Tag Archives: ramona

“Ramona Days,” Part Two

It takes a special kind of crazy to make a man wake up early on a Sunday morning to climb hills in a remote canyon in search of hundred-year-old filming locations, but that’s what I did over the weekend. I happen to share this particular form of insanity with Hugh Munro Neely, the curator of the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education in Los Angeles. That’s how the two of us found ourselves climbing a mountain near Piru, California, where just over 100 years ago, legendary director D.W. Griffith came to film budding superstar Mary Pickford in a silent one-reeler called Ramona.

Ramona was based on the enormously popular 1884 novel of the same name written by Helen Hunt Jackson. It’s a story about a privileged young senorita who is rejected by her own culture when she marries a Native American man named Alessandro. Though largely forgotten today, Ramona was one of the nineteenth century’s best loved novels.

Director D.W. Griffith, one of early cinema’s true titans, was a big fan of Ramona and had even acted out the part of Alessandro on stage. By 1910, he had been directing movies for two years and was five years away from making his controversial silent epic The Birth of a Nation. Seventeen-year-old Mary Pickford, who was born in Canada, was well on her way to becoming “America’s Sweetheart,” with nearly 70 films under her belt. Griffith secured the Ramona filming rights for only $100, and boiled the 350-page novel down to a 17-minute one-reeler.   

Although not specifically mentioned in the book, Rancho Camulos, which lies two miles east of Piru on Highway 126, was believed to be the setting for Ramona’s home, and for many years the rancho even marketed fruits grown there under the “Home of Ramona” label.

Hugh Munro Neely.

Camulos became so associated with the Ramona story that Griffith decided to make what was then a rare decision by filming on location at the rancho. In May, 1910 he did exterior shooting over a few days in the hills surrounding Piru and at Camulos. In fact, Camulos is noted for being the first location to ever be given a screen credit when the following banner appeared at the beginning of the film: “The production was taken at Camulos, Ventura County, California, the actual scenes where Mrs. Jackson placed her characters in the story.”    


Henry B. Walthall and Mary Pickford in "Ramona."

I met Hugh on Saturday at Camulos, where he was presenting the film in the schoolhouse to guests of the annual “Ramona Days” festival which was taking place at the rancho. Hugh was in charge of the film’s recent remastering, which he completed in time for its 100th anniversary this past May. That same month I wrote an article for The Signal in Valencia where I matched up scenes from the film with current sites to show how much had changed in a century. The thing I was surprised to discover was that many of the sites looked remarkably similar today.

The same location today.

Hugh had some doubts about some of the canyon sites I identified in my article as filming locations (rightly so, as it turns out). He wanted to get a look at the sites for himself, and that’s how we ended up rising early on Sunday to straddle fences and climb mountains like a pair of bipedal mountain goats. I had to head out early, but Hugh was able to find five sites and possibly a couple more.

It may sound insane, but when you are able to match up a site like this …


… it makes it all worthwhile for a a couple of movie crazy guys like me and Hugh. 

“Ramona Days,” Part One

As author Dydia DeLyser states in the introduction to her book Ramona Memories, “The most important woman in the history of southern California never lived. Nor has she yet died.”

Ramona was the name of the woman, and she was the subject of an enormously popular 1884 fictional novel of the same name written by Helen Hunt Jackson. Ramona is a story about a privileged young senorita who is rejected by her own culture when she marries a Native American man named Alessandro. Though largely forgotten today, Ramona was one of the nineteenth century’s best loved novels.

Hunt intended the novel to be something of an Uncle Tom’s Cabin for Native Americans, dramatizing the harsh oppression of California’s mission Indians at the hands of white Californians. It gave birth to the “Ramona myth,” in which Ramona, who was a fictional character, took on a life of her own.

Hunt used real locations for the basis of her story, and soon thousands of readers began arriving in California from back East hoping to see where Ramona “lived.” Various California cities cashed in on the travel boom claiming to be Ramona’s birthplace, home, marriage location, and even grave site.

Although not specifically mentioned in the book, Rancho Camulos, which lies two miles east of Piru on Highway 126, was believed to be the setting for Ramona’s home. Camulos is a 40-acre National Historic Landmark situated within an 1800-acre working ranch. According to its website, it is “the only Mexican land grant rancho in California that is open to the public and still preserved in its original rural environment.” It was originally part of the huge 48,000-acre Rancho San Francisco Mexican land grant awarded to Antonio Del Valle in 1839. The house was built in 1853 by Antonio’s son Ygnacio and got its name from a Tataviam Indian settlement on the site called Kamulus.

“When the book came out, it was so popular that many ranchos vied for the title of “home of Ramona,” says Camulos docent Maria Christopher. “In reality, Helen Hunt Jackson had visited several ranchos but never identified the inspiration for the home of Ramona. A few years after the book came out, Charles Lummis published a book of photos based on his knowledge of California ranchos, illustrating how Camulos fit the description in the book. Also, in an appendix to one of the early editions, a journalist documented his visit to Rancho Camulos, identifying it as the true home of Ramona.”

The rancho quickly became a place of pilgrimage, and for years the Southern Pacific railroad made stops at Camulos’s own train station to accommodate all the tourists wishing to visit Ramona’s house. This did not sit well with the Del Valle’s who complained about tourists who took souvenirs, trampled the gardens, and entered the home uninvited – often asking to see a torn altar cloth that Ramona mended – forgetting that the young senorita had never actually lived.

The phenomenon continued long after Hunt’s death in 1885. The novel spawned “The Ramona Pageant” in Hemet in 1923, which is still held annually outdoors in April and May. A few years later, showman Robert E. Callahan penned a sequel to Ramona and founded one of California’s first theme parks in Culver City, known as Ramona Village. After going bankrupt, the park stood for many years on Sierra Highway near Canyon Country under the name “Callahan’s Wild West.” Many of the items from the park are now found at Heritage Junction in Newhall, including “Ramona’s Chapel,” a replica of the one found at Rancho Camulos.

The Ramona Myth was still powerful enough in 1910 for legendary director D.W. Griffith to make a movie based on the book starring “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford. The film, which was shot at Camulos and in surrounding canyons, will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Silent Film Funnymen in the SCV

Newhall's Beale's Cut, seen in Buster Keaton's "Seven Chances."

Last month I wrote about our efforts to place a historic plaque at the filming site of the final scene of Modern Times (1936) next February on the 75th anniversary of the film’s release. I’ll keep you in the loop on our progress. In the meantime, I wanted to write a bit about some of the other Santa Clarita Valley sites used by Chaplin, as well as his friend and rival Buster Keaton.


In 1921, stone-faced silent comedian Buster Keaton made a film called The Paleface. In one scene where Buster is being chased by Indians, he crosses a bridge that was constructed over Beale’s Cut in Newhall.

Beale’s Cut, located near the intersection of the Golden State (5) and Antelope Valley (14) Freeways, was at one time a 90-foot deep man-made slit carved though a mountain. It greatly aided travel to and from the San Fernando Valley from the mid-1800’s until being bypassed in 1910 by the newly constructed Newhall Tunnel, which was subsequently replaced by Sierra Highway in 1938.

Keaton returned to Beale’s Cut in 1925 while filming Seven Chances. In this film, Buster plays a man who has to be married by seven o’clock or lose his fortune. He fails to find a bride by taking “seven chances” at proposing directly, and in desperation, places an ad in the paper to find a wife. A mob of women in wedding dresses pursue Buster throughout the remainder of the film, briefly chasing him through the cut.

(Beale’s Cut has been used as a movie location many times in the past, most notably in Stagecoach (1939), starring John Wayne, and in a lost Tom Mix film called Three Jumps Ahead (1923), where he appears to jump the expanse on a horse!)

Charlie Chaplin in "The Pilgrim" outside of the Saugus Train Station.

In 1923, Charlie Chaplin – playing an escaped prisoner disguised as a preacher – filmed part of The Pilgrim a few miles up the road from Beale’s Cut at the Saugus Train Station. At that time, the station was located on Railroad Street across from the present site of the Saugus Café. Since then it has been relocated three miles south to the Heritage Junction Historical Park in Newhall. This park sits next to the William S. Hart Regional Park, which contains the home and ranch of the former silent cowboy star.

Ironically, Hart was the subject of a western parody that Keaton filmed in 1922 called The Frozen North. Buster was angry at Hart for publicly condemning his friend Fatty Arbuckle during Arbuckle’s well-publicized scandal, which was brought on by the death of an actress at a party. In The Frozen North, Keaton pokes fun at the tough, melodramatic character that Hart most-often portrayed in his films. Hart apparently didn’t find the portrayal funny, and refused to speak to Keaton for two years.

(The station was also seen in Suddenly (1954), starring Frank Sinatra, and The Grifters (1989), starring John Cusack, Annette Benning, and Angelica Huston.)

The Saugus Train Station today.

While not involving Chaplin directly, part of the film Chaplin (1991), starring Robert Downey, Jr., was filmed in nearby Fillmore; and Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, two of Chaplin’s United Artists partners, made the silent film Ramona at nearby Rancho Camulos in 1910.

The magicians are no longer with us – Keaton died in 1966, and Chaplin in 1977 – but at Beale’s Cut and the Saugus Train Station, we can still stand where some of their magic was made.

“Hollywoodland” in the Heritage Valley

Though never actually seen in the series, Santa Paula leaders lobbied for their city to be known as the home of presidential candidate Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) in "The West Wing," and the train station was said to be his campaign headquarters.

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.

Ebell Park, Santa Paula. The site of Gaston Melies' Star Film Company from 1911 - 1913.

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.