Tag Archives: william s. hart

In the Wake of the St. Francis Dam

I download the directions and climb in the car. Soon, I find myself two miles north of Saugus peering to the west towards a clump of trees on the side of a barren hill. Squinting, I can just barely make out a white marker. This is the place.

I follow a dirt driveway down into a dried-up creek bed. A “Do Not Enter” sign momentarily halts my progress, but since there is no place to turn around, I cautiously proceed on up the hill towards a house where my car is immediately surrounded by several breeds of barking dogs. I think better about staying and throw the car into reverse just as a friendly woman opens the front door and assures me that my life is in no danger.

I tell her I’m there to see the Ruiz Cemetery.

“Are you a family member?” she asks.

“No,” I say, surprised that there are still living Ruiz descendants after what happened in 1928. “I’ve just always wanted to see it,” I add.

“Sure thing,” she says, “it’s just up the hill behind the house. And don’t worry about the dogs. They’ll just try to lick you to death.”

I walk the couple of hundred yards back to the graveyard up a horse trail that leads through dried brush, always keeping a keen eye out for snakes.

The cemetery is about a half-acre square, with brush concealing many of the graves, and is surrounded by a weathered iron fence with a gate hanging precariously off of rusted hinges. It’s a lonely place, but a sign by the gate with “Cemetery Ruiz” spelled out in turquoise reveals that someone has made it up here during the recent past.

The cemetery is dominated by the large granite Ruiz family monument in the southwest corner. In front of the monument are six smaller stones for individual members of the Ruiz family. From left to right they read:

Sister Susana B. – February 1, 1920 – March 13, 1928

Brother Raymond C. – February 25, 1917 – March 13, 1928

Brother Martin F. – October 10, 1908 – March 13, 1928

Sister Mary S. – October 22, 1898 – March 13, 1928

Mother Rosaria P. – August 15, 1875 – March 13, 1928

Father Enrique R. – March 5, 1864 – March 13, 1928

Off to the right are the graves of Rosarita A. Erratchuo and her infant son Roland. Rosarita was the oldest daughter of Enrique and Rosaria Ruiz. They both died on the same night as the rest of their family.

Even without knowing the history of this canyon, it would be obvious to the most casual of observer that something big went down the night of March 13, 1928. And big it was.

In the middle of the night just six miles up the road from the cemetery, the 180-foot high St. Francis Dam broke just hours after William Mulholland, the dam’s chief engineer, had inspected it after hearing reports of leaks, and declared it safe.

The Ruizes and Erratchuoes were among the first of the estimated 450 victims who were crushed by the torrent of 12 billion gallons of water that flushed through the canyon that night.

I clear away some brush and find a memorial that reads, “In memory of those who lost their lives in the Santa Clara flood Mar. 13, 1928 / Erected by the Newhall Cowboys.” I only know this from newspaper reports made in 1928. After eight decades, the elements have nearly eroded the lettering completely.

This stone was placed here by some real-life cowboys who worked the ranches in the area, and by William S. Hart – a man who played a cowboy on screen. Hart lived in nearby Newhall and was deeply troubled by the destruction that took place near his home. He took over the responsibility for the burial of a young boy whose body lay unclaimed, buying a tiny cowboy outfit for the child. The boy was going to be buried here, but shortly before his funeral he was identified, and was instead interred in Chatsworth near his mother, who also perished in the flood.

I climb back down the hill and pet the dogs on the way out. As I drive back through the wash, I try to imagine what it was like on that tragic night in the spring of 1928 when a wall of water eighteen-stories high thundered down this bone-dry canyon.

But my mind just can’t do it.

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Remembering Buster

Forty-five years ago today, the laughter was silenced.

I’ve been writing a lot about Charlie Chaplin lately since my wife Kimi and I are helping host ChaplinFest, which begins on Friday evening in Newhall, California.

But today, I would like to focus our attention on Buster Keaton, another of the silent era’s comedic titans, who was a friend and rival of Chaplin.

Porkpie topped, stone-faced Keaton was a master of physical comedy, technical innovation, and the use of visual effects in his films.

Born Joseph Keaton into a vaudeville family in 1895, young Buster claimed to have gotten his nickname from magician Harry Houdini who was part of the troupe.

Buster entered his parents’ act at the age of three, and remained a performer for the rest of his life. Despite having only one day of formal education, he had the mind of a mechanical engineer, and possessed a lifelong fascination with machines.

Buster made his film debut in 1917 with his friend Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in New York, and later claimed to have taken the movie camera apart on the set that day, learning how films were created. He would use his new knowledge in later films to create innovative visual effects.

Before long, Keaton had his own studio in Hollywood (which he acquired from its former occupant, Charlie Chaplin). During the 1920s, Keaton was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, ranking alongside Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in terms of popularity. He made several silent masterpieces during the decade, including 1927’s Civil War comedy The General (which just happens to be my all-time favorite film).

Chaplin and Keaton had a great deal of respect for each other, and Keaton actually appeared in Chaplin’s film Limelight in 1952.

And like Chaplin, Keaton also filmed around Newhall.

In 1921, Keaton made a film called The Paleface, where he escaped from Indians across a bridge that was constructed over Beale’s Cut in Newhall. Beale’s Cut was a 90-foot man-made slit carved though a mountain which aided travel to and from the San Fernando Valley from the mid-1800’s until bypassed in 1910. Keaton returned to Beale’s Cut in 1925 to film a scene in Seven Chances.

ChaplinFest will be held at the William S. Hart Regional Park in Newhall, which contains the home and ranch of the former silent cowboy star. Ironically, William S. 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

Keaton has an additional area tie as well – his mother Myra is buried nearby in Glen Haven Cemetery in a canyon just north of Sylmar. (This cemetery is also the final resting place of Anne Cornwall, who played Buster’s girlfriend in his 1927 film College.)

Buster is buried in Burbank’s Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills Cemetery just steps away from the grave of Stan Laurel, another former Chaplin friend and rival.


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.


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.

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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.