One of Hollywood's longest-running movie ranches is getting rebuilt

This article was originally published on SFGate, March 31, 2024 and written by Erin Rode.

For nearly a century, the Hollywood entertainment system has flocked to the Santa Monica Mountains to film movies and television shows. The landscape is so varied, and in places so rugged, that it can easily stand in as a replacement for other locations in the American West, the eastern United States and beyond.

In all those years, producers and studios have built quite a bit of infrastructure in the hills, including entire faux Old West towns perfect for re-creating the cowboy aesthetic or one of the state's many actual ghost towns. One such outpost, the famed Paramount Ranch, served as a set for some of the world’s biggest actors — until a devastating fire engulfed the historic property.

Now, after more than half a decade, there are plans to reopen one of Southern California’s most famous movie ranches.Millions of people who have never stepped foot in Southern California still know Paramount Ranch — at least by sight. Bob Hope’s starring role in 1941’s “Caught in the Draft” was filmed at the property, as was television show “The Cisco Kid” in the 1950s. More recently, Jane Seymour’s “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” used the ranch as its primary backdrop, and fans of HBO’s “Westworld” will certainly recognize the on-site church. Over the decades, the ranch became a popular destination for hikers and movie fanatics alike, who could pose in front of the same Old West facades as their favorite characters.

By 2018, Paramount Ranch was one of the only film ranches in continuous operation since Hollywood’s Golden Age. But in November of that year, the Woolsey Fire tore through the Santa Monica Mountains, burning more acres of land within the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area than any other fire in recorded history. Much of Paramount Ranch and its historic Western-style town burned with it.

The National Parks Service is now rebuilding Paramount Ranch and hoping to usher in a new era for filmmaking in the Santa Monica Mountains while also restoring a unique destination for hikers and visitors.

Paramount Pictures first bought the ranch in 1927 (hence the name), during an era when many movie companies were buying up land to use for outdoor scenes. Before that, studios would either rent properties or film “guerilla-style” outdoors without any rights or permits. Between 1927 and 1943, when Paramount sold the property, 162 movies were filmed at Paramount Ranch.

In the years after the sale, the property underwent a series of transformations, though it never stopped serving as a movie set, too. William Hertz bought the ranch in 1953 and constructed a fictional “Western Town” before selling the land, which brought in a new owner and with them a race track. Erected in 1956, it was quickly abandoned two years later due to high driver fatalities.

The National Park Service acquired Paramount Ranch in 1980, bringing it under the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
The Old West set that drew visitors and studios to the property was actually built in the 1980s and 1990s, and behind those facades were the “simple, utilitarian buildings” that Paramount Studios built during the 1920s and 1930s, according to Jody Lyle, deputy superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. The Woolsey Fire destroyed those original buildings, built before the days of fire code. Only two structures survived: a white chapel built for “Westworld” and a train depot built for “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.”

Now, nearly six years after the Woolsey Fire, rebuilding is underway.

The Santa Monica Mountains are the only unit of the National Park System “dedicated to telling the story of American filmmaking — both past and present.” So when it came time to decide what to do with the site post-fire, officials had this mission in mind.

“As we approached the question of what was really significant about Paramount Ranch, and what is it that we’re trying to preserve and interpret, really what it came down to is the practice of filmmaking and the fact that it had been going on there for almost a century. It wasn’t about any one particular thing; it was about the activity. And we decided the investment that we needed to make was to be able to bring the filmmaking back,” Lyle said.

The new Paramount Ranch is set to house four buildings on the footprint of the historic structures, and all will be built with an eye toward wildfire safety. Plans for the new structures include a prop shed, barn, restrooms and a large pavilion, which all could be used for events and as “the backbone for future filming.”

The completion date is targeted as early 2025, according to Lyle. Meanwhile, Paramount Ranch is still open to hikers and other visitors during construction.

Once those buildings are complete, the National Park Service plans to work with film companies and others to again construct movie sets on the property.

“If a company wants to come and film another Western, they may attach a bunch of Western facades and make another Western town, but then after the filming, that will go away. And then maybe the next one will be a science-fiction movie or something. So it’ll be a much more dynamic place and change more frequently than it used to in the last few decades,” Lyle said.

Before the fire, Paramount Ranch was the most visited site within the portions of the Santa Monica Mountains managed by the National Park Service.

“We’re just really excited for the future and to see it become a busy place again,” Lyle said.

March 31, 2024
By Erin Rode
Erin Rode is SFGATE’s Contributing Los Angeles Outdoors Editor. Erin grew up in Los Angeles County and has hiked area trails for over a decade. She previously covered the environment for The Desert Sun in Palm Springs.

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