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Pioneertown: A Movie Set That Became A Real Town

In 1946, a bunch of Hollywood legends including Roy Rogers, Dick Curtis, and Russell Hayden —tired of travelling to far-off locations to shoot western movies, that were very popular at the time— decided to build a Wild West set, in the High Desert of Southern California, where directors could shoot movies and the crew could live. They drove out to a spot 4 miles to the northwest of Yucca Valley, and two hours from Los Angeles, and started building facades and spaces to resemble a 19th-century western town. The town was named Pioneertown.

The project was a huge success. More than two hundred westerns were filmed at Pioneertown, including The Cisco Kid, and it served as the backdrop for a large number of television shows, notably Judge Roy Bean and The Gene Autry Show. As the years rolled by and Hollywood’s interest shifted from westerns to new ideas, business in Pioneertown dwindled and the town assumed a new role—that of a tourist attraction.

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Photo credit: Helen Gordon/Flickr

A visitor to Pioneertown in 2012 described her visit in an article in San Diego Reader:

Strolling down Mane Street is a bizarre experience. An abandoned bowling alley stands opposite a reconstructed jail, bathhouse and bank. Carts of “dynamite” sit like props in the dusty street, presumably from the weekly Old West re-enactments. Unsettlingly realistic dummies slouch in rocking chairs on porches, and fake crows are tied to rails and posts. We pass a grave with a wooden sign proclaiming “Welcome.” It is hard to tell what is real and what has been purposefully set up to unnerve. On the day we visited, the four-block town was empty aside from locals selling handcrafted saddles and feathered dreamcatchers, and a couple of tourists who seemed as confused by the place as we were. The houses on Mane Street look more like live-in works of art than homes; some residents had installed a display of broken chinaware, 50s-era toys and colored glass in the front yard.

More recently, people from the big cities —artists, entrepreneurs and other eccentric personalities—seeking respite from their stressful lives, have started coming here and staying for good. Properties around Pioneertown are selling like hot cakes.

Julian T. Pinder, a Canadian filmmaker, moved to Pioneertown in 2014 from Los Angeles with his wife. They bought what was a run-down mining cabin and turned it into an airy family home. Another Pioneertown resident, a Belgian jewelry designer, and his partner, a retired jewelry-industry executive, left their home in New York and bought and restored three homes in the area, including one that came with a church.

New businesses are also popping up all around. There is a state-of-the-art music recording studio here, and a vintage fashion store selling Bohemian skirts, maxi dresses, jumpsuits and leather jackets. One of the most happening spots in the town is Pappy and Harriet’s “Pioneertown Palace” that serves delicious ribs, barbecue, burgers, sandwiches, and live music. Among its regular patrons include notable musicians such as Eric Burdon and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame.

As of 2014, Pioneertown has a population of just over six hundred.

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Photo credit: Catchpenny/Flickr

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Photo credit: Laura Hamilton/Flickr

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Photo credit: Laura Hamilton/Flickr

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Photo credit: Helen Gordon/Flickr

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Photo credit: Helen Gordon/Flickr

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Photo credit: Wayne Stadler/Flickr

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Photo credit: Wayne Stadler/Flickr

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Photo credit: Wayne Stadler/Flickr

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Photo credit: Matthew Field/Wikimedia

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Photo credit: steph1874/Flickr

Sources: NY Times / www.visitcalifornia.com / Wikipedia / www.bestplaces.net

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