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Del and Gene

Me and Del were singin’ Little Runaway, I was flyin’  – Tom Petty, Running Down a Dream

Del Shannon, whose bio was remarkably similar to ...

Last week, I wrote about rock and roll pioneer Gene Vincent, who after changing his name, became world-famous on the strength of his first single, Be-Bop-A-Lula. He later saw his career flourish in England while it stagnated stateside, befriended and influenced the Beatles among others, and died prematurely in Santa Clarita.

Today marks the 21st anniversary of the passage of another local rock and roll legend. This singer also changed his name shortly before scoring a worldwide number one hit. He was later largely forgotten in America, but had legions of fans in England, and at the time of his death he was rumored to have been planning on joining former Beatle George Harrison in the Traveling Wilburys. He also died prematurely in Santa Clarita.

This legend’s name was Del Shannon, who was born Charles Westover in Grand Rapids, Michigan. During the early 60s, Charles was busy selling carpets after a stint in the army when he decided to change his name (getting his new moniker from the names of a friend and a Cadillac) and write a song called Runaway. The song, with Shannon’s signature falsetto backed by organist Max Crook’s Musitron, was released 40 years ago this month on February 14, 1961.  It reached number one on both sides of the Atlantic a few months later.

Shannon, like Vincent, had a few follow-up hits after his smash debut, but nothing to approach Runaway in popularity, and his career in America soon stalled. He still maintained a sizable following in England where Del became the first American to record a cover of a Beatles song, charting From Me To You months before the Beatles released their own version of the single.

... Gene Vincent.

At the end of his life, Shannon was working with Tom Petty, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Lynne, who were all members of the group The Traveling Wilburys. He was rumored to be replacement in the band for Roy Orbison, who had recently passed away.

But it was not to be. Shannon, who suffered from depression and alcoholism, killed himself with a .22 caliber rifle at his home just off of Sand Canyon on February 8, 1990. His wife later unsuccessfully sued Eli Lilly & Company after his suicide, blaming Prozac for his death.

The four remaining members of the Traveling Wilburys recorded their own version of Runaway as a tribute after Shannon’s death.

Del Shannon and Gene Vincent have one additional thing in common – they were both posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


Charlie Chaplin’s Days

Last night in Santa Clarita’s city council chambers, a motion was approved proclaiming Saturday, February 5, 2011 “Charlie Chaplin Day” in the city.

This was done to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the release of Charlie’s final silent film Modern Times, which was partially shot near Santa Clarita.

The early part of February often proved significant during Chaplin’s long and storied career.

Charlie was a young English music hall performer on tour with the Fred Karno Troupe when he was discovered by producer Mack Sennett and given a contract to work in the flickers. He had not yet turned twenty-five when he first stepped through the gates at Sennett’s Keystone Studios near Glendale in January, 1914.

He was immediately thrust in front of the cameras, and on February 2, 1914 made his film debut in a 15-minute comedy called Making A Living where he plays a swindler who gets apprehended by the Keystone Cops.

Less than a week later, on February 7, Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character debuted in a one-reeler called Kid Auto Races at Venice. Sennett loved to use whatever was happening in Southern California as a backdrop for his hastily constructed plots, and Kid Auto Races was no exception. A soapbox derby race was taking place down by the beach and Sennett hustled his cast and crew to Venice to capture the action. A plot was derived on the site requiring Chaplin to play a camera-crazy spectator at the races who sees the filming and does whatever he can to insert himself in the action.  

Chaplin hurriedly assembled a contrasting mélange of oversized and undersized clothing, dabbed on some greasepaint to create a moustache, doffed a derby, grabbed a cane, and just like that, one of the most enduring characters in cinematic history was born fully-grown.

Chaplin appeared in two more films over the next few days, including one that until recently was thought to have never existed.

On February 19, Charlie played a Keystone Cop in a film called A Thief Catcher. It was soon forgotten and all copies were thought to be lost. Chaplin, possibly because he was unsatisfied with the finished product, later claimed that the film had never been made.

A couple of years ago, a film historian was browsing in an antique shop in Michigan when he discovered the long-lost film. (We will be presenting A Thief Catcher, along with Modern Times on February 5 in Newhall as part of ChaplinFest. Leonard Maltin will be hosting a Q&A session with Tippi Hedren before the film. Ms. Hedren, who is most famous for starring in The Birds for Alfred Hitchcock, also starred in Chaplin’s final film, A Countess From Hong Kong in 1967.)

February 5 also proved significant to Chaplin in 1919. That was the day that he, along with film pals Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith, created United Artists.

It’s interesting that the February 5th “Charlie Chaplin Day” proclamation will be presented in a special ceremony down the hill from the William S. Hart mansion in Santa Clarita since Bill Hart would have been the 5th member of the United Artists team had he not pulled out of the deal at the last moment.


What’s Outside of Awesometown?

Outside of Valencia, California, which is known to city promoters as “Awesometown,” there is a big world filled with people, cars, countries, and reality shows. Outside of Pleasantville, a fictional town from a comedy that was partially filmed in Valencia, you won’t find much past Elm Street.

1998’s Pleasantville is a story about a 1950s sitcom which is centered around a utopian American town populated by a God-fearing, allegiance-pledging citizenry. The town is thought to live only in reruns, but in reality, it still exists in a televised time-bubble. The townsfolk, like characters in a Jasper Fforde novel, conduct their lives only in the one-dimensional way they were written, doomed to forever repeat the actions their writers gave them.

Pleasantville’s perfectly sanitized world, where the biggest crisis is a cat stuck in a tree, quickly changes when David and Jennifer, a pair of high school twins from the late 1990s played by Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon, get sucked into the series through their television set. The teleportation comes about thanks to a magical remote given to them by a mysterious TV repairman, played by Don Knotts, who was himself a long-time citizen of another television Eden called Mayberry. After the twins enter the picture, changes quickly occur beginning when Jennifer brings her Pleasantville Geography class to a standstill by asking, “What’s outside of Pleasantville?”

Color plays a central role in Pleasantville where the citizens see the world literally and figuratively in black-and-white. The changes brought about by the twins result in a gradual transformation of the Pleasantville world to color. Depending on one’s point of view, the use of color in the film signifies either an increase in knowledge and sophistication or of corruption.

Pleasantville was one of my favorite films of the 1990s and I was happy to recently learn that some of it was filmed in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Valencia High School, where my stepson is a sophomore, is the school shown at the beginning of the film where David trips all over himself asking a girl out on a date, and where he prepares for a Pleasantville trivia contest. While this takes place, his slutty twin sister Jennifer and her friends look on in disgust at her nerdy brother, and conduct an entire conversation with a group of guys centered around the word “Hey.” Valencia High’s quad, outdoor cafeteria, and the area outside the theater are seen on screen.

Later in the film, a car drives through a street that appears to be in Stevenson Ranch, which borders Valencia. Another SCV connection can be found in the soundtrack when rocker Gene Vincent sings Be-Bop-A-Lula. Vincent is a “permanent resident” of Newhall’s Eternal Valley Cemetery.

The SCV is a frequent filming site for films and television shows, with The Unit, Big Love, Criminal Minds, NCIS, The Mentalist, and Bones currently lensing locally.

If you’d like to learn more about the film and television history of the Santa Clarita Valley, feel free to sign up for the next session of my “Newhallywood on Location” film class in January in Newhall’s Heritage Junction.

I promise that it’ll be swell.


“Road Rage” Spielberg-style

I’m not sure if the term “road rage” had been coined in 1971, but I remember learning about it as a boy watching the psychological-thriller Duel, which was the first commercial film directed by a young Steven Spielberg.

Yesterday I wrote about Mystery Mesa, where the killer truck plunges off a cliff at the film’s conclusion. Today, we will take a look at some of the other sites used in the film around the Santa Clarita Valley.

Duel is a simple story about a traveling salesman, played by Dennis Weaver, who is stalked in his red 1971 Dodge Valiant by a huge rusty gasoline tanker truck. The driver of the truck is never seen, and the motive for the chase is never made clear.

Steven Spielberg was only twenty-five when he made the film, which was created as a made-for-television movie, but also had theatrical releases overseas and in a limited number of venues in America. It was based on a story written by science-fiction and fantasy author Richard Matheson, who got the idea when he experienced road rage from a truck driver on the day that JFK was assassinated.

Most of the film was shot over thirteen days around the Acton area of the Santa Clarita Valley, far from the urban encroachment of Los Angeles (at that time). Dennis Weaver was Spielberg’s choice for the role, but he only was able to sign the actor the night before filming began.

Since 1971, much of the open desert has been covered with tract housing, but a few of the locations still look much as they did back then. The tunnel used during the school bus scene is near Acton on Soledad Canyon Road. Nearby is Le Chien, a French restaurant on Sierra Highway north of Canyon Country, which was known as Chuck’s Café in the film. It was here that Weaver’s character confronts the man he believes to be the driver.

The gasoline truck used in the film was a rusty 1955 Peterbilt 281 which carried license plates from several states to subtly imply that the trucker had killed other drivers previously. It was destroyed at the film’s conclusion when it tumbled down the face of Box Canyon at Mystery Mesa in Canyon Country, which is visible from Vasquez Canyon Road. For the film’s theatrical release, additional scenes were shot which required the acquisition of additional trucks. At least one of the vehicles still exists in a private collection in North Carolina.

The roar that the truck makes when it tumbles over the cliff was later incorporated into Spielberg’s film Jaws, during the death of the shark. As the director later stated, it was “my way of thanking Duel for giving me a career.”

(THIS JUST IN: I found this great web site that has most of the filming locations of DUEL. Check it out here.)


“That Was Expensive”

The cliff face used in Conan O'Brien's recent promo, and also by Steven Spielberg at the conclusion of "Duel" in 1971.

Have you seen the latest promo for Conan O’Brien’s new show? The one where he fills a Dodge Dart with explosives, illegal fireworks, and un-popped popcorn, and then drives off a 900-foot cliff. At the bottom he emerges from the exploding wreckage in flames, looks into the camera and says, “That was expensive.”

Funny stuff.

The setting for the commercial looks like the surface of Mars, and appears to be miles from civilization. But it’s actually right here in the Santa Clarita Valley, just off Vasquez Canyon Road, on the doorstep of a city of 165,000.

Mystery Mesa is the name of the spot, and Kimi and I were lucky enough to get a tour of it recently. It’s not very well known outside of the ranks of Hollywood’s location managers, but in fact, it’s one of the most used filming sites in the entire Santa Clarita Valley.

The Mesa was once the site of Christian tent revivals in the 1920s. It later became a filming spot for the likes of William S. Hart in the silent Western days and has literally been seen hundreds of times over the years on screen.

It was here that Steven Spielberg filmed the conclusion of his memorable thriller Duel in 1971, where the killer truck drives off the same cliff as in the O’Brien clip (the cliff is only 120-feet tall, by the way). Spielberg came back here in 2005 to film several scenes from War of the Worlds. It was later used as the desert airport in The Aviator, and around the same time it doubled for ancient Egypt in The Scorpion King. More recently, the mesa became the island of Iwo Jima in the South Pacific for Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima. Next year, the Mesa will show up on the big screen again in Kenneth Branagh’s fantasy Thor, which stars Natalie Portman.

The site has been used in countless ads, often for Japanese car companies, and was recently seen in an expensive 100th anniversary promo for troubled oil company British Petroleum.

Mystery Mesa lies within the thirty-mile-zone, where producers get special breaks in union rules designed to keep filming costs down. The site was once nearly lost to development, but the owners have agreed to leave it as is to help keep filming in California.

So, the next time you are at the movies and you see the desert, or ancient Egypt, or even the South Pacific, don’t be fooled, you may in fact be looking at the Santa Clarita Valley.


The Black Hills of the Santa Clarita Valley

Newhall’s famous Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio has been made to look like lots of places in films and television episodes over the years. For three seasons beginning in 2004, it modeled for the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory for HBO’s gritty Western drama Deadwood.

Deadwood told the tale of a lawless mining camp that quickly sprang up on Indian land during the Black Hills gold rush of the late 1870s. The show was a brilliantly produced, unromantic view of the Old West, with tough language and even tougher characters. It was the creation of Writer-Producer David Milch and starred Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane.

The ranch’s Western Town set was as much a character in the show as any of the actors. Over the course of the series, the producers employed an army of painters and set builders to gradually change the settlement from a temporary tent city to an established town. The wood on the building fronts was even artificially aged as the series wore on to show the passage of time.

The show was famous for its use of profanity, which was liberally sprinkled into nearly every exchange. It has been estimated that the F-word was used nearly 3000 times over the show’s 36 episodes, averaging out to 1.56 times per minute.

Actors Keith Carradine, as Wild Bill Hickock, and Timothy Olyphant as Seth Bullock, from "Deadwood's" first season.

Legions of the show’s followers were heartbroken when it ended abruptly in 2006 after the conclusion of its third season. (Kimi and I experienced heartbreak earlier when Wild Bill Hickock was gunned down in the first season.)

Fans still wishing to step back into the 1876 town of Deadwood, Dakota Territory will be happy to learn that most of the Deadwood sets still stand at Melody Ranch. The town can be visited during specially arranged tours, as well as during Santa Clarita’s Cowboy Festival, which takes place every year during the last weekend in April.


The Blue-Eyed Assassin

Frank Sinatra is remembered for being a lady-killer in his films, but what is often overlooked is that he once played a would-be presidential assassin.

The date was October 1954, and the city of Newhall, California was still small enough to pose as the setting for the sleepy fictional town of “Suddenly” in the film of the same name.

In the film, Sinatra and a group of hired killers pose as FBI agents who take a group of people hostage in a house overlooking a train station, where they intend to shoot the president when he de-trains.

Suddenly came on the heels of Sinatra’s Oscar-winning performance in From Here To Eternity, and Sinatra delivers a solid performance as a psychotic heavy, which was a tough sell for a 120-pounder.

The film used many locations sprinkled around downtown Newhall which still exist, including the Benson house on 8th Street, and the Saugus Train Station, which is no longer at the site it occupied in the film, but today can be found in Heritage Junction, inside the William S. Hart Park.

Suddenly was thought to be an inspiration for 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, another presidential assassination film, which also starred Sinatra, who this time tries to prevent an assassination attempt.

Rumors circulated that Lee Harvey Oswald watched Suddenly shortly before assassinating Sinatra’s friend John F. Kennedy. This was not the case, but it’s possible that Oswald saw the film on its initial release in theaters nine years earlier.

The film was pulled from distribution after the Kennedy assassination and was largely forgotten. It again became a subject of controversy in the mid-1980s when a colorized version was released which turned Sinatra’s famous blue eyes brown.