This Famous Western Film Set Will Soon Ride Again
Paramount Ranch's Western Town burned to a crisp in late 2018. The National Park Service aims to rebuild it by late 2020.
In November of 2018, the Santa Monica mountains were ablaze. The Woolsey Fire, which began above the Simi Valley and blazed south across Southern California’s canyons and chaparral, moved ever closer to a 19th-century frontier town nestled in the hills. People watched anxiously from a safe distance, but in the end, there was no stopping the destructive wildfire, and the town burned. It was like something out of a movie.
In fact, it was exactly like something out of a movie. The “town” was actually a film set for Westerns, featured in shows like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and Westworld. That Western Town, as it was called, was part of the larger Paramount Ranch, a site on the National Register of Historic Places where filmmakers had made hundreds of movies since the 1920s. The fire wasn’t staged, though, and many of the set buildings were lost—for now.
By the end of 2020, the Western Town will be back in action, according to the National Park Service, which has owned Paramount Ranch since 1980. Replacing more expensive structures like restrooms and utilities will take longer, but with the help of the Santa Monica Mountains Fund, the NPS hopes to have set buildings back on the Western Town’s site in December of 2020. The rebuild is part of a larger plan to make the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area more accessible and visitor-friendly. It’s also meant to save a piece of the area’s significant cultural heritage for generations to come. It’s “the only site dedicated to this particular element in the National Park Service, and I think it would be a shame to leave it,” says superintendent David Szymanski. “That would seriously hamper our ability to interpret the site, and I think it would be the end of fun.”
Paramount Ranch got its name in 1927, when Paramount Studios purchased the plot to use as a movie ranch. They began building sets on the land that year, connected by roads and dotted with permanent buildings.
During this era of filmmaking, studios like Paramount could make lots of movies very quickly. “At that time, the entire movie industry was vertically and horizontally integrated. Directors and actors worked for the studios; the studios owned the theater outlets. They were turning out a lot of stuff,” Szymanski says. Owning a ranch like this one helped make the process even more efficient—Universal, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, and MGM all had their own claims to land in the largely undeveloped hills around turn-of-the-century Los Angeles.
Paramount’s space hosted large outdoor sets and a range of undeveloped land that was used for location filming; between 1927 and 1943, the studio made 162 movies there. The wide horizons and scrubby plant life of the Ranch’s countryside was used as a stand-in for the frontier—and with that many movies shaping the public imagination, that landscape became the common idea of the West.
In the '40s, the traditional studio system was broken up through antitrust litigation, upending the Hollywood status quo. Under pressure even before the Supreme Court stepped in, Paramount sold the Ranch in 1943, although they kept filming at the location for at least a decade. But new technology and the fall of the studio giants meant the industry had changed, and there was a new player on the field: television.
“I think it would be a shame to leave it. That would seriously hamper our ability to interpret the site, and I think it would be the end of fun.”David Szymanski, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area Superintendent
The Ranch—and specifically the Western Town—played a key role in the medium’s development. After Paramount sold the land, it passed through the hands of multiple different owners. One sold the core of the ranch to William B. Hertz, a dentist, who opened the property up for recreation. He also began to build and advertise the Western Town. Television producers erected new Western-looking buildings and left them standing after filming ended, adding to the town’s size piece by piece.
Urban development began to threaten the scenic vistas at Paramount Ranch, and in 1980, the NPS stepped in. It purchased the core of the ranch to ensure that the open landscape would be preserved and added it to the newly-formed Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. The park service, working with Hertz’s family, was instrumental in refurbishing the Western Town and attracting new Westerns, like CBS’s ‘90s series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. At the same time, public use of the land was encouraged, and it began attracting equestrians and hikers, who were free to wander among the buildings and watch film crews (like Dr. Quinn’s) at work.
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The Park Service is rebuilding Western Town so quickly because the site’s historic and cultural significance wasn’t in its buildings—it lies in the site’s use as a film set. Its decades of use are a testament to Southern California’s past and present impact on the film and television industries. Its buildings, including the ones lost last year, were largely impermanent structures and shells; as a working film set, buildings were often put up, modified, and torn down on the site. “What we lost was a midcentury town with some elements from the Paramount Ranch era,” Szymanski explains. “The major justification for the National Register listing was the landscape—the landscape played a large role. It wasn’t necessarily the remaining physical structures.”
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And the new Western Town won’t be a faithful re-creation of those burned buildings: It will be a new, updated movie set that captures the same Western feel. “We want to rebuild something consistent with the cultural landscape at Paramount. How we put those pieces together is the fun part,” he says. The Park Service is working with film industry professionals to build an even better Western Town—one with walls that can move or be pulled away so a camera can shoot a building’s interior, better fire resistance, and improved amenities for the film crews, tourists, and gatherings that use the space (for example, the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest, which it has hosted for decades).
“I feel the best way to interpret a historic site is to just keep using it,” Szymanski says. “It offers the public a look at American filmmaking that may not be possible elsewhere.”