Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Movies in the Santa Clarita Valley - Part 3: Melody Ranch

If you drive east on Lyons Avenue in Newhall from Interstate 5, eventually you will hit a dead end at Railroad Avenue. There are stores, franchise restaurants and gas stations and, in this post-real estate boom, a disturbing amount of traffic. The only things that hints at any uniqueness are a few Western-style buildings. Railroad Avenue itself is occupied by various run-of-the-mill businesses such as insurance agents and pizza parlors. Nothing out of the ordinary for a suburb of Los Angeles. Yet tucked away behind Railroad Avenue, off of Placerita Canyon Road, is a location that is anything but. If you consider how many people have watched movies over the past eighty years, the movie locations that make up Melody Ranch have arguably been seen by more filmgoers than any other location on earth.
The area around Melody Ranch, originally called Monogram Ranch, has been used for movie locations since 1915. By the time the ranch was sold to Gene Autry in 1952, 750 B Westerns had been filmed at Monogram Ranch. In a 90 day period in 1940 alone, 30 movies were filmed. Leon Worden, in an article for The Signal in 2003, writes, “They’d rename a few buildings and swap out the signs at city limits so that at one moment in 1955 you’d be in “Wichita” with Joel McCrea, and the next you’d be in Dodge City for an episode of “Gunsmoke.”

These numbers don’t include other genres that also used the property. For example, Bella Lugosi, struggling to regain the fame he acquired as Dracula in 1931, was signed by Monogram Studios in the early 1940s, and starred in 10 horror films – all filmed at Monogram Ranch. But Monogram was the palace for the B Western, and any major cowboy star and those that were up and coming stars at one point or another worked at Monogram. William S. Hart, Gary Cooper, Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, and Bill Boyd were just a few. Johnny Mack Brown filmed 60 movies there alone over a 10 year period.
In 1933, Bob Steele, up and coming actor and son of Monogram writer Robert Bradbury, brought in a high school friend to work on one of his dad’s pictures. The friend, Marion Morrison, would star in several pictures at the movie ranch and eventually would be known as John Wayne.

The original founders of Monogram Studios, Trem Carr and W. Ray Johnston, brought in a man named Ernie Hickson who ostensibly was hired as a writer but eventually would be known as a set design and art director genius. Besides being gifted in set design, he was also a historian and a collector of Western memorabilia.

This possibly may have been what made Monogram Ranch so unique. Besides the natural topography of the area that lent itself naturally to the Western genre, the construction of the studio sets on the ranch were much more than the facades that you normally associate with movie sets. Hickson and Carr built a self-contained town with homes, corrals that were actually used for stabling horses, and a restaurant and a bunkhouse used by the film crews. The buildings were constructed with aged lumber Hickson brought in from Nevada. Besides the western town, there was a log cabin and pioneer settlement, a Mexican hacienda, an Indian village, a schoolhouse and a trading post. The ranch, besides being used by Monogram Studios (which eventually merged with Lone Star, Liberty Films, Mascot Pictures to become Republic Pictures), was leased and heavily used by other studios.
During the 1930s and 40s, the property virtually became an assembly line, but that doesn’t mean that it was used strictly for low-budget and questionable quality Westerns. Rather, many a famous film used Main Street as a backdrop, one of the most famous being the final showdown in “High Noon.”

After Gene Autry bought the property in 1952, he changed the name of the ranch to Melody Ranch after his film with the same name, and continued to lease out the property for numerous movies and television shows. Movies studios continued to heavily use the property, but more television shows began to be filmed there. First “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp,” starring Hugh O’Brien began to be filmed there in 1955, and Gunsmoke was started the same year and would continue to be filmed at Melody Ranch.

Then, in 1962, a devastating fire in Placerita Canyon destroyed 15 buildings at Melody Ranch. The famous Main Street was gone. (A side note of trivia: it is said that Elvis Presley, on location at the ranch for a still photo shoot, helped fight the fire with water buckets and helped save one of the buildings.)

After the fire, Autry continued to use the property for a few productions, but it was a fraction of the previous volume. Autry could not bring himself to spend much time at the ranch and eventually used the property as a retirement home for his horse Champion. (Although some sources say this was Champ III which would make more sense, because these sources say that Champion died in 1990). Autry’s second wife began to sell the property piecemeal in 1981, and after the final Champ died in 1990, the final acreage was sold off.

But it was not for naught. Two brothers, Andre and Renaud Veluzat, who had grown up in the movie production and rental business, were the buyers of the final acreage in 1991, and immediately began to rebuild Main Street using old photographs and films as guidance.

Now it is used by producers year round - maybe not as heavily as it was in the 1920s and 1930s -but still enough so that the ranch is booked year round. One of the latest series to be filmed there was a Western: Deadwood.

Melody Ranch is not open to the public except for one week during the year when it is host for the annual Cowboy Poetry Festival.

Sources for this post:

Melody Ranch: Movie Magic in Placerita Canyon by Leon Worden. The Signal, March 29, 2003.
The Melody Ranch Official Web Site
The Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society Web Site

Monday, September 28, 2009

And Don't Forget....

...that later this week I'll be posting an interview with David Saunders. David had just put out his beautiful book on his father, Norman Saunders, and is also the author of several other biographies of pulp artists.

Besides being a successful pulp artist, Norman Saunders created Mars Attacks, Wacky Packs, Batman Cards, Pre-Code Comics, Men's Adventure Magazines, Paperbacks, and countless icons of Pin-Ups, Monsters, Robots, Mayhem, Nazis, Aliens and Space Ships.

Coming up in Movies in the Santa Clarita Valley - Melody Ranch

The Movies in Santa Clarita Valley series will continue tomorrow. I've realized that in order to do this right, I need more than 24 hours to come up with something decent that won't feel rushed. So the series will be every other day for the time being. In between the series, I'll be posting other items on my other interests such as pulp fiction and the Dodgers' protracted struggle to clinch the NL West Division title.

In the meantime, enjoy this movie poster of The Oregon Trail (1936) with John Wayne. Although The Oregon Trail was released by Republic Pictures, it was actually filmed by the Lone Star unit at Monogram Ranch located in the Placerita Canyon in the Santa Clarita Valley. Monogram Ranch eventually became Melody Ranch and is the subject of my next post in the series - coming your way tomorrow night.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Movies in the Santa Clarita Valley - Part 2: Overview and the Harry Carey Ranch

Hundreds of films, maybe thousands, were filmed in the Santa Clarita Valley over the past 80 years, and a good majority of them were Westerns, from the very first Western filmed here in the 1910s to the recent filming of HBO's Deadwood.

The first Los Angeles area film studio was the Nestor Film Company built in what was known then as Hollywoodland. By 1912, 15 different film companies were operating in Los Angeles and Westerns were a big portion of the films being produced every year. The Santa Clarita Valley quickly gained a reputation for being a perfect locale for filming Westerns.

The SCV attracted Westerns obviously because of the landscape. It was also only 30 miles north of Los Angeles, making it convenient for traveling to and from the studios. It was also sparsely settled, because access into the valley was difficult. In fact, for many years the only way to get into the valley from the Los Angeles Basin was through Beale's Cut.
Over the years, several movie ranches were developed, and many permanent Western "towns" were erected for filming. Monogram Ranch, later known as Melody Ranch, is now owned by Disney and was recently used for Deadwood's exterior shots.

A very good overview of the Newhall/Santa Clarita Valley film-locale history is in this Survey of the Harry Carey Ranch conducted by the JRP Historical Consulting Services for the National Parks Services in 2001. It talks about some of the movie ranches in the following:

"Towards the end of the silent era, in the mid to late 1920s, various other individuals and groups began to build permanent (or semi-permanent) Western towns in the Newhall and Saugus area, renting the sites to film producers. Tom Mix built "Mixville" in the late 1920s. Hoot Gibson took over a rodeo grounds near Saugus in the early 1930s, but sold the property by 1934. In 1930, Ernie Hickson built the most ambitious of such projects: the Rancho Placerita [Placeritos] in Placerita Canyon near Newhall. When the landowner sold the property, Hickson moved the set down to the junction of Placerita and Oak creeks and it became known as the Monogram Ranch, after that film company that leased the site. Hopalong Cassidy, Gary Cooper, and John Wayne were among the dozens of actors who worked on Hickson's set and the opening scene of the television show, Gunsmoke, was filmed there. Gene Autry later purchased the property and re-named it "Melody Ranch." The ranch burned in 1962, but it was essentially rebuilt in 1991 and continues to serve as a film set and the location for the annual Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival."

Harry Carey arrived in California from the East Coast in 1912 and it wasn't long before he was working in Westerns in the Valley. His first film in the Valley was "Light of the Western Stars" in 1913. Carey was certainly busy by this point: he made 19 films in 1917 alone. He was instrumental in getting John Ford his first movie production, "Straight Shooting," filmed in 1917, and the two worked together on 26 other films until the two had a falling out and ended their partnership.

After Carey married Olive Gordon in 1916, they moved to San Francisquito Canyon shortly after, where the ranch that would later be known as the Harry Carey Ranch would be built. On this property he also built a Trading Post and hired forty Navajo Indians to live and work at the Post. The Indian employees made jewelry, raised sheep, and operated the stores and restaurant.

The Ranch survived one of the biggest disasters ever to hit California and the Valley in particular when the St. Francis Dam broke in 1928, flooding the entire valley and killing 450 people. The ranch escaped destruction due to being built on a higher elevation than the river wash, but the Trading Post that Carey had built on the property was destroyed. The Ranch was rebuilt and it is this building that stands today.

Now the Ranch is part of a National Park. It is not visible from the road, and it's very easy to miss. Driving up San Francisquito Canyon Road, there are brand new homes on the left, and on the right what appears to be a hillside that descends down to a canyon. The ranch is hidden behind a fence, a quiet monument to what was once a bustling and vibrant Western movie industry.

Web sites to visit: The Official Melody Ranch Web site
General info on Santa Clarita and its History: Historical Sites
The Santa Clarita Valley History in Pictures. Go to "San Francisquito Canyon" link for information on the Harry Carey Ranch.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Movies in the Santa Clarita Valley - Part 1

This is my first post on a series I plan over the next few weeks on the Santa Clarita Valley and its role in the early movie industry, especially for Westerns.

Many people drive into Los Angeles via Interstate 5 from Northern California. Once you get past Bakersfield and make it over the Grapevine -- that famous hill where many a car has broken down from overheating in the summer or careened off the road in fog, snow or ice in the winter -- you drop down into the Santa Clarita Valley that now is mainly populated by large subdivisions of new homes, some industrial parks, fast food restaurants and most famously, the Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park. Roller coasters dominate the west side of the highway. Indeed, that is what most people relate the Santa Clarita Valley with: Magic Mountain. When people ask you where it is, just say: it's where Magic Mountain is.

It's a guarantee that most of those people aren't familiar with the rich history behind the SCV and it's close ties with the movies. I never really paid that much attention either until recently. And now that I've stuck my neck out and declared I'm going to do this series, I'm beginning to realize how much history there is. Entire college courses have been dedicated to the history of movies in the Santa Clarita Valley. And here is loony Laurie, once again thinking she can do it all.

Oh well, I'm going to do my best. But I'm still trying to get my head wrapped around this huge topic. So while I do that I'll begin with some basics and then talk about two areas with a couple of photographs.

The Santa Clarita Valley is now comprised of several towns and it can get confusing because they all kind of blend together, and at least one of these towns is called Santa Clarita. But there's also Newhall, Saugus, Valencia, Agua Dulce, Canyon Country, and a few others.
Newhall was used early in the 20th century for filming. Once source says that Newhall was used in 1903 for the filiming of Western movies, and the first feature film, "Bronco Billy's Christmas Dinner," was filmed there in 1912. Charlie Chaplin filmed parts of "The Champion" in Newhall. Tom Mix, William S. Hart and numerous other Western stars spent many a time in these parts. The story goes that Hart, Harry Carey and Will Rogers were close buddies and would spend a lot of time together. Harry Carey eventually settled here, and his home is now part of a public park and museum.


I bet that photo got your attention. This is a famous shot from the film "Three Jumps Ahead" from Fox Films Corp., 1923. Although it's supposed to be Tom Mix jumping over Beale's Cut, it obviously is a composite and it isn't Tom Mix. Several stunt men have taken credit for the jump. And it isn't a jump, according to one source: there was a bridge built underneath the jump off point which was later lifted out of the picture.

Beale's Cut is a famous point in SCV, mainly because it was the only way travelers could get in and out of the valley before main thoroughfares existed. It is just one of many famous locations in the Santa Clarita Valley used in early movie making. This photo is from Stagecoach (1939): it is the only scene from that movie filmed at Beale's Cut.


Another is Vasquez Rocks, located in Agua Dulce. The photo above is Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard and other at Vasquez Rocks. Here is a selected filmography of films shot at Vasquez Rocks, taken from Jerry Schneider's web site. This is a great site, by the way. Go to Exterior Locations and check out the list for California. Each location has a page you can go to for information.


"The Hard Hombre" (Allied 1931) Directed by: Otto Brower. Cast: Hoot Gibson, Lina Basquette.

"Law and Order" (Universal 1932) Directed by: Edward L. Cahn. Cast: Walter Huston, Harry Carey, Walter Brennan, Russel Simpson, Andy Devine.

"Cross Fire" (Radio 1933) Directed by: Otto Brower. Cast: Tom Keene, Betty Furness, Edgar Kennedy, Edward Phillps, Stanley Blystone, Lafe McKee, Jules Cowles.

"The Throwback" (Universal 1935) Directed by: Ray Taylor. Cast: Buck Jones, George Hayes, Paul Fix.

"Custer's Last Stand" (Stage and Screen 1936) Directed by: Elmer Clifton. Cast: Rex Lease.

"Smoke Tree Range" (Universal 1937) Directed by: Lesley Selander. Cast: Buck Jones.

"The Lone Ranger Rides Again" (Republic 1939) Directed by: William Witney & John English. Cast: Robert Livingston, Duncan Renaldo.

"Colorado" (Republic 1940) Directed by: Joseph Kane. Cast: Roy Rogers, George Hayes.

"Robin Hood of the Pecos" (Republic 1941) Directed by: Joseph Kane. Cast: Roy Rogers, George Hayes.

"Man from Oklahoma" (Republic 1945) Directed by: Frank McDonald. Cast: Roy Rogers, George Hayes.

"Along the Oregon Trail" (Republic 1947) Directed by: R. G. Springsteen. Cast: Monte Hale, Max Terhune, Clayton Moore.

"The Denver Kid" (Republic 1948) Directed by: Philip Ford. Cast: Allan Lane.

"Bagdad" (Universal 1949) Directed by: Charles Lamont. Cast: Maureen O'Hara, Paul Christian, Vincent Price.

"I Shot Billy the Kid" (Lippert 1950) Directed by: William Berke. Cast: Donald Barry.

"Flame of Araby" (Universal 1951) Directed by: Charles Lamont. Cast: Jeff Chandler, Maureen O'Hara, Maxwell Reed, Lon Chaney, Buddy Baer, Richard Egan, Dewey Martin, Royal Dano, Susan Cabot, Judith Braun, Henry Brandon.

"Duel at Silver Creek" (Universal 1952) Directed by: Donald Siegel. Cast: Audie Murphy, Faith Domergue, Susan Cabot, Stephen McNally.

"The Charge of Feather River" (Warner Bros 1953) Directed by: Gordon Douglas. Cast: Guy Madison, Vera Miles, Helen Westcott.

"Taza, Son of Cochise" (Universal 1954) Directed by: Douglas Sirk. Cast: Rock Hudson, Barbara Rush.

"Fury at Gunsight Pass" (Columbia 1955) Directed by: Fred F. Sears. Cast: David Brian, Neville Brand, Richard Long, Lisa Davis, Percy Helton, Addison Richards, Wally Vernon, Katherine Warren, Morris Ankrum, Joe Forte, Paul E. Burns, Frank Fenton.

"Bandit Queen" (Lippert 1957) Directed by: William Berke. Cast: Barbara Britton.

"King of the Wild Stallions" (Allied Artists 1959) Directed by: R. G. Springsteen. Cast: George Montgomery, Edgar Buchanan.

"Apache Uprising" (Paramount 1966) Directed by: R. G. Springsteen. Cast: Rory Calhoun, Corinne Calvet, Arthur Hunnicutt, Johnny Mack Brown.

"Fort Utah" (Paramount 1967) Directed by: Lesley Selander. Cast: John Ireland, Virginia Mayo, Scott Brady.

"Buckskin" (Paramount 1968) Directed by: Michael Moore. Cast: Barry Sullivan, Wendell Corey.

"The Magnificent Seven Ride!" (United Artists 1972) Directed by: George McGowan. Cast: Lee Van Cleef, Stefanie Powers.

"The Godchild" (ABC-TV 1974) Directed by: John Badham. Cast: Jack Palance, Jose Peres, Keith Carradine.

"Hearts of the West" (MGM 1975) Directed by: Howard Zieff. Cast: Jeff Bridges, Andy Griffith.

"The Legend of the Lone Ranger" (Universal 1981) Directed by: William A. Fraker. Cast: Klinton Spilsbury, Jason Robards, Rihard Farnsworth.

In this series, I'll be talking a lot about some of these early stars, some other locations, landmarks, some movies of note that were filmed there and what SCV does now to preserve and celebrate its heritage. And there is a lot. They even has a "Walk of Western Stars," similar to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society's web site is a good place to start if you want more information.

Baseball: Another Reason to Go Mental

I'll be starting up the Santa Clarita Valley series later today. In the meantime, just had to comment on the Dodgers' loss yesterday to the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are having their worst season since 1890.

I've noticed before that the Dodgers seem to always lose their first game on the road. Is this just a habit that this team experiences, or is this a commonplace occurrence?

It's interesting to note that even Joe Torre seemed to acknowledge that the trip into Pittsburgh yesterday was unduly stressful due to the G-20 summit happening in the city at the same time. Apparently the team was routed through the Washington DC airport, then loaded onto buses and taken on a 2-hour road trip to Pittsburgh. Once in the city they had to go through countless detours and security stops before they reached the stadium. The trip was more stressful than usual, Joe said. Not that this is an excuse, he said. But, the paper said this morning, "Torre acknowledged that this particular trip took its toll on his team, saying, 'I think we all felt it today.'"

Did one out-of-the ordinary bus trip throw the whole team off? I believe it did. It just strengthens the argument that baseball is, more than anything, a mental game. It's an understatement to say that these guys are in great physical shape and that they are used to traveling. But even the slightest distraction can throw a player's mental game off. Superstitions abound in baseball and always have: players who aren't hitting well will change the way they wear their socks. Randy Wolf, Dodgers pitcher, recently changed his number, hoping it would stop his no-decision streak. And we all know about the growing of beards and the shaving of beards. Just like in Bull Durham, when Crash (Kevin Costner) says to Annie (Susan Sarandon) that "If you think that you're playing better because you're wearing women's underwear, then you are!"

All this talk of magic numbers. The race to see who will get home-field advantage. Players who play better on the road (James Loney) vs. those who are NL most valuable players at home but who play like shit on the road (Ethier). What a batter thinks when he's at the plate vs. what the pitchers thinking. These all are part of what make baseball such a fascinating experience for me. And it's a mental game for me too: the more I learn, the more I realize that I know so little.

I think Blake DeWitt is growing a beard now because he hopes it will improve his game and keep him from having to take another flight to Albuquerque. So far it seems to be working - he had two doubles yesterday.

Another distraction: salaries. This in the LA times this morning: At least seven active players this year will be up for salary arbitration in the off season. Right now Matt Kemp (major star this year and only promises to get better) earns $467,000. Chad Billingsley (our on again, off again ace) earns $475,000. James Loney: $465,000. Those three and Jonathan Broxton (our ace closer), Russell Martin (catcher), George Sherrill (reliever with the instincts of a shark) and Hong-Chih Kuo (another ace reliever) will all be eligible for taking our breath away with their salary demands. I wonder how many of them have Scott Boras for an agent.
It'll be interesting to see what happens after this season, especially if the Dodgers make the World Series.

Notice I say "IF," because that's my superstition.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Valley of the Cowboy Stars

On my way out for the evening, but wanted to introduce a series that I'm going to do for the next week or so on the Santa Clarita Valley, an area just north of Los Angeles. Santa Clarita was a favorite place to film movies especially during the 1910s and 1920s, and many movie stars liked it so much that they ended up living up here as well. Harry Carey, William S. Hart and Tom Mix all lived up here at one point or another.

The Santa Clarita Historical Society has a television show called Points of Interest and many of the episodes on their web site. One is a fascinating tour of the Harry Carey Ranch, and you can see it here. If the link takes you to the main page, go to "Harry Carey, Tom Mix and the Early Cowboys." There are some stills in this one of unbelievable stunt films.

All this started when I picked up William S. Hart's autobiography, My Life East and West, and I decided that it was time that I talked about the Santa Clarita Valley and some of the Western actors that made their home here, as well as the history behind some of the movies made up here.

I know the valley a little bit, but I'm ashamed to say that I never really paid much attention to its history until I became interested in Westerns and the history of the west several years ago. My best friend and her daughter - my goddaughter - have lived here since before Sara was born. As you can guess, the valley is nothing like it was. It's now a bedroom community of Los Angeles and has experienced explosive growth over the past five years. It's traffic, tract homes, and big box stores. BUT there are some hidden gems around, like the William S. Hart home and the Harry Carey Ranch. I've been to the William S. Hart ranch and plan on going back in the next weekend or so to take some photos, and I'm definitely plan on visiting the Harry Carey Ranch.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

I Must Be Hungry

God, I am REALLY into The Pioneer Woman now. I'm lost in a world of beautiful photography, even more beautiful men in chaps, and mouthwatering food. Just check out this recipe, which shows you the detail with which she photographs every step of the way. And it's for pan-fried rib eye steak, with lemon pepper and Lawry's seasoned salt - talk about down home. Something you wouldn't immediately associate with beautiful photography. There's a whole section on cowboy food, by the way.

I just noticed The Pioneer Woman's slogan: Plowing through life in the country...one calf nut at a time. I love it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Pioneer Woman

Found a fantastic blog today featured in the L.A. Times this morning. The Pioneer Woman, which gets 13 million hits a month, is run by Ree Drummond, who calls herself an accidental country girl and an accidental cook. Now she has combined cooking, unbelievable photography and great stories into a fantastic blog. Now she's got a cookbook coming out in October that is No. 1 on Amazon's preorder list in the cooking category.

Ree grew up in Oklahoma but transported herself to Los Angeles as soon as she could get out of the house. She went to USC, tried all sorts of food, including thai, sushi and Mexican - basically she became citified. After graduating with a major in gerontology, she decided to move to Chicago, making a pit stop in her home state of Oklahoma on the way. But something happened to her while in OK - she met a cowboy. Before you can say "yee haw," Ree found herself in the most unlikeliest of places - living and working on a ranch in Oklahoma, married to a cowboy and with 4 kids. Other than the 4 kids part, sounds pretty good to me. Almost makes me want to start cooking again.

For the record, I love to cook. In fact, at one point I was thinking of going to chef school. But the cost scared me and I turned to American History instead. Logical order of things, right? I still cook, but it seems most of the time I walk into the kitchen after a hard day's work, look around and go "Nah, not tonight."

If you want to read the L.A. Times article, go here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Book Review: Hearts West: True Stories of Mail-Order Brides on the Frontier

Hearts West: True Stories of Mail-Order Brides on the Frontier
Chris Enss
The Globe Pequot Press, 2005

The huge emigration of men to the western United States in the 19th century resulted in a disproportionate ratio of men to women in such places as Washington, Arizona and especially California during the Gold Rush. Mail order brides were by no means a new phenomenon during the 19th century and the settlement of the West; there are accounts of settlers of the new world arranging for brides from Europe. But, with the mystique of the Wild West being what it is, there's something exciting and romantic about a woman who travels west, either by ship or over land, to meet a stranger so they can settle amidst new territory and make it their own.

And so they did, by the hundreds. Hearts West, by Chris Enss, gives us accounts of just a dozen or so of them. They came either through a business, like that run by Asa Mercer who brought women by ship to Puget Sound in 1864. In his first trip, only eleven women disembarked to the disappointment of dozens if not hundreds of men. Newspapers sprung up that catered strictly to matchmaking, such as The Matrimonial News in San Francisco. In Tucson, shoot-outs over eligible females were occurring, so clubs like the Busy Bee Club were formed. Some women were fixed up through their churches, or relatives or friends. The experiences were as wide and diverse as the land they were aiming to settle.

But what seems to be a common denominator in all the stories are the hopes and optimism that the women felt over their decisions to move west. And many times, the prospective bride and groom traded several letters and sometimes love blossomed even before they met. Sometimes a marriage proposal was presented during the correspondence. Now, once they arrived, they were sometimes met with husbands not to their liking or sometimes even abusive ones, but those instances seemed to be rare. Enss writes in the epilogue:

"In spite of the occasional mismatch or short-lived union, historians at the National Archive Department in Washington believe that mail-order brides produced a high percentage of permanent marriages. The reason cited is that the advertisements were candid and direct in their explanations of exactly what was wanted and expected from a prospective spouse. And if requested, the parties involved sent accurate photos of themselves along with a page of background information. Often, when the pair met, the groom-to-be signed an agreement, witnessed by three upstanding members of the territory, not to abuse or mistreat the bride-to-be. The prospectve bride then signed a paper (also witnessed) not to nag or try to change the intended."

This book is not a complete account of the mail-order bride phenomenon. Rather, it is a collection of women's experiences, each story independent of each other. Maybe it was me, but I was a little disappointed in this - I was hoping for a more in-depth history with a cohesive narrative. I wanted something with a little more substance. But if you're looking for a pleasant read that's a good introduction to how and why women would do such an insane thing as to agree to marry someone sight unseen and 3000 miles away from home, this is a good book to start with. You can probably read it in a day. It did whet my appetite to read more accounts, especially first-person accounts of these and other pioneer women. I found Enss to be a good writer and she brings a flair and drama to the stories.

Enss writes these accounts and mixes them with newspaper articles and ads. One account, of Eleanor Berry and Louis Dreibelbis, is especially memorable. Eleanor, on her way out to marry Louis in Grass Valley in Nevada County California, and on the final leg of her trip, is in a stagecoach with thirteen other travelers. As luck would have it, their stagecoach is robbed by four men wearing gunnysacks for masks. But at one point, Eleanor notices that one of the bandits has a noticeable scar on his hand. Everyone survives the hold-up, none the worse for wear, and Eleanor finishes her trip. Once in Grass Valley, she is promptly sent to the altar (it was common for the brides and groom to marry almost as soon as the woman stepped foot in the territory). Walking up the aisle, she sees Louis for the first time who, for some reason, goes into shock when he sees Eleanor. When Louis reaches to sign the marriage license - you guessed it - Eleanor sees that her new husband has a familiar scar on his hand. For obvious reasons, the marriage was off.

This little book is another product of the Globe Pequot Press, which has published several books in the same vein, such as Pioneer Doctor: the Story of a Woman's Work, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: Women Soldiers and Patriots of the Western Frontier, and With Great Hope: Women of the California Gold Rush. In other words, books that cover the role of women in the American West, and in many cases, the lives of individual women who in any other circumstance would have never had their stories published. In this vein, Globe Pequot Press does a great service, bringing us true stories of women who would have otherwise been doomed to obscurity or only remembered by a few people through family histories.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Turner Thesis

No, it's not Ted Turner.

If you're a student of American history, and in particular the 19th century west, then hopefully the first Turner that came to your mind was Frederick Jackson Turner, author of the thesis that changed the study of American History: "The Significance of the Frontier in American History."

Last night a young man named Timonty Tzeng emailed me and introduced himself and his blog, The Turner Thesis. Timothy is a senior at Columbia University and is focusing on Frontier History. His blog seems to be a chronicle of his observations of the West, both as a native Californian, as a student, and especially as a photographer. This dude takes great pictures. It also helps that he's a Dodgers fan.
So check out his blog - it seems to be relatively new. It's an eclectic mix of Timothy's photos, stills from the movie Chinatown, Dodger Stadium, Raymond Chandler, Frederick Remington, the recent wildfires, Clint Eastwood and of course Mr. Turner. It's different and really refreshing.
The blog is on Tumblr.com and their format is a little different - there doesn't seem to be any way of posting comments.

It's been a really long time since I've thought of Frederick Jackson Turner; maybe it's because his name is so closely tied into my studies in college. I think of Turner and I'm reminded of term papers, burning the midnight oil doing homework and wondering what the hell this Turner guy had to do with anything of significance. The truth is, a lot. Presented in 1893, Turner argued that the shaping of our country, our viewpoints, the entire development of the American psyche if you will, was shaped by our ability to conquer the frontier.

Here's a nice passage from Turner's famous essay on the frontier, followed by some of Timothy's photos. His photos are for sale - go to The Turner Thesis to contact him if you're interested. There's other great photos on the blog besides these.

"Movement has been its dominant fact, and, unless this training has no effect upon a people, the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise. But never again will such gifts of free land offer themselves. For a moment, at the Frontier, the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant. There is not Tabula Rasa. The stubborn American environment is there with its imperious summons to accept its conditions; the inherited ways of doing things are also there; and yet, in spite of environment, and in spite of custom, each Frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the Frontier."

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Fan Loyalty? Or An Excuse to Behave Like Idiots?

I'm sitting in the comfort of my air conditioned home right now, watching the 2nd of the 3-game Dodgers vs. Giants game. Thanks to Manny and his lead feet, San Francisco is already up one run in the first inning. I shouldn't be so hard on the guy - like my friend Kristin says, he has Designated Hitter written all over him. Fast running does not fall into the requirements of a DH. But then I'll forgive him, like we all do. He did hit another great home run last night.

But I want to vent a little about last night's game and the behavior of the fans - from both sides. Thanks to the rowdiness of the crowd, I think I've gone to my last LA v SF game at the park.

Now, in all fairness, I very well know how bad things can get at games between these two teams; after all, their rivalry goes back what...60, 70 years? Way back when it was the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants.

And maybe it was because we were in the loge section, sitting underneath a concrete overhang that amplified the noise level about 100 decibels.

But last night was the worst I've seen, and we weren't even in the bleacher section. Several times during the first part of the game, we couldn't even watch the game because of fans in our section constantly baiting each other, throwing food, booing, screaming, posturing, and chanting "Fuck the Giants," - a little more sinister than the standard "Giants suck" chant. When the female Dodger fans behind us got up and went across the aisle and crawled into a SF giants fan's lap to antagonize him and try to start a fight, was when I was started to get truly nervous about the situation. And that was only in the 3rd inning, before the beer really started to take effect. And the food concessions kept selling that beer until the seventh.

Thankfully the Stadium security was on the situation quickly and without further ado threw out two entire rows of people sitting directly behind us. Sometimes Dodger security team has a reputation for overreacting to what people have said were trivial offenses, but last night was one time when I was grateful for that reputation.

And that was just our section. I'm sure these scenarios were being played out all over the stadium - we just couldn't see them.

Maybe I'm getting old. And I love a great time just as much as the next person. I was even pumped up yesterday about going to such an exciting game. And I won't ever tell someone that they shouldn't go to a game. This is the great American pastime after all. But when you pay good money - and a Dodger Stadium a game can run you $40 to $100 between tickets, parking and food - and you are in a situation where you can't enjoy the game, it makes you think twice. I think I'm done with dealing with this kind of nonsense. This is team loyalty at its worse.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Tarnished Interview with Gary Dobbs

Many of the readers of Laurie's Wild West have heard me speak of a fellow blogger, Gary Dobbs, and his blog, the Tainted Archive. Gary is a writer based in Wales, and his first novel, The Tarnished Star, written under his pseudonym Jack Martin, was released last summer to very good reviews and even better sales.

Since The Tarnished Star was released it has continued to sell strongly and for quite a time was one of the best selling Westerns on amazon.com in the UK. Quite a feat, considering that its publisher, Robert Hale Ltd., and its western imprint Black Horse Westerns mainly distributes their westerns to libraries in the United Kingdom.

The Tarnished Star took Britain by storm, but Gary is a whirlwind all on his own. Besides writing two novels right now and maintaining the Archive, he is also an actor and has appeared in such shows as Doctor Who and Torchwood. All that and a day job too. I managed to get him to sit down for a few minutes and answer some questions for us.

What is it about the western that attracts you?

I’ve always had a leaning towards westerns in film and books. There’s something about the period that I can’t quite put my finger on but it fascinates me. Sometimes I even think that my interest is on a spiritual level,as if I’d been there before, but of course that’s wish fulfillment…isn’t it? But the western I feel offers a broad canvas upon which you can explore the eternal conflict between good and evil and get away from modern day psychology. I also think the western allows us to indulge our imagination and in some small way become children again.

Your grandfather was a huge influence, and your pseudonym is in tribute to him. Tell us about your grandfather and how he influenced you and instilled in you a love of all things western.

My grandfather was a wonderful man and as a child I thought he was ten feet tall. He’d tell me wild stories of his own adventures in the Wild West and of course I bought it all in those days. Some of my fondest memories are of watching westerns with him on the television and reading his library books after he’d finished with them. I was reading Louis L'amour and Zane Grey as a ten year old and them moved onto the wonderful George G Gilman westerns. So when I was looking for a pen name for my western novels it was natural to adopt my grandfather’s name. He was called William John Martin but everyone called him Jack and thus Jack Martin, western writer was born.

Tell us about your other western influences. What western writers do you look at as mentors or inspirations, and why these writers instead of others. What is it about their work that strikes a chord with you?

Louis L'amour, Elmer Kelton, George Gilman, Larry McMurtry – all these guys have one thing in common; the ability to tell a damn good story. L'amour especially, I think, created a west that was uniquely his. It may not have been that much like the real thing but it certainly feels real enough.

When did you start writing westerns, and what was the reason? Why did you pick the western genre?

I think the western picked me. My western interest remained with me into adult hood and when a friend suggested I try a western for Robert Hale LTD, I quickly banged something out and it was promptly rejected. There were some helpful notes with the rejection though and so I went back to the drawing board. I wanted to give Tarnished Star the feel of the 1940’s/1950’s westerns as that really was the golden age for the genre.

I didn’t want to go all revisionist but wanted to provide a damn good fun read and from the reviews I’d say I achieved that. I’m proud of the fact that Tarnished Star could be read by both adults and children and hopefully is an entertainment from more innocent times.

You've written a lot of short stories as well, including some with a crime or noir genre rather than western. Is this the first novel you've tried? What was it like making the transition from short stories to this longer format?

I find short stories far more difficult to structure as you’ve only a limited canvas to work upon. That said, I’ve written maybe half a dozen unpublished novels before striking it lucky with Tarnished Star.

I particularly liked how Tarnished Star seemed to be fashioned after the 50s and 60s westerns, and a lot has been written about their influence on you. What is it about the 50s and 60s westerns, as opposed to earlier years such as the 30s, that you find appealing.

As I’ve said, that was the golden age before we got too far into the darkness of the western. I love all of those Clint Dollar films and Anthony Mann’s psychological oaters but at the same time I also adore those fun John Wayne movies like Rio Bravo – I think Tarnished Star rests somewhere between those tow extremes. It is maybe literature’s answer to the B-western.

Do you feel isolated writing westerns in your locale. Do you find it a hindrance? What do you do to bring you closer to the West? What kind of research have you been doing?

Well other than checking the odd fact I don’t do that much research since I’ve read so much about the Old West that I carry a lot of the basic information around in my head. I also feel that too much research tends to produce a stilted narrative with the author trying to get all that period detail in at the expense of carrying the story along. And of course most readers have their own image of the time and place so I concentrate on the basic story rather than over rely on period detail.

What do people in your town think of your writing a western? Have you been getting any feedback on the book?

An acting friend keep asking if there’s gonna’ be a movie and if they can have a part. My father’s thrilled and keeps selling copies to all his friends. But I’ve not been mobbed in the streets yet. Ahh well, GARYDOBBSMANIA can’t be too far away

Now that Tarnished Star has been out for four months, have you had a chance to take stock of the whole publishing adventure? What about it was a surprise to you? What were disappointments? What would you have done differently in your approach to the marketing of the book?

I think it was all pretty much as expected but it was a thrill to go into my local library and find there was a twelve week waiting list to hire the book. I often give chats about the Old West at the local hospital and a few weeks ago several patients were waiting with copies of the book for me to sign. That was a very special thrill.

As for marketing, I think the Tainted Archive’s done that. If I can provide interesting content and keep folk coming back then a few of them may even try my book. Judging by Tarnished Star’s sales a lot of people did just that.

Why Black Horse Westerns?

In the UK for westerns it’s Black Horse or not at all. They are the only major publisher still doing original western fiction. They also produce handsome looking books too with an almost pulp style which appeals to me.

What would you think are the best things a newly published author can do?

Write that next book.

What about marketing? What can a writer do, especially one who doesn't have a following?

People keep asking me about marketing like I’m some sort of guru but I really never think that clinically. I mean I run a blog that’s become popular and I often push my own work via it, trying to get readers to notice. But I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules. I mean, it would be great to have a publicity budget and see ads on the television and in major newspapers. But most of us don’t get that and so we rely on the Internet and word of mouth to spread the word. Get involved with forums, blogs, review sites that cover your particular genre and hope that some of the likeminded people there will buy your books.

You've done a lot with your blog to generate interest in the western. One of these initiatives is Wild West Mondays. Tell us about those.

Well there are so many western fans out there and yet most book stores don’t stock westerns and so I though if we could immobilise ourselves via the Wild West Web then we could make our wishes felt. And so on Wild West Monday fans around the world badger book shops, libraries, publishers etc about westerns. It’s working too with several publishers reporting an increase in western sales. The next Wild West Monday is in November so I hope more and more will take part. And of course there is a petition on the Tainted Archive for anyone to sign in support of the genre.
Together we can do it.

At the same time, you've been broadening your themes on The Tainted Archive. Recently you dedicated an entire weekend to The Saint, and you've also spent time recently on the remastering of the Beatles catalog. Those are just a couple of the many subjects you've been covering. Tell us what where you think The Tainted Archive going. What do you see it being a year from now?

I’ve always thought of the Archive as an online magazine. I just want to continue to cover subjects that you don’t usually find anywhere else and certainly not together. Variety is the spice of life. Westerns, thrillers, The Beatles, The Saint are just some of the subjects I’ve looked at recently. I guess readers don’t know what to expect next and I like that.

A lot of people wonder how you do it all - right now you're writing two books, you act, you work driving a cab, you do book and movie reviews on your blog very frequently - to the point where some people have accused you of not being human. How do you do it all? Do you find being so active in so many areas has hurt your abilities to really excel in one, like writing?

Not at all. Whilst the Tainted Archive does take considerable time, I think it is separate from my professional writing and it often helps when I’m blocked on something in my fiction. I’ll just fire up The Archive and find that by writing a few posts I get those creative juices flowing.

As for not being human – well I won’t argue with that. I’m not human, I’m Welsh. But seriously, I love writing and am never happier than when sat before the keyboard.

Your favorite western book and movie.

This can change from day to day – but I usually say The Searchers for the movie because I think it’s a beautiful picture and one of John Wayne’s best performances. For the book I’d opt for Lonesome Dove merely because it is such an epic tale with character that really do live an breathe on the page.

Where do you see Gary Dobbs a year from now? And what other books can we look forward to?

Well Arkansas Smith is out in March 2010. This is intended to be the first in a series of western adventures featuring the mysterious man known as Arkansas. And I’m just about to hand in the first draft of a TV tie-in novel I’ve done for BBC Books. At the moment I can’t say too much about that. Then I’m hoping to finish a crime project I’ve been working on for most of this year called A Policeman’s Lot which is a historical crime novel set in South Wales during Buffalo Bill’s visit with his circus in 1903. The policeman featured is named Inspector Frank Parade and again I’m hoping to develop him as a series character.

I don’t know where the name Frank Parade came from but recently I was reading a short story of mine in Peeping Tom Magazine from 1989 and in the narrative it is mentioned that an old lady watches an episode of Inspector Frank Parade Investigates on the television. So I guess he’s been in my subconscious for a little over twenty years.

And where do we see Gary Dobbs in a year?

Stateside maybe. Mostly traveling. I just want to see as many of the western states as I possibly can and take as many photographs as possible. Of course some of the trip will be research but for the most part I’ll just be content to be there and take it day by day. I’ve never been one for major planning which is why I’d like to get there, rent a vehicle and just drive. See where I end up – it’s as haphazard as that but then that’s my way. When I was in my twenties I went on a weekend to France and ended up traveling for more than a month, existing from my backpack. I even did a couple of days fruit picking and slept in a barn. Maybe I’ll end up in California picking grapes. Hey, that wouldn’t be too bad as long as I got to drink the end product.

Thank you, Gary, for spending some time with Laurie's Wild West. We look forward to reading Arkansas Smith next year.

For more information on Gary, go to his blog, The Tainted Archive. Gary's on sabbatical from the Archive right now (remember those two books he's writing), but he'll be back next Wednesday, and you can find plenty of interesting subjects now by going into the blog archive. You can find The Tarnished Star on amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, and The Book Depository. (The Book Depository ships for free worldwide, regardless of the purchase amount.)

Just Around the Corner: Interview with Gary Dobbs

Look for my interview with Western writer Gary Dobbs, aka Jack Martin, probably later today or tomorrow. Gary has had an interesting trip down the happy road to writing destiny. For one thing, he makes his home in Wales, which could make writing Westerns a challenge. But not for Gary. In addition, Gary and I share a common bond in that both of our grandfathers were major influences in our journeys to becoming writers. It's a great interview with one of the most interesting people I know.

100 Best Blogs for Book Reviews

I stumbled across this yesterday on Stephen Till's site: 100 Best Blogs for Book Reviews. I haven't had time to really delve into this list at all, so I can't recommend any. One of these days (probably when I'm retired at the rate it's going), I hope to have my blog on this list. But then that would require reading a LOT of books, and I can't even get through a book a week at this point.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Dashiell Hammett, Dell Paperbacks and Mapbacks

Any of you out there interested in Dashiell Hammett, The Continental Op, Dell paperbacks or even something I'd never heard of - mapbacks, simply must go to Dave Lewis' blog, Davey Crockett's Almanack to see his post - he tells the story of getting his first mapback and there's a great story with it.

Coming Soon: An Interview with David Saunders

Well this morning I finally put my noggin to use for something other than worrying about the Dodgers and realized that a perfect follow up to my discovery of www.pulpartists.com is to interview its host, David Saunders.

As I mentioned in my previous post, David is the son of Norman Saunders, one of the most famous of pulp artists. Besides his pulp work, Norman Saunders was the artist who created Mars Attacks, Wacky Packs, Batman Cards, Pre-Code Comics, Men's Adventure Magazines, Paperbacks, and countless icons of Pin-Ups, Monsters, Robots, Mayhem, Nazis, Aleins and Space Ships.

And while I knew that David had just put out his beautiful book on his father, I didn't know that David was also the author of several other biographies of pulp artists.

So keep an eye for this interview, which promises to be a great one. I hope to have it up within the next few weeks.

More on H.W. Scott and Another Great Pulp Web Site

Well, many thanks to my friend Walker Martin who steered me to a great site dedicated to pulp artists. I checked out his tip and not only found more information on H.W. Scott, I was treated to a great web site, The Field Guide to Wild American Pulp Artists, better known as www.pulpartists.com.

David Saunders runs this site. David is the son of one of the great pulp artists, Norman Saunders, whose work on Public Enemy is seen here. David came out with a fantastic book on his father's art work, entitled Norman Saunders. It is a massive book, a true work of art in itself. I've seen it: I met David at Pulp Fest, where he had a table and was selling autographed copies. I kind of kick myself now because I didn't get one then. When you go to www.pulpartists.com, you can check out the book and buy a copy. The book's cover is shown at the end of this post.

I was particularly pleased to see on H. W. Scott's page on pulpartists.com several Wild West Weekly covers, including a great one of Kid Wolf, my grandfather's character, that is shown below. You can tell it's from the early 1930s.

Anyway, back to H.W. Scott. Here is an abbreviated version of David's page on Scott.

"Harold Winfield Scott was born in 1897 in Danbury, CT. He was named after his relative, General Winfield Scott of the Mexican-American War.

After service in WWI, H.W. Scott attended Pratt Institute until 1922 where he studied with Dean Cornwell. Scott was hired to teach "pictorial illustraion" at Pratt in 1925, where he crossed paths with many future pulp artists, including Walt Baumhofer, Rudy Belarski, Fred Blakeslee, and Edd Cartier, all of whom were his pupils.

By 1930,Scott was regularly selling freelance cover paintings to pulp magazines such as Danger Trail, Top-Notch, Complete Stories, Wild West Weekly, Star Sports, Complete Sports, Best Sports, The Avenger, Doc Savage, Two-Gun Western, Six-Gun Western, and Quick-Trigger Western.

Scott later sold freelance work to slick magazines, such as Liberty, Colliers and Red Book. In the 1950s his work appeared on paperback books from Dell, and even comic books.

H. Winfield Scott was one of the most impressive men in the history of pulp art. He painted westerns and sports with a flamboyant, slap-dash manner that was wildly expressive of his intemperate disposition. He was a classic member of the hard-drinking Salmagundi Club of freelance artists.

According to Scott,"I was best known as a whirlwind painter of rootin' tootin' cowboys. Art directors liked the spirit I got into all my paintings. I have a lot of spirit myself and that's why I always worked so hard. I never knew Christmas. I'd be doing two or three of these things a week sometimes, and sometimes till late at night. At 2 a.m. I'd scratch out a face that wasn't right, go to bed and then get up and start all over again."

H. Winwield Scott died at age 80 in Croton Falls, NY, in November 1977."

Many thanks to David Saunders for his information. I'm going to put pulpartists.com on my web site lists on the right, so you'll be able to go to it any time you want.

And of course, thanks to Walker, who has turned into one of my favorite followers of Laurie's Wild West.