A VIEW FROM PIONEERTOWN

By John Huff

In Cooperation With The Hi-Desert Magazine and Hi-Desert Publishing




Historic Hayden Ranch

(ed. The Ranch is Not For Sale)

by John Huff

The Scarlet Lady, Pioneertown, California In recent years most Pioneertown residents and visitors have missed one of the best views in the valley: Hayden Ranch. Stand in the street of this historic cowboy movie-set and your gaze is inevitably drawn to the northeast, through a divide in the buttes called Chaparrosa Wash, across the expanse that begins as Flamingo Heights, on and on, all the way to the pale blue crests of the distant Bullion Range. It is a long view. A feeling of infiniteness. What cinematographers rightly call a macro -- ideal as a primordial trackless vista from where the lone western hero will come riding into town. The view is so sure-fire certain of itself, it forces you to believe the rider will appear -- or maybe it's just twenty thousand nights of watching the same ritual drama on celluloid or video. Yes, the paradigm has retired into clichŽ but when you stand in the street on Hayden Ranch, the view works its spell on you and the whole idea seems new born.

Russell Hayden and his wife, Lillian Porter-"Mousie"-Hayden, co-founded the Pioneertown Corporation in 1946 with actor Dick Curtis, who specialized in playing villains but offscreen was known as a good guy. Other partners were Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and the singing group, The Sons of the Pioneers. "Bet you didn't know we darn near named the place "Rogersville," Hayden wrote later, "but after some spirited discussion we named if Pioneertown in honor of The Sons of the Pioneers. That way, no one man was getting top billing."

As Pioneertown got busier, Hayden and his pals got tired of the meandering "path" that connected the movie colony to what was then "the tiny community of Yucca Valley." They appealed to the county for a shorter and better road down to the highway. The county's answer was "no way." Hayden and company turned road builders. "I carried dynamite up from San Bernardino in my own car," he remembered. "Sort of a thrill ride for me and we just laid a road to our own liking. When we finished it, the county took a liking to it too, paved it and took over the maintenance. I was glad to be rid of it because I never saw so much rock hauled in all my life as when were cutting that baby through."

When Hayden sold the "Judge Roy Bean" series to television in 1955, he built a faithful reproduction of Langtry, Texas on his own 35 acre parcel south of town. Hayden Ranch was born. Dozens of TV series and movies were shot there whole or in part. Hayden promoted the location for its smog-free skies, unmarred scenery and serene lack of noise pollution. Already a 20 year veteran of the movie industry, he could see that urban sprawl was making Los Angeles County a difficult place to shoot westerns. He had earned his spurs in the mid-1930s playing Hopalong Cassidy's impetuous sidekick, "Lucky." In the 1940's he graduated into starring in his own westerns. In 1946 he played a rare contemporary role, Rod Stanton, United Peace Foundation investigator in the Universal serial, "Lost City of the Jungle." But for the most part Russ was known as a show business cowboy, who, unlike many of his peers, could actually perform his own stunts and was capable of rear-vaulting onto a horse without a springboard.

Hayden Ranch welcomed filmmakers with a one stop facility. The open-sided saloon was easy to light and fast to redress after fight scenes. Most of the other buildings were more than mere facades. They were weather-tight structures used to house movie equipment and props. The Haydens' lifelong hobby of collecting western artifacts and equipment was put to good use before the cameras. Their wagons, coaches, mining machinery tools, costumes, livery items, weapons and household furnishings all became props and set dressings for the shoots. Some of this collection was donated to the Gene Autry Museum but much of it still is in storage at the ranch in the jumbled disarray common to prop rooms everywhere.

Then there is "The Scarlet Lady." To the last days of his life, Hayden was building, planning and collecting. The Scarlet Lady is an authentic 1890s railroad saloon car, trucked to the ranch in 1981, then modified for filming. It was a bar car designed and appointed for what can be best described as 19th Century rolling parties. The inside bespeaks an age of lavish consumerism with ornate gingerbread woodwork and plush red velvet upholstery. Decorating the walls and ceiling are pictures of 19th Century calendar girls, now politely clothed. This train is rated PG.

Hayden had married Lillian Porter, a contract actress with 20th Century Fox, on July 4, 1945. The nickname "Mousie" was a joke to those who knew Lillian because, though diminiutive in size, she was not "mousie" at all. "She didn't suffer the company of fools," remembers a local Pioneertown resident who shall remain anonymous. "Once I saw her come across the room at Pappy & Harriet's," reports this witness, "and belt a man in the chest for talking out of turn. It must've been the right thing to do, the nonsense stopped right there. Everybody applauded."

The name "Mousie" came about when Darrel F. Zanuck, the Fox mogul, quipped, "You're a cute little mouse." Indeed. Check out her every-camera-angle beauty and impeccable comedic timing in such Fox A-list gems as "Song of the Islands" (1942) starring Betty Grable and Victor Mature. Even with a scene-stealer like Jack Oakie, you can't take your eyes off Mousie.

By a previous marriage with actress Jan Clayton, Russell had a daughter, Sandra. As Hayden Ranch grew in the mid-1950s, Sandy grew up around movie and TV production. She appeared in episodes of "Judge Roy Bean" and was on her way to an acting career of her own. To say Russell and Mousie doted on the teen-ager was an understatement. Though Sandra continued to live with her mother, she maintained a close relationship with her dad and new mom. "Russ and Lillian were her second home," says Mousie's sister, Anita Porter. One evening in September of 1956, Sandra was driving on Coldwater Canyon Road on her way from Jan Clayton's home to Russ and Mousie's. The actress was wearing her contact lenses and not her glasses, which family members later felt put her at risk for night driving. In the ensuing traffic accident, the young heiress to two fortunes died at the scene.

The Haydens never fully recovered from their grief over losing Sandy. For awhile they relocated in Arizona where Russ produced the series, "26 Men." But eventually they returned to Pioneertown to settle for good at Hayden Ranch. "They moved up here because young Sandy loved this place," explains Anita Porter. "They felt a closeness to her here." The Haydens responded to their loss by forming the Sandra Hayden Memorial Fund, which for many years held money-raising picnics at the ranch. Proceeds went to some deserving disabled person who had somehow slipped through the welfare net.

Russell Hayden died in 1981 at age 69. Since then the ranch has been closed to the public. Mousie lived here until her death this year. Her home was once the general store for the western street. On the outside it still bears some of the set dressings and accouterments from the years of filming. The small home is a mini-museum with Mousie's photos, paintings, collectibles and scrapbooks commemorating the Haydens' life in film. After the Landers earthquake in 1992, Mousie told friends she never again looked in the Hayden Ranch school house. That long rectangular building at the north head of the street held "a bunch of props and antiques" and she assumed the quake had shaken things up. "So, she just never looked," says one neighbor. "That was Mousie."

On February 1, 1997 the Morongo Basin heard the news that Mousie Hayden had passed away in her sleep. It marked the end of an era in Pioneertown history.

Russell and Mousie Hayden dreamed of the ranch becoming an old west museum. Time and bad breaks contrived to thwart them. Members of the Morongo Basin community have suggested the site could be reclaimed, refurbished and opened again for public visitation. "Mousie would have liked someone to buy the ranch," says her sister, Anita, "and use it as a working memorial to movie and TV shooting. I hope that comes to pass." Judy Brannen agrees. "The whole place and its wonderful view... it's such a shame that folks don't get to enjoy it."

If you stand in the street of this historic western movie set, it's impossible not to feel its longing. Hayden Ranch seems to be waiting, waiting for someone to appreciate it again, to stare out across the vastness and wonder when the lone cowboy will come riding into camera frame.





(ed. The Ranch is Not For Sale)

More About the Historic Hayden Ranch