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

For an introduction to this blog and to the obsession a growing number of vintage film and TV fans have with the Iverson Movie Ranch — the most widely filmed outdoor location in movie and TV history — please read the site's introductory post, found here.
• Your feedback is appreciated — please leave comments on any of the posts.
• To find specific rock features or look up movie titles, TV shows, actors and production people, see the "LABELS" section — the long alphabetical listing on the right side of the page, below.
• To join the MAILING LIST, send me an email at iversonmovieranch@gmail.com and let me know you'd like to sign up.
• I've also begun a YouTube channel for Iverson Movie Ranch clips and other movie location videos, which you can get to by clicking here.
• 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).
• To go right to the great Iverson cinematographers, click here.
• Readers can email the webmaster at iversonmovieranch@gmail.com.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A century-old photo of Lillian Gish reveals secrets to Chatsworth's past (Off the Beaten Path)

Promo still of Lillian Gish and unknown actor, circa 1915-1917 (Bison Archives)

A mysterious promotional photo from early in Hollywood's silent movie era has had film historians stumped for a while, but just in the past few weeks some of the photo's biggest mysteries have been solved.

The photo, which features Lillian Gish with an actor who has yet to be identified, dates from circa 1915-1917 and is thought to be associated with the Triangle Film Corp. — the D.W. Griffith-Thomas Ince-Mack Sennett partnership.

My hunch is that the actor in the shot is Wilfred Lucas, which would suggest the photo was taken for the 1917 feature "Souls Triumphant." At this point it's only a theory, and I would love to hear what readers think.

As soon as I received the photo I began trying to determine where it was taken. I concentrated initially on the bluffs in the background, which I thought almost "had to be" somewhere in the hills west of Chatsworth, Calif.

Zoomed-in shot of the background bluffs

This is what I was looking for, and it only took a couple of expeditions to the "edge of civilization" — along the perimeter of Chatsworth at the far west end of the San Fernando Valley — before it turned up.

The same bluffs as they appear today

The sandstone outcroppings were located on the side of an east-facing slope a short distance southwest of the Iverson Movie Ranch.

The key to identifying the rocks was this "face," which appears when the outcroppings are captured in the right light. To me it bears a strong resemblance to an Egyptian mummy.

The same "mummy-faced" rock can be seen in the background of the Lillian Gish photo.

The "Bat Signal," west of Chatsworth

The formation with the mummy-like rock is part of a section of the Santa Susana Mountains I call the "Bat Signal."

In this recent shot of the Bat Signal, the "mummy-faced" rock appears at the right of the frame.

The real Bat Signal

The name "Bat Signal" comes from the formation's similarity to the actual Bat Signal from the "Batman" TV show — not that "actual" or "real" are the right words to use when describing the Bat Signal.

As usual with rock names, it's not a perfect fit. But the wide "wings" combined with the small peak in the center evoke the Bat Signal for me, and that's what I've been calling it for years.

The Bat Signal in 1949

The Bat Signal is visible across a wide swath of the northern San Fernando Valley. Here's a shot of it that someone posted online that was taken following a rare San Fernando Valley snowstorm on Jan. 11, 1949.

The photo is taken looking west along Plummer Street in Chatsworth. In my experience, once you see the Bat Signal, it's impossible to "unsee" it. I apologize to those of you who might find this unsettling.

Promo still for "Three Word Brand," 1921 (Jerry England collection)

The Bat Signal can occasionally be spotted in productions. Here's a promo shot for the silent William S. Hart Western "Three Word Brand," taken at the Chatsworth Reservoir, in which the Bat Signal can be seen at the right.

The formation looks less "bat-like" from this angle, shot from farther south than the Lillian Gish promo still. But the profile of the formation remains recognizable.

"Bat Masterson" episode "Garrison Finish" (premiered Dec. 10, 1959)

In this screen shot from, appropriately, the TV show "Bat Masterson," a partial version of the Bat Signal appears at top left, helping to pinpoint the filming location as the Marwyck Ranch in Northridge.

Marwyck was a thoroughbred farm founded by Barbara Stanwyck and Zeppo Marx, who owned neighboring ranches near Devonshire and Reseda. Stanwyck's home remains intact and is now known as the Oakridge Estate.

Extending north from the Bat Signal are the same Santa Susana Mountains frequently seen in the backgrounds of productions filmed on the Iverson Ranch, although the unusual angle here makes them harder to recognize.

The Oakridge Estate — former home of Barbara Stanwyck

The Friends of Oakridge have been working for years to help preserve Stanwyck's Northridge home. I recommend a visit to the website (click here) to learn more about the estate and its preservation.

Google aerial photo of northwest Chatsworth, including the Bat Signal

It can be challenging to translate hill profiles to an aerial map, but here's a rough diagram. The tops of the Bat Signal formation rise above Lilac Lane and Mesa Drive, east of Box Canyon Road.

You can barely see it here, but this is where Mummy Face can be found. Along with the bulk of the Bat Signal, Mummy Face sits on land that today is part of the Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park.

Here's a zoomed-in version, just to give you an idea of what Mummy Face looks like in the aerial photo. I'm tempted to call it Max Headroom from this angle, but I will resist that temptation.

Other important features in the area include the Oakwood Memorial Park and the former Iverson Movie Ranch.

Once I determined the general location where the Lillian Gish photo was shot, I set my sights on finding the clump of rocks that stood behind Gish during the shoot.

"Search area" for the Lillian Gish rocks

With all the development that has taken place in the area since the 1910s, I felt it was likely that the rocks did not survive. And even if they had, there was still the pesky problem of finding them.

Ground Zero for the search

Thanks to getting a pretty good matching angle on the "Mummy Face" rock in the background, I was able to establish that Ground Zero for the search was somewhere near the Lassen-Andora intersection.

It's an interesting section of Chatsworth — not only a point where four roads meet, but also a frontier between the developed areas to the south, east and north and the undeveloped parkland to the west.

A number of landmarks can be found near this key intersection — including the Andora trailhead into the park, which is right where Roy Rogers and Dale Evans used to have their driveway.

Survivors: the same rocks seen in the Lillian Gish photo

Now we can add another landmark to the list: The Lillian Gish Rocks. They survived development, and can be found along the west side of Baden Avenue, just below Lassen and the cemetery entrance.

The rocks seen behind Lillian Gish are part of a larger cluster of rocks, most of which do not appear in the old promo shot. As you can see, today the rocks are behind a chain-link fence.

While the rocks are on Baden Avenue, they're in the backyard of a house on Andora. The location of the rocks turned out to be pretty much at Ground Zero.

Once I found the Lillian Gish rocks I got a little cocky, setting my sights on the seemingly unrealistic goal of finding other features hidden deep within the promo shot.

Zoomed-in shot of the background features

Specifically, I wondered whether the old house seen in the circa 1915 photo might, by some miracle, still be standing. And assuming the house was long gone, I could still search for that interesting clump of rocks.

Undated photo of the Miranda Adobe in modern times

To my amazement, I found out the house is in fact still standing. Known today as the Miranda Adobe, the building was once the home of Francisco Miranda, an early Chatsworth homesteader.

A map of the old homesteads in the area shows that Miranda owned much of the property that became the Oakwood Memorial Park, along with a strip of land to the west that is now public parkland.

When the Oakwood Memorial Park was established at the west end of Lassen back in 1920, Miranda's former home became a part of the cemetery.

The Miranda Adobe in 2017 — as Joan's Flowers

In recent years, the Miranda Adobe, now located behind the Oakwood offices and chapel, became a flower shop.

The building has been renovated and reinforced, but still retains much of its original appearance.

Out behind the flower shop, Mummy Face continues to overlook the setting.

The Miranda Adobe, circa 1915-1917, as seen in the Lillian Gish photo

Photos of the Miranda Adobe as far back as the 1910s are extremely rare — possibly even nonexistent, until now. The Lillian Gish photo provides an important view of the building in its early setting.

But what about that great clump of rocks out behind the house?

The rocks out behind the Miranda Adobe

Sure enough, the rocks have survived too. They can still be found on a rise just north of the house.

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 Franklin Canyon, Bell Ranch, Pioneertown, Corriganville, Oak Park and other old filming locations. You can go directly to the Off the Beaten Path posts by looking up the term "Off the Beaten Path" in the long index of labels at the right of the page, or by clicking here.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Happy campers? Oh, the celebration when Adolph Zukor paid a visit to the Iverson Movie Ranch 100 years ago

Left to right at the table: Adolph Zukor, his son Eugene Zukor, Kenneth McGaffey,
Lambert Hillyer, E. H. Allen, Mrs. Smith (Vola Vale's mom), Vola Vale, William S. Hart

Here's a jubilant bunch, "celebrating" a visit from the boss during a break from filming the William S. Hart Western "The Silent Man" on the Iverson family farm — not yet known as the Iverson Movie Ranch — in 1917.

The big surprise here — and judging from the stunned looks on everyone's faces, it may have in fact been a surprise — was the appearance by legendary Hollywood mogul Adolph Zukor, on a visit from the East Coast.

Adolph Zukor on the cover of the Jan. 14, 1929, issue of Time

Zukor, who founded and presided over what was then Famous Players-Lasky — the company that would evolve into Paramount Pictures — was one of the most important figures in early Hollywood, even though he ran his empire from New York City until late in his life.

Blurb in the Dec. 15, 1917, issue of Motography

Zukor's sojourn to "the Coast" (Hollywood) in late 1917 was a big enough deal to be written up in the trade publications of the day.

Probably not a photo that young Zukor OR his dad was happy to see in print.

Young Eugene Zukor appears to be frozen in terror, but it may be nothing more than the usual teen angst about being seen in public with one's parents. Technically, Eugene had recently turned 20 at the time the photo was taken, and was being groomed for executive roles in his father's company.

Vola Vale and William S. Hart, stars of "The Silent Man"

Of course, it may be simply that young Zukor can't take his eyes off the beautiful Vola Vale. An "older woman" by several months, Vale was also 20 years old at the time of the photo.

Vola Vale in 1915

Vale, who changed her name from Vola Smith in 1916, was one of the more successful actresses of the silent era, appearing in about 100 movies from 1913 to 1927. Her career did not survive the transition to the talkies.

William S. Hart in one of his trademark poses

One of the top cowboy heroes of the silent screen, William S. Hart starred in a number of the earliest movies known to have been filmed on the Iverson Ranch.

"The Silent Man" (1917): Vale and Hart on the Iverson Ranch

I published a detailed post a while back breaking down some of the Iverson Movie Ranch features seen in "The Silent Man," which you can find by clicking on this link.

I couldn't find much about Vola Vale's mom — even a trade publication that ran the photo in 1917 referred to her as "Vola Vale's mother," without a name. But I assume that she would have gone by Mrs. Smith.

Poor Kenneth McGaffey was head of publicity on the West Coast for Zukor's film company, and apparently got the assignment to escort the boss and his son to the various film sets. His expression suggests the 26-mile trip out to Chatsworth may have been among the least enjoyable of the week's activities.

Lambert Hillyer tries to hide in the shadows

Lambert Hillyer was an uncredited assistant director on "The Silent Man," with William S. Hart credited as the film's director. A close look at the photo reveals that his mood appears to match that of the rest of the table.

Lambert Hillyer

Hillyer would go on to a durable career as a B-Western director for Monogram, Columbia and other outfits, returning often to the Iverson Ranch. He transitioned successfully to television in the 1950s.

Thomas H. Ince: conspicuously absent

One key player who avoided the grim meal with Zukor was pioneer filmmaker Thomas H. Ince, who supervised production of "The Silent Man" during a short-lived partnership with Zukor.

The mysterious E. H. Allen, Ince's business manager and consigliere

Ince apparently succeeded in skipping the trip to Chatsworth by sending his lieutenant, E. H. Allen — officially Ince's business manager and studio manager, but a figure who has been described as everything from Ince's "strongarm" man to the person who really directed many of the movies credited to Ince.

The photo as it appeared in the Dec. 15, 2017, issue of Motography

I saved this for the end because I love the caption. I don't suppose the use of the word "enjoying" was intended to be ironic, but it sure turned out that way.