An exclusive interview with Philip N. Krasne: The Man Who Saved Pioneertown
"Come on, Phil, we'll take you to a place you never heard of."
"Oh, really?" Phil Krasne recalls asking. "Where's that?"
"A little settlement in the high desert called Pioneertown."
"...Oh, Pioneertown, you say?" Krasne remembers his hosts wondering why he was chuckling at them.
The retired Hollywood producer was visiting friends in Palm Springs several years ago when they offered
to show him the little hideaway nobody knew about up off State Route 62 where "they used to shoot westerns."
"I had to tell them right there," Krasne recalls, "that I helped build Pioneertown."
This was no understatement. Gene Autry is often credited with starting Pioneertown. Wrong. Autry never
underwrote the Pioneertown "filming concept" or bought property. Roy Rogers certainly invested and owned
property here until his death but he never used the facility for his own movies. Russel Hayden invested and
sought investors along with co-founder, Dick Curtis, and produced extensive film here in the 1950s. Yet none
of these actors could claim the formative status belonging to Philip N. Krasne as "the man who made Pioneertown"
or even more singular: "the man who saved Pioneertown." Pioneertown history is incomplete without Krasne's story;
indeed, without him there would be no Pioneertown history.
Dick Curtis had discovered the location site by horseback in the mid-1940s. Along with Russel Hayden,
Roy Rogers and some members of the Sons of the Pioneers, a concept was developed for "an all inclusive
filming location" for westerns. By 1946 the town was being built but it lacked one essential ingredient: a client.
Krasne describes the place when he first saw it: "What's now Mane Street was less than half completed.
It was a ghost town really with only four or five permanent residents. There was a Chinese restaurant and the motel."
It is no little irony that Krasne would become one of the pioneers of Pioneertown. In 1947 he was on his way to being
a groundbreaker in his own field. He was creating a new cowboy hero that he would market in a manner totally
unimagined by the movie studios. His hero: The Cisco Kid. His market strategy: syndicated-selling by region in
a medium everyone knew was a joke÷a silly gizmo that was just another passing fad: television.
When historians recount the pros and cons of American media in this century, the story will be incomplete
without at least a footnote for Philip N. Krasne. Pioneers are first comers. Krasne was not only the pioneer
of Pioneertown but a pioneer of television and the way it does business to this day. This then is the story of
a trailblazer and it is no small luster for Pioneertown heritage that his achievement began on Mane Street.
Phil Krasne was a lawyer by trade. He drifted into entertainment law in the 1930s. "It was eight to ten years
before I got greasepaint in my blood," he says. "I counseled for Edward Alperson's Grand National Pictures,
then Producers Releasing Corporation better known to western cinephiles as PRC. They were making Tex Ritter
westerns for $12,500 apiece. We had a little studio on Santa Monica Boulevard near the Samuel Goldwyn lot÷I think
it's a Trader Joe's now. I remember our leading ladies in those pictures got a flat $125. One of them was an attractive
girl named Rita Cantina who later changed her name to Rita Hayworth.
We also made a series of singing Mountie movies called Renfro of the Mounted. Krasne had attended the
University of Michigan and two of his school chums came to watch their pal "the movie genius, at work."
"James Newel as Sgt. Renfro the singing Mountie, is paddling a canoe on our sound stage. Behind him is a
process screen of a beautiful mountain lake and the air is filled with a pre-recorded song which the actor mouths.
The director yells cut! What's wrong? 'Any kid can tell that paddle isn't pushing against water,' he says. Okay,
they have a prop man lie down out of sight behind the canoe and give the paddle resistance with his hand. They
roll the scene again. 'That's still no good!' hollers the director. Now what? 'Any idiot can see that the paddle is dry!'
he says. Okay, now they have a second prop guy lie down there with a bucket to splash water on the paddle so it
comes up wet. The scene is shot. 'Cut! Print!' snaps the director. 'Good take!'"
Krasne has to laugh. "This was the way we made movies in the studios known as 'poverty row' and my college
buddies never let me forget what a genius I was." Krasne's college friends were Jack Pritsker, scion of a wealthy
family and Dave Paley, cousin of Bill Paley of CBS. Already, it seems, Krasne was hunting financial backing for
his own dreams.
Sergeant Renfro proved to be the undoing of Grand National. "We got too big for our britches and spent
$35,000 on a Renfro and it lost money." That and other factors made Grand National go broke in 1939.
Krasne's friend and fraternity brother from college days was Fred Ziv who was involved with radio program
syndication sales wherein broadcast rights to shows were sold to various regions. Ziv's forte was the syndication
agreement. He told Krasne he wanted to find a property he could produce. To enhance marketability it should have
a memorable sound signature or trademark phrase. Across the commercial panorama of that day, one hero reigned
supreme in trademark phrase recognition: The Lone Ranger and "Hi-Yo, Silver!"
Krasne soon found a property at Twentieth Century Fox and single-handedly came up with a signature tag line
to go with it. "I called up Fred and told him, 'I've got it: He-ey, Cis-co!..."
Though The Cisco Kid was being produced by Fox as a motion picture series, Doubleday Publishers controlled all rights to all O. Henry characters. The publisher held the copyright which accrued, it stated, as the character developed. Krasne began negotiating with the publisher to tie down radio rights. This brought him into a long legal fencing match with a formidable Doubleday attorney, Leonard Meiburg. "He was a big pompous guy," Krasne recalls, shaking his head, "who should have gotten a medal for making a bundle of money out of nothing."
O. Henry's original mention of the Cisco character is fleeting. He's not a nice guy either- a killer, a rapist, not somebody you invited to your barbecue. "We didn't want that kind of character," Krasne laughs. "That made no difference to Meiburg÷who negotiated for Doubleday to have a budget allotment in every Cisco episode we made."
But on the bottom line, Krasne's efforts for Fred Ziv must be seen as having brought home the bacon. It gave them one of the most famous radio (and soon TV) intros in history:
"Here's adventure! Here's romance! Here's O. Henry's famous Robin Hood of the old west÷The Cisco Kid!"
Krasne wanted more than a radio Cisco, he wanted motion picture rights and even rights for the infant medium of television. But Doubleday revealed they could not release these as long as Fox was producing its series of Cisco features starring Cesar Romero. Then came the crushing news. Doubleday was obligated to hold back Cisco film (and television) rights for twenty years after Fox ceased production. The word to Krasne was, if he could get Fox to cooperate, they could make a deal.
Other factors were about to intervene. The Cisco Kid had been a very successful franchise firmly in the grip of Twentieth. Fox's Cisco, as played by Cesar Romero, was a dapper sophisticate, successful enough to generate thirteen features. But these were second features or "B-movies" which rented for flat fees only. A second feature, therefore, could make only a set profit. Fox had run its course with Cisco. The franchise had become so popular that budgets inevitably crept up to the point that the profit margin had disappeared.
That wasn't all. "We were trying to expand our 'Good Neighbor' policy with Mexico," Krasne explains. "It was World War II and hemispheric solidarity was a necessity in fighting the Axis Powers. Mexico resented Cisco's costume. They said Cesar Romero dressed more like a ballet dancer than a caballero."
Thus, profits and politics made the series unattractive for Fox. Krasne had an ally inside the Fox camp, the redoubtable Spyros Skouras, president of the studio. Skouras lent a friendly ear to the budding independent producer's desire to own the Cisco character. On Krasne's birthday, Skouras called to tell him he had a birthday present for him. Fox was waiving its option and would not hold Doubleday to its 20 year sale prohibition. The Cisco Kid was his.
Krasne then turned to the problem of Cisco's "look." "I hired a consultant from the Mexican embassy and we re-dressed Cisco in a decidedly caballero wardrobe. The Mexican government was happy. Doubleday was happy. And Fred Ziv and I were ready to begin production."
By the time this long legal tango was over, so was World War II and Krasne's fledgling enterprise was faced with still another hurdle. Hollywood's overhead costs were skyrocketing. Labor costs, suppressed during the war, were rising annually. The unions had muscle and second features were being priced out of existence. Filming in San Fernando Valley locations was further handicapped by transportation time which encroached on the valuable daylight shooting schedule.
"Somebody told me," Krasne says, "'there's a place you ought to go see where cowboys and cowboy singers are building a community of permanent residences that can be used as sets."
When Krasne came to Pioneertown he realized he could house his crew and staff in the motel and the horses were already there. Plus, the open clear skies were free of smog (already a reality in Los Angeles) and airplane noise. The secluded facility would maximize his shooting day.
Krasne filmed five Cisco Kid features for United Artists and in the process stimulated the first Pioneertown land boom. He bought 40 acres in the heart of town and purchased filming rights for 32,000 more acres. This was the era of other speculators like Bill Murphy and Fletcher Jones.
To play the Cisco Kid, Krasne needed an actor of exemplary character, someone children could respect as an honorable, ethical role-model. The actor Duncan Renaldo was a genuine gentleman, the embodiment of the ideal Krasne wanted. For Cisco's archetypal sidekick, Pancho, Krasne chose the beloved character actor, Leo Carrillo.
Duncan Renaldo had suffered a great setback in the 1930s. His career took a blow that would have undone a performer of less moral fiber. In these years, stardom was impossible if the star had done time in federal prison.
As the fanfare of the sound era changed movies forever, Renaldo had been groomed as a romantic leading man. In 1931 M.G.M. cast him in the movie Trader Horn to be shot on location in East Africa. Renaldo's "break" nearly broke him. There are two versions of his tragedy. The first, kindlier one, is Hollywood putting "the best face" on a travesty of justice and civil rights. William Witney recounts this version in his autobiography, In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase, published in 1996.
Witney, the king of serial directors in the 30s and 40s, can be commended for bringing Renaldo back into pictures and allowing him a chance to continue his career in supporting roles in Republic serials. His version is this: during filming of Trader Horn a jealous competition erupted between the film's director, W.S. Van Dyke, and Renaldo over the affections of actress Edwina Booth. When filming finished, the director said Renaldo was not a United States citizen and had originally entered the country illegally. It supposedly took the actor years to clear his name.
Phil Krasne says of the Witney version: "It's partially correct. Duncan never claimed he was born in the United States. When he was cast for Trader Horn the studio attorneys filed his passport documentation with a supposed place of birth. Renaldo didn't really know where he was born. At this time he was going through a nasty divorce. His ex-wife told authorities that he had lied on his passport documentation. This got him arrested for filing false statements and he was remanded to federal prison. He spent his time there studying his case as best he could but prison is full of jail house lawyers and his cause appeared lost."
Whose version is more accurate? Witney, the director or Krasne, the attorney?
Krasne jumps forward. "One day while we're shooting in Pioneertown, a visitor came on the set. Duncan introduced the man to me, saying, 'This man saved my life.' I spent some time with them. The man was a United States prosecutor. When he received his appointment in the 1930s, he dug into old files solely for his own self-edification. Without knowing who Duncan Renaldo was, his reaction to the handling of the case was: 'My god, what a miscarriage of justice.'"
The prosecutor, on his own time, got the case straightened out and saw that Renaldo was released from prison with all charges dismissed. The matter of the actor's nebulous citizenship status was settled once and for all, too. The prosecutor submitted his findings to President Franklin Roosevelt and FDR declared the man who was to become The Cisco Kid a citizen by presidential proclamation.
The first Cisco television episodes were shot in 35mm. As was standard practice, the 35mm prints were then reprinted in 16mm for TV broadcast. This inevitably resulted in an audible wobble on the soundtrack. "I'm no technician," Krasne says. "I couldn't load a camera if I had to. But this sound problem really bugged me." He asked why they didn't just shoot the episodes in 16mm in the first place. The answer was that 16mm editing equipment wasn't available. Krasne told his team this was ridiculous and set them to work modifying moviolas and editing heads for 16. A side benefit from this was that the production now escaped union rules. Unions considered 16mm amateur and not worth policing.
Filming in 16mm and using Pioneertown gave Krasne a profit margin that made his product viable for syndication. Ziv Productions sold the Cisco package to burgeoning TV markets all over the world. It was a pattern that would soon be followed. The major radio networks became TV networks and created an industry which caught the Hollywood studios by surprise.
"The studios were late," Krasne observes, "and stupid. Not only did they think television was a passing fad but they sold their film libraries to the TV networks for bargain basement prices thus gutting their own future. You had to understand radio syndication to see where television marketing was going. This is how radio came to be television. And we did it first with Cisco."
Producing nearly 40 episodes a year, the Cisco crew would shoot as many as six episodes simultaneously, doing exteriors first and gathering in the sound stage on Mane Street for interiors. Krasne hears mention of "the sound stage" and guffaws. "That was no sound stage, it had no insulation from outside disturbance. The only thing that made it work was the whole valley outside was quiet as a crypt and empty! All of Pioneertown was a soundstage."
Another Krasne innovation was color. "I knew someday there would be color," he says. "Our color footage was automatically reprinted in black and white but the original negs were color. I never viewed our color footage because I didn't want to be embarrassed by it. Color quality was more exacting, you know. The first time I saw Cisco in color was when Duncan Renaldo died and they ran a color episode on TV as an homage. I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn't bad."
Krasne sold out his interest in the Cisco franchise to Ziv. What he had assimilated from Ziv's radio syndication expertise and pioneering Cisco on television in Pioneertown was soon to prove decisive. With Jack Gross, who had been a major feature producer for RKO and Universal, Krasne now formed two new companies. Their Gross-Krasne Productions produced early TV series like The Big Town at their Hollywood studio on Bronson Avenue. The episodes were then distributed by their United Television Programs which followed the tried-and-true Cisco syndication formula.
The ultimate validation came quickly. Lew Wasserman of MCA-Universal called Krasne saying he wanted to buy him out. Krasne doesn't mind admitting he was intimidated. Among moguls no negotiator came tougher than Wasserman. He was the man whose offer you didn't refuse. Krasne did. He told Wasserman, with all due respect, that his little enterprise was only three months old, was still forming and wasn't really going to be worth what he wanted for it for another eighteen months. What price, Wasserman wondered, did Krasne have in mind? Krasne politely told him that a "pet number" he had always liked was $1 million. Wasserman agreed to wait the eighteen months. But six months later he called again and told Krasne, "You've got your million."
Wasserman was candid. Krasne's organization with regional sales personnel was already in place, the know-how was there. It would take MCA two years to start from scratch and achieve the same market savvy. So, for selling his nine month old fledgling, Krasne became a millionaire.
It had all started with Cisco and Pancho on the dusty streets of Pioneertown. That's where Krasne's television track record began and ultimately made giants like Lew Wasserman take notice and then take out their checkbooks.
How was Duncan Renaldo to work with? "He was a homey, nice and gentle man," says Krasne fondly. "Only one thing would make him mad. Leo Carrillo was a helluva' actor÷and an expert scene stealer. Duncan would be in the foreground, playing his heart out and suddenly realize Leo was behind him, tugging at his ear or making faces and stealing the scene right out from under him. Those would be the biggest battles you ever saw."
Did Renaldo contribute to developing the Cisco character? "You bet he did," Krasne assures. "He wanted Cisco to be an example for kids. 'Don't fight and be good,' was the way he played it and that was fine with me. Cisco never shot to kill and never started a fight. "Maybe," Krasne says, "that's a pretty good standard for a generation of kids to look up to."
Much tree pulp has been used for writers to explain the popularity of the American western. The attraction is global, from the samurai epics of "Kurosawa" to the German Karl May's sagas of "Old Shatterhand". We know most of our western imagery is non-historical fabrication, a Hollywood myth, if you please, which we substitute for what life in the real West was like: drudgery, disease and monotony punctuated by surprises of natural disaster, accident or violence.
We may look back on Phil Krasne's Cisco and Pancho nostalgically as a friendly old toy from the attic of our childhood. But maybe Krasne's creation goes deeper than this. The great westerns and even the not-so-great ones sink their roots into the bedrock of The West as in Western Civilization. Cisco and Pancho, in their humble jovial way, belong to a tradition even older. Tale-tellers in Mesopotamia or Sumer seven or eight millennia back would find something familiar about these two friends of ours. Cisco and Pancho are two roving adventurers whose wanderlust takes them across the landscape of human imagination. Whether it's Gilgamesh or Butch and Sundance, the origins are the same.
Is there anything unique or special that Cisco and Pancho lift up from this massive tradition? Yes, and this is the Phil Krasne signature. The Cisco episodes invariably start with laughter between the twosome on the rove. Some repartee or verbal dodging evokes their predisposition of humor with which they greet life. Krasne imbued them with this luster of human spirit and in so doing gave them the best of himself. They can't help it if The Trail will unfold dramas of bushwhacking, robbery and mayhem for innocents. They'll just right the wrongs as best they can until they're able to call out to us that everything, for now, is okay again.
Maybe in 1950 with the A-bomb on our minds and fear of conspiracy on our doorstep, this was needed. Maybe this is a perennial longing.
"Good-bye, Amigos!" shouts Cisco. "See you soon!" hollers Pancho. And they ride away laughing. Not a wimpy chuckle or a politically correct smirk but an uproarious deep guffaw straight from the belly, an inside joke they know and we don't. It doesn't really matter what it is anyway. What matters is Cisco and Pancho are leaving us on The Trail like they met us: laughing. May all our entrances and exits be so enlightened.
Author John Huff resides in Pioneertown and is a screen writer. His series of articles on Pioneertown began with our Summer 1997 issue.
Ernie Kester, Diamond Braverman, Ben Costello, Anita Porter, Elizabeth Muir, Marion Philadelphia, Andreas Kossak.
William Witney's autobiography, "In A Door, Into a Fight, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase "(1996) published by McFarland,
Hi-Desert Magazine and Hi-Desert Publications.