Through the years, Hollywood has modeled for hundreds of locales around the world. But ironically, when the producers of 1992’s Chaplin needed a shot of the Hollywood sign from the 1920s (which then read “Hollywoodland”), they had to travel 50 miles north of L.A. to the town of Fillmore to re-create the iconic structure. It seems that the one place that Hollywood no longer resembles is itself.
The Heritage Valley, which lies along a 40-mile stretch California 126 between Santa Clarita and Ventura, has been used for filmmaking since the earliest days of Hollywood. The valley is still covered with citrus and avocado groves that surround the towns of Piru, Fillmore, and Santa Paula. A ride down the 126 is a visual time capsule, and still a draw for producers needing a view of California with orchards rather than strip malls.
All of the communities in the valley have been seen repeatedly on film and television. Fillmore has appeared in recent episodes of Jericho, Big Love, and CSI; Ventura has shown up in Swordfish, Little Miss Sunshine, Erin Brockovich, and Chinatown; and parts of Carrie, Joe Dirt, and 1997’s Leave It To Beaver have been shot in Santa Paula.
The Valley’s earliest documented movie was the 1910 silent film Ramona, which starred Mary Pickford and was directed by D.W. Griffith. The film was made at Rancho Camulos, near the small town of Piru, and has the distinction of being the first film in history to list its filming location in the credits. During June of this year Piru was again a stop for film crews who built the “Benzini Bros. Circus” there for the upcoming film Water For Elephants, which stars Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, and Christoph Waltz. Piru has also been seen in Twilight Zone: The Movie and The Dukes of Hazzard.
A year after Ramona was made, the Star Film Company set up studios in Santa Paula. The company was owned by pioneering French filmmaker Georges Melies, who sent his brother Gaston to California to make films in America. The company only lasted for a few months, but soon other producers moved into town.
When Warner Bros. decided to get into film production, they chose Santa Paula to be the site of their first movie, which was called Passions Inherited (1916). They sank much of their meager fortune into the film, but the only updates they got from director Gilbert P. Hamilton were requests for more money. Finally, Jack Warner arrived on the scene to find Hamilton “directing” two young starlets in his bedroom, and learned that Hamilton had spent much of the film’s budget treating himself to on a new car. Warner promptly fired the director and finished the film himself. It was the company’s first film … and their first flop. (For the rest of his life, Jack Warner was said to use the name “Gilbert P. Hamilton” as his most profane curse phrase.)
For more on the early history of Warner Bros., check out my new book Early Warner Bros. Studios, which I co-wrote with noted Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker.