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Vol. 4 - No.06 June, 2022 Nooseletter Home SUBMIT AN ARTICLE
 
Hollywood's Lost Backlot
The History of Western Street
This article was provided to me by Hank and Deana Marie Garrett. They loaned me the book, Hollywood's Lost Backlot," and I hand-typed this entire article (exactly as it appears in the book) from Chapter 5 (because that is what I do). You can purchase your own copy of this marvelous book by clicking the link at the bottom of this article.
~Charles P. Scott
It is perhaps surprising on a gut level that this most quintessential of studios, for many years, had no permanent Western street on its backlot, although a short-lived version seems to have once stood south of the Ince Gate. Ince and DeMille both specialized in Westerns, but 40 Acres came after the former had departed, and DeMille’s big-scale frontier sagas were all produced after he had returned to Paramount. RKO did have a large Western set, built for Cimarron (RKO 1931), but it stood at their Encino Ranch. And David O. Selznick did not particularly like the genre. Once when asked how far the Western had come, the producer replied “from Wyoming to Arizona—and back.” Selznick’s one big Western, Duel in the Sun(SRO 1946), had rented its Paradise Flats “town” sets from MGM.

So, it was left to that unlikely producer Desi Arnaz to bring the Old West to 40 Acres.

The 40 Acres Western Street layout as adapted in 1967 for Bonanza
The Western Street was somewhat Y-shaped and was geographically situated between the Arab Village and the Railroad Station set. Built primarily for The Texan(TV 1958-60), there is some evidence that an embryonic version of the location had been used earlier, for The First Traveling Saleslady(RKO 1956), whether it introduced the set or not, did feature, in major supporting roles, James Arness and Clint Eastwood vying for stars Ginger Rogers and Carol Channing. Arness and Eastwood, as we know, would subsequently ride the range, respectively, in television and in feature films, for decades.

The Western Street was assembled, frankly, on the cheap, because Desi intended to use it, and rent it out, primarily for television. The year before, Warner Bros. had built a similar set on their Burbank lot, which they initially called the “TV Western Set.” The construction of both sets was a response to an unprecedented boom in the production of Westerns for the small screen. In 1959, the year after the 40 Acres set made its dusty debut, there were a remarkable twenty-six Westerns crowding the prime-time schedule.

The Western Street seemingly looked into Texas (1969)
Unfortunately, the set was completed at the top of this trend. Westerns would continue to be popular for the next several years, but as the craze trailed off, more and more locations to shoot these Westerns became available. The 40 Acres version had to compare with sets built for feature films—which were both larger and more detailed—and with movie ranches, properties usually north of Hollywood, which offered producers more visual variety and natural backdrops. Eventually the set ended up earning its keep by portraying what could be described as almost a parody of what a Western street was supposed to look and feel like, as contemporary-set like The Dick Van Dyke Show and My Three Sons used it to spoof Western conventions or to place their twentieth-century characters in a nineteenth-century-style setting.

The Western Street seemingly looked into Arabia (1969)
Additionally shot on the Western Street:
  • The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (TV 1952-66):
    as a ghost town, in the 1965 episode "The Ghost Town."

  • The Adventures of Jim Bowie (TV 1956-58):
    occasional.

  • The Californians (TV 1957-60):
    The Western Street made occasional appearances in the California Gold Rush-set series.

  • Yancy Derringer (TV 1958-1959):
    occasional.

  • U.S. Marshal (TV 1959-60):
    A spin-off of Desilu’s earlier The Sheriff of Cochise (TV 1959-59), this contemporary Western was, unlike its predecessor, which had many actually Arizona locations, mostly shot in California, both here and at the Iverson Ranch in northern Los Angeles County, although the episodes reveal a surprising amount of location work on display as well. The on-screen for this series is actually "United States Marshal.”

  • Bat Masterson (TV 1958-61):
    used the set in the 1959 episode "Dead Men Don’t Pay Debts," possibly others.

  • The Untouchables (TV 1959-63):
    A famous two-part episode, "The Big Train" (1961), cast Western Street as the (fictional) Cloverville, California, where Eliot Ness  and his men foul an attempt to free Al Capone, who is being transported too Alcatraz. The episode highlighted the rarely seen railroad tracks, which forked on the way out of town.

  • Bonanza (TV 1959-73):
    One of the most famous, and venerable, of all TV Westerns shot only five episodes in Culver city: "False Witness" (1967), "Catch as Catch Can" (1968), "My Friend, My Enemy" (1968), "The Clarion" (1968), and "The Running Man" (1969), the last of which staged a dramatic burning house sequence on the set.

  • My Three Sons (TV 1960-72):
    seen in one episode, "The Horseless Saddle" (1961). Note that the signage on the flats still says “Cloverville,” from the recent visit by Eliot Ness and his Untouchables.

  • The Dick Van Dyke Show (TV 1961-66):
    A 1966 episode, "The Gunslinger," shot an amusing dream sequence here, one of the few actually exteriors ever utilized in that classic series.

  • Hogan’s Heroes (TV 1965-71):
    used the barn on the edge of the set at least once.

  • Ride Beyond Vengeance (Columbia 1966):
    as Coldiron, Texas.

  • Batman (TV 1966-68):
    "Come Back, Shame," a 1966 episode, with Cliff Robertson as that episode’s not-so-bright supervillain.

  • Rango (TV 1967):
    Tim Conway played the title role in this Western comedy. The episode "If You Can’t Take it With You, Don’t Go," possibly others, shot here.

  • The Guns of Will Sonnett (TV 1967-69):
    Walter Brennan (The Real McCoys) returned to 40 Acres, occasionally, for this end-of-the-trail Western.

  • Lancer (TV 1968-70):
    as California’s San Joaquin Valley.

The Western Street in 1974 apparently boasted real tumbleweeds
Heading north past the Western Street, a visitor, at least a visitor in the late 1940s, would have next seen a craggy rock wall, probably constructed out of gunite, for Mighty Joe Young (RKO 1949), although the production paperwork actually referred to the location as an “open space and rocky ledge.” Whatever it was called, the set consisted of a wall of artificial boulders that were used in a memorable scene in that memorable movie.
Mighty Joe Young used these artificial rocks for some exciting cowboy-gorilla
roping action. Producer Merian C. Cooper's empty chair takes it all in. (1949)
The stately Manderley from Rebecca (United Artists 1940)—or at least the doorway and surrounding walls of Manderley—also stood nearby, just south of another stately mansion…
From the book "Hollywood's Lost Backot" by Steven Bingen
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