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100 Years of Hollywood History Lost as California Inferno Destroys Paramount Ranch

The ranch’s Western Town served as the one of the sets of popular HBO drama ‘Westworld’

Paramount Ranch hosted an array of Classic Hollywood stars, including Carole Lombard, the Marx Brothers and Bob Hope (National Park Service)
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Paramount Ranch, a 2,700-acre space nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking Los Angeles, has served as a versatile film and television set since 1927, hosting classic Hollywood legends like Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant, as well as the cast and crew of more recent hits, including “Westworld,” “Bones” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” But as Ralph Ellis reports for CNN, the so-called Woolsey Fire—one of three currently ravaging the fire-prone state of California—has brought the ranch’s nearly 100-year history to a close, destroying its famed Western Town and leaving behind little but smoldering ruins.

The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area announced the loss in a Twitter statement posted Friday, writing, “We do not have any details or photos, but it is our understanding that the structures have burned. This area is an active part of the incident and we cannot access it.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s Bryn Elise Sandberg notes that the popular HBO drama “Westworld,” which is filmed mainly at Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita, lost the set used to shoot its Main Street scenes. A church featured in season one of the science fiction-Western hybrid was one of the few buildings left standing, according to a series of photos posted by local journalist John Schreiber.

Paramount Ranch boasted a rich history spanning the entertainment industry’s transition from silent films to “talkies,” technicolor pictures and beyond. The powerful film studio that gave the ranch its current name purchased the lot in 1927, transforming it into a shape-shifting set capable of representing locales ranging from ancient China (as seen in the 1938 Gary Cooper-led drama The Adventures of Marco Polo) to a South Seas island (1937’s Ebb Tide, starring Ray Milland and Frances Farmer) and colonial Massachusetts town (1937’s Maid of Salem, featuring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray).

But it was the ranch’s Western Town, built during the early 1950s by aspiring cowboy-turned-entrepreneur William Hertz, that cemented the lot’s place in the annals of movie lore. Hertz purchased sets previously used at RKO Pictures’ Encino Ranch, Vicki Talbot writes for The Malibu Times, and opened the ranch to a new generation of TV Westerns, including “The Cisco Kid,” “The Rough Riders” and “Gunsmoke.”

Illness forced Hertz to sell the ranch in the mid-1950s, and the property was picked up by an auto racing company. The group opened a raceway on the lot (according to the ranch’s website, The Devil’s Hairpin, a 1957 film, features footage of the track) but folded after two fatal crashes occurred in December 1957.

The National Park Service took over a section of the lot in 1980. With the help of Robert Hertz, William’s son, the NPS restored the sets to their former glory, basing specifications on black-and-white photographs taken during the 1950s.

In the decades since, Sopan Deb notes for The New York Times, the Western Town has served as the setting for the 1990s CBS show “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” the 2014 Clint Eastwood film American Sniper, and the 1981 horror picture Scream. A full list of the films and TV shows shot at Paramount Ranch is available via the NPS website.

According to Curbed LA’s Jenna Chandler and Alissa Walker, the Woolsey Fire has also threatened dozens of other Malibu landmarks. Amongst those confirmed destroyed are the Peter Strauss Ranch, a historic site with a concert arena dating to the 1930s; the 155-year-old Sepulveda Adobe; and a replica of a set used to film the popular TV series “M*A*S*H.” Structures potentially at risk, but whose current status is unclear, include Frank Lloyd Wright’s Arch Oboler Complex, Frank Gehry’s Borman House and the eponymous home built for 1948 hit Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

CNN’s Holly Yan and Susannah Cullinane report that the Woolsey Fire has spread to 85,500 acres across Southern California and is about 15 percent contained. A second nearby fire has covered 4,531 acres and is 75 percent contained. So far, the blazes have destroyed 179 structures. Another 57,000 are still at risk.

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