – no one was scheduled to film. As renowned television producer and man behind The Cisco Kid, Philip N. Krasne, remembered, “What’s now Mane Street was less than half completed. It was a ghost town really with only four or five permanent residents. There was a Chinese restaurant and the motel.”
In the mid 1940’s, Hollywood’s overhead costs skyrocketed, forcing movie and television producers to find alternatives to filming in traditional locations in the San Fernando Valley. Philip Krasne recalled being told of Pioneertown, “Somebody told me there’s a place you ought to go see where cowboys and cowboy singers are building a community of permanent residences that can be used as sets.”
The vision for Pioneertown was simple – combine living quarters with a movie set. This allowed producers to house crew and staff in a location perfectly suited for Westerns. Krasne helped Pioneertown get up off the ground by filming five Cisco Kid features at the secluded movie set.
In addition to The Cisco Kid, several well known Westerns and television shows were filmed at Pioneertown, including Edgar Buchanan’s Judge Roy Bean and Gene Autry’s The Gene Autry Show. The latter was frequently shot at the now-closed six-lane bowling alley, Pioneer Bowl, built by Rogers in 1949. A complete list of TV and film shot at Pioneertown can be found here.
One of the main attractions of Pioneertown is the Pioneertown Motel, originally called The Townhouse, which was built in 1947-48 by the original gang (Curtis, Rogers and Hayden). By the fall of 1949, Columbia Pictures put it to use as the exterior of a cavalry fort for its serial, Cody of the Pony Express starring Jock Mahoney and Dickie Moore. Thus the dual function of Pioneertown was realized – 1) design all buildings with an old west period look for use in TV and film, 2) use said buildings as housing for cast and crew. It was estimated that over $30,000 in production costs were saved with this arrangement.
Each of the motel’s 19 rooms has its own theme. Gene Autry used to invite friends for drinks and gambling in Room 9, appropriately dubbed “Club 9”. Former motel owner Carole Kester claimed that the ghost of Old Bill, a man who “never wanted to leave Pioneertown”, inhabits Room #13. Room #4 is the John Wayne Room, #4 the Rose Room, #20 the Antique Room, and #7 the home of former self-declared mayor of Pioneertown, Jack Schumann. This motel is operational. Visitors can stay for around $100/night.
Another hub of Pioneertown is Pappy + Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, “the rockinest place in the whole desert”. They’ve been serving mesquite barbeque, live music, and dancing since it opened in 1982. The exterior of Pappy + Harriet’s was used as a cantina for numerous TV shows and films in the 1950’s. Harriet’s mother, Francis Aleba, and her husband, John, bought it in 1972 and named it “The Cantina”, a biker burrito joint famous for its Mexican food and “infamous for its two-wheeled silver steeds”. The Cantina stayed in operation for 10 years. In 1982, Harriet and her husband, Claude “Pappy” Allen, renamed it Pappy + Harriet’s, converting it from a biker stop to a barbeque restaurant serving healthy portions of Tex Mex and live music. In 1994, after Pappy died, Harriet sold the bar to a family friend who gave it up after a few years. Two New Yorkers who loved Pappy + Harriet’s, Robyn Celia and Linda Krantz, bought it in 2003 and have been in business ever since.
An infrequently visited and under appreciated part of Pioneertown, Hayden Ranch is a recreation of Langtry, Texas on a 35 acre parcel south of town. As John Huff puts it, “[the view from Hayden Ranch] is a feeling of infiniteness… ideal as a primordial trackless vista from where the lone western hero will come riding into town.” In the mid 1950s, as Pioneertown grew, Russell Hayden sought a quiet space of his own to which he could personally invite filmmakers and producers. As one stands in Hayden Ranch, their eyes are inevitably drawn to the buttes of Chaparrosa Wash, all the way to the Bullion Range. It is a spectacular view.
Adorning the ranch is an authentic 1890’s railroad car, “The Scarlet Lady,” that Hayden purchased and had transported to the ranch in 1981. According to Huff, to the last days of his life, Hayden poured countless amounts of time and money into refurbishment.
Hayden wished for the ranch to become a museum, but was unfortunately thwarted by timing and bureaucratic difficulties.
Today, Pioneertown visitors can enjoy Hayden Ranch and bask in its purview of the endless desert. Perhaps a gunslinger will ride across the horizon.
Here are a few beautiful pictures of Pioneertown taken by Josh McNair of CaliforniaThroughMyLens.com:
If you plan to visit Pioneertown, we’ve included this map for your convenience.