July 12--When it comes to Hollywood close-ups, Ventura County has long been a player.
It was on our soil that silent-film heartthrob Rudolph Valentino catapulted to superstardom after he hit the dunes at Hollywood Beach in 1921's "The Sheik." Warner Bros., now a cinematic empire, is said to have shot its first film in 1916 in Santa Paula.
Vivien Leigh's famous vow not to go hungry again (as Scarlett O'Hara) in the epic 1939 classic "Gone With the Wind" was made not in some Southern Civil War state but atop Lasky Mesa in the Simi hills of eastern Ventura County.
In addition to Valentino and Leigh, the county also has hosted legends such as Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, Jack Nicholson, John Travolta and Julia Roberts over the years.
Robin Hood, Tarzan and the Lone Ranger have roamed our lands. Our beaches have stood in for faraway sands from the Arabian desert to the Philippine Islands. Our ranches and rocky outcroppings have been the bucolic backdrop for traditional Western "oaters" and just about every other cinematic stripe.
Such delicious tidbits and nuggets -- and more -- flavor the exhibit "Quiet on the Set: A Century of Film in Ventura County" that continues through Aug. 25 at the Museum of Ventura County in Ventura. It's part of the museum's yearlong celebration of its 100th birthday.
The exhibit covers ground from some of the earliest days of U.S. cinema up to more contemporary fare such as "Little Miss Sunshine" (2006, featuring scenes in Ventura) and "Water for Elephants" (2011, Piru and Fillmore).
It seems as if almost every area of the county has had a Hollywood lens trained on it at some point.
"It's true," said Anna Bermudez, the museum's curator of collections and orchestrating maestro on this exhibit. "It really is uncanny that way."
It speaks to the county's wide variety of beautiful scenery -- but also that large portions of it lie in the so-called 30-mile studio zone that holds down production costs.
A whistle-stop tour
By necessity, the exhibit is a broad-brush look at Hollywood's presence locally rather than a definitive accounting of every film that shot a scene or two here.
The sizable level of local movie activity and the museum's modest size didn't match, so Bermudez and crew highlighted just a few films each from select areas over the decades.
Corriganville in Simi Valley, Bermudez noted, "could have been a whole another exhibit by itself, so we decided to just touch on it." It was an old movie ranch that hosted the Lone Ranger (both the TV series and, the exhibit notes, some of the films) and hundreds of other shows after Ray "Crash" Corrigan purchased it around 1937.
The exhibit's done in a "train stop" motif, with cities (or communities) presented with old rectangular black-and-white signs like those once found at depots. Bermudez said that in her time there, "this is the most ambitious design we've done."
As for interest level, this is one of those no-brainer exhibits.
"I thought it would be a good summer showcase," Bermudez said simply. "People love films and love going to the movies."
Hippos, burritos and one weird suburb
The same could be said of Hollywood coming to Ventura County. The county even has hosted the same movie twice, a double shot of "Ramona" -- the famous 1910 one director D.W. Griffith and star Pickford shot in Piru, and the lesser-known 1916 version that director Donald Crisp filmed partly in Casitas Springs at the old Waterhouse Ranch property.
The Griffith effort, a silent 17-minute one-reeler, marked one of the first-ever attempts to shoot films on location -- Helen Hunt Jackson's same-titled 1884 novel on which the film is based is said to be set at Rancho Camulos near Piru.
Hollywood's deep footprints here have produced geographic namesakes and hilarious oddities.
Lake Sherwood near Thousand Oaks got its name after it was the site for the 1922 version of "Robin Hood," starring Douglas Fairbanks (who was married to Pickford at the time).
The area also was used for scenes from a few of the Johnny Weissmuller "Tarzan" films. Once, some recalcitrant hippos used as background "extras" didn't want to leave the set.
"It took them three days to get the hippos out of the lake," a chuckling Bermudez said. "They didn't want to come out."
Such odd sights have continued into this century. When the 2003 film "Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat" came calling, Hollywood built a faux suburb of some 24 homes drenched in bright and pastel purples, pinks and blues to emulate Theodor Geisel's cartoonish world in the hills between western Simi Valley and eastern Moorpark.
The strange, dreamlike spectacle -- think Salvador Dali painting dabbed into the hillsides -- stopped traffic, put helicopters in the air in search of lookey-loo tabloid photos and prompted more than a few quizzical calls to City Hall. Many people tried to crash the party but were denied, as the set was closed to the public.
Perhaps the solution was breakfast burritos. That worked for Bermudez's kids when the 2000 film "Erin Brockovich" shot on Emma Avenue in midtown Ventura.
That set also was closed and streets were blocked off, but that couldn't stop people who lived right in the neighborhood. Bermudez then lived a few blocks over; each morning, her son, Robert, had her make a bunch of breakfast burritos.
He used them, Bermudez recalled, to "bribe the security guards to get on the set."
Bingo. Robert, along with her two daughters, Andrea and Alicia, as well as their friends, had access to Hollywood just a few skips from the front porch.
"They met Julia Roberts, they got autographs, they got into the house (being filmed)," mom reported. "They had a ball. My kids still refer to it as 'the summer of Erin Brockovich.'"
Asked what magic elixir she stuffed in those breakfast burritos, Bermudez cracked, "You mean besides love? I don't know. I was pretty bleary-eyed in the mornings in those days."
Whipping around the county, the cinematic morsels just keep coming.
Ventura also was backdrop for Nicholson in "The Two Jakes" (1990), Travolta in "Swordfish" (2001) and a pretty funny vehicle scene in "Little Miss Sunshine."
Its Oak Street was home to "Homicidal," a 1961 film from horror meister William Castle that starred Glenn Corbett of Ojai (and "Route 66" fame). Castle's film, the exhibit notes, included a 45-second "fright break" so that those who thought they wouldn't be able to take it could leave -- and get their money back.
Over in Santa Paula, the Star Film Company briefly set up shop in 1910-11 at Sulphur Mountain Springs with an editing room on Pleasant Street. The company, which made more than a dozen shorts (mainly westerns) in its one-year stay there, had among its founders Georges Meli s, the French film pioneer who was the subject of Martin Scorsese's stellar 2011 film "Hugo." His brother, Gaston, ran Southern California operations.
"Inherited Passions," a 1916 short shot in Santa Paula, was Warner Bros. first film, the exhibit claims. Supposedly, Jack Warner himself arrived in Santa Paula, found out that director Gilbert Hamilton was wasting money, fired him, and finished the job.
But even Warner's hands-on effort couldn't save it. States the exhibit: "It was the company's first film, and first flop." A company history on its website doesn't mention it, but notes that Warner Bros. first full-scale film debuted two years later in 1918.
Howard Hughes filmed part of his 1930 "Hell's Angels," starring bombshell Jean Harlow, in Santa Paula Canyon. The prom scene in the 1976 film version of author Stephen King's creepy "Carrie" was shot in Santa Paula High School's gymnasium.
Crews brought in tents and several hundred fake palm trees to help Valentino convince moviegoers that Hollywood Beach was the Arabian desert in "The Sheik." Renowned director Stanley Kubrick filmed scenes from the 1960 Roman-themed movie "Spartacus," which starred Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier, at Hollywood Beach.
Some 1,200 Filipino-Americans were brought in as extras alongside stars Gary Cooper and David Niven for 1939's "The Real Glory" that filmed at Point Mugu, which doubled as the Philippine island of Mindanao during the Moro Rebellion. The area also was used for scenes in the 1941 film "A Yank in the R.A.F." that starred Tyrone Power and World War II pinup girl Betty Grable.
Give Simi Valley props for variety. Its hills hosted Scarlett O'Hara, the Lone Ranger and a cat in a hat, and the city also supplied the house for the 1982 sci-fi/horror hit "Poltergeist" (which also filmed in Agoura Hills).
Also included is a companion exhibit of celebrity photographer Guy Webster's Hollywood work. Webster, a longtime Ojai resident who has shown at the museum before, has included shots of Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Natalie Wood and Barbra Streisand, among others.
Other "Quiet on the Set" touches include a monitor that shows clips of films shot locally; an interactive area with strobotops, cinescopes and a storyboard scene where kids can put up their own characters in the pretend film of their making; and a little theater area, done up in a nook with an Art Deco motif and curtains, that shows a continuous loop of Chaplin shorts on a big-screen TV.
Off to one side in a glass case are rolls of Fotoplayers, a type of player piano that was used to create music and sound effects in the silent-film era.
The exhibit also salutes old theaters around the county, among them the Ventura Theatre, the Glen City Theater in Santa Paula, the Fillmore Towne Theatre and the Boulevard Theatre (later known as just the Teatro) in Oxnard.
Those date to the 1920s or earlier, and some of them developed out of the even older nickelodeons, Bermudez noted.
It's tempting to say that's a wrap, but this exhibit's subject is one that's bound to continue adding layers in years to come.
'Quiet on the Set'
The exhibit, subtitled "A Century of Film in Ventura County," continues through Aug. 25 at the Museum of Ventura County, 100 E. Main St. in Ventura. The galleries are open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors and $1 for children ages 6 to 17. Museum members and children under 6 get in free, and admission is free for all on the first Sunday of each month. For information, call 653-0323 or visit http://www.venturamuseum.org.
The museum also will host three exhibit-related talks.
Wednesday, 2 p.m.: Anna Bermudez, the museum's curator of collections, will give a gallery talk about the exhibit and some of the interesting stories she uncovered while researching it. Free with regular museum admission.
July 26, 7 p.m.: Photographer Guy Webster, a longtime Ojai resident who has a companion exhibit of his pictures of film stars running concurrently, will talk about the personal side of shooting celebrities and his memories of Hollywood. Admission is $45, and $35 for museum members. Seating will be limited to 50 people. Call 653-0323, ext. 7, to RSVP.
Aug. 21, 2 p.m.: Bermudez and a special, unannounced guest will talk about old local movie theaters in Ventura County. Free with regular museum admission.
(c)2013 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)
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