Built on one-time Spanish-colonized territory at the dawn of the motion picture era, Paramount Ranch grew as the moviemaking industry grew. It’s where Marlene Dietrich dramatically uttered her famed lines in Blonde Venus, where Gary Cooper valiantly fought in Beau Geste, and where Leo Carrillo and Duncan Renaldo triumphed over the banditos in The Cisco Kid. Recently it had become the location for the HBO series Westworld. After the Woolsey fire engulfed the Western town and most of the 750 acres that surround it, a handful of structures are all that remain of the landmark movie ranch.
Historian and former park ranger Mike Malone says, “This is slightly eerie, but the chapel built in 2016 for Westworld didn’t burn down and neither did the train station used in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. It’s as if the fire went around them.”
Two structures from the studio days, the Mill and Longhorn, also miraculously survived. Built in 1928 to be used as the kitchen and dining hall, and later serving as the production office for Dr. Quinn, “Today Longhorn is used as a ranger station. It was the mess hall in the studio days. It’s undergone some improvements over the years but its size and structural lines are original to the Paramount era,” explains Malone, who adds that the sound and production barn also survived. “When it went up in 1928, its function and purpose was for set building. Those were the days of the epic film and the Mill was where all of the large-scale sets were built. You can still see the tracks of the giant sliding doors the builders would roll open to pull out the set walls and props needed for filming.”
Several structures from the town (the Mill on the west, the jail to the north and the hotel to the east) served as a shield during the blaze, ultimately saving “Grandmother,” a massive oak tree that was arguably as famous as the stars themselves. Paramount Ranch had become a popular wedding location, and most of the ceremonies took place under the tree. “Our beautiful Valley oak had the biggest crown of branches anyone has ever seen,” Malone says. “People were often taken aback when they’d see it for the first time. It suffered fire damage but, thankfully, it’s still with us. People called it Grandmother and Witness Tree, for all that it had seen in 90 years’ time.”
In 1927 Paramount Pictures purchased 2,700 acres of sprawling ranch land for filming. From the start, Paramount Ranch was a hub for entertainment luminaries and a moviemaking mecca. Westerns were an especially popular genre — TV shows like Gunsmoke and The Dawn Trail and films like Robin Hood of El Dorado were churned out by the dozens. The temperate climate and topographical variety of the region allowed producers to create locales of every kind, from a Gold Rush–era San Francisco and the South Pacific to postwar Austria and China.
The ranch changed hands in 1943 when businessman and movie enthusiast William Hertz bought it. Using old façades and surplus building materials from the sets at RKO, Hertz built the first permanent Western town. While the 1920s and ’30s had been active years for producing features, the era of the TV cowboy had gotten underway, making Hertz’s town a sought-after location.
“The earliest television show produced here was The Cisco Kid, and there were 19 episodes filmed at the ranch that we know of,” says Don Bitz, a television historian who has documented Paramount Ranch for more than three decades. “So many shows filmed here from the 1950s through the 1980s; Tombstone Territory, Perry Mason, The Fugitive, Mannix and Gunsmoke. Later, of course, you had The Dukes of Hazzard, Charlie’s Angels, CHiPs and The A-Team.”
Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman filmed at the ranch throughout most of the 1990s and Bitz documented nearly the entire series in photographs. “People still have a tremendous love for Dr. Quinn,” he says. “It’s developed a cult following, and the sets are just as much a part of the show as the characters. Visitors come from all over the world to see the locations and take pictures. They remember where every scene was shot.”
The National Park Service bought Paramount Ranch in 1980. For a brief time it was decided that the ranch would be used for recreational purposes and no longer for filmmaking. Before the park service purchased it, there’d even been discussions of razing the sets to build tract housing. Public surveys revealed a different sentiment. “They asked the public what they would want in place of the ranch,” Malone says. “People spoke out and emphatically agreed they wanted to see the film history continue at the ranch, and so it did.”
In Hertz’s day, the Western town was quite rudimentary. The National Park Service made major improvements, adding a barber shop, a saloon, a bank, a courthouse and a telegraph. To the delight of television and movie fans, it also created a clause in the contract stating that during filming, all sets would remain open to the public, an aspect that remains unique to Paramount Ranch to this day.
The future of the ranch, which celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2017, is yet to be decided, but its dedicated rangers, volunteers and historians will continue researching and learning about its past regardless. “We’re always discovering new pieces of the puzzle,” Bitz says. “There are some years that the timeline falls away, and we don’t know which productions were here during certain periods. We’re always working to fill in those gaps, and we share everything with the public as we discover it. People are hungry for the history. The legacy of Paramount Ranch is ever present.”
Environmentally, there are many opportunities to keep the public involved, including park cleanup and beautification days, science fairs and volunteer planting events. The movie history hikes and guided tours highlighting film and television locations hopefully will return in the future.
“As park rangers and the ones who serve the public, there is a major sense of stewardship that’s never been as apparent as it is right now,” Malone says. “We hope to re-establish the ranch in some capacity. The Eagle Scouts recently built fencing and a new footbridge, which was lost in the fire. I reminded them they still hadn’t lost the intangible lesson that you can rebuild. As long as the land is here, Paramount Ranch is not gone.”