For over a decade now, film historian John Bengtson has been using his keen investigative eye to find forgotten locations from the greatest films of the silent era’s favorite funny-men. As a huge fan of his previous books about comedians Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, I jumped at the chance to help photograph some locations for his upcoming book on Harold Lloyd, silent comedy’s “third genius.”
That’s how Kimi and I found ourselves over the weekend between Chatsworth and Simi Valley along the Santa Susana Pass hunting down locations from films made over eighty years ago.
Many of the world’s warmest cinematic memories were born along this stretch of highway. Lloyd often performed daredevil stunts for comedic effect along the Southern Pacific Railroad line that passes through the area. Keaton also filmed here at the old Iverson Movie Ranch, where he used the stony landscape masterfully in portraying a caveman for a segment of a film called Three Ages. The pass’ rugged, rock-strewn locations also served as backdrops for literally thousands of Westerns over the years, and are the very image of the Old West in the minds of millions around the world.There is a site of another film ranch along Santa Susana Pass, the Spahn Movie Ranch, that also provided its share of movie magic to the world, but is known today for the part it played in one of Los Angeles’ most heinous killing sprees.
Forty-one years ago today, cult leader Charles Manson ordered four members of his “Family,” as his followers were known, to murder everyone in a house in Benedict Canyon. His drug-fueled motive for the killings was to spark “Helter Skelter,” a race war between blacks and whites. The grisly murders of actress Sharon Tate and five others, along with the butchering of grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife the following night in similar fashion, were launched from Spahn Ranch, where the fake family lived in an artificial Western town.
The Family arrived at Spahn Ranch in 1968 and took up residence in shacks that had modeled as a Western set for several films and television shows, including Bonanza. The ranch was owned by 80-year-old George Spahn, who let Manson and his followers live at the site in exchange for sexual favors from the female members of the Family.A week after the killings, Manson and 25 Family members were rounded-up at the ranch on suspicion of auto theft, but were later released on a technicality. They fled to Death Valley where they were eventually apprehended, and several Family members, including Manson, were tried and convicted for their roles in the murders.
Today, nothing is left of the former film ranch after a wildfire burned every building to the ground a year after the killings.
It’s jarring to think that the same stretch of highway can be the birthplace of such laughter … and such terror.