Los Angeles is the only US city with a mountain range, the Santa Monica Mountains, running through it, which gives the city a wide variety of topography and scenery, perfect for filming. Since the mountains and valleys that comprised the Conejo Valley could be transformed into anything from Texas to Switzerland, the original “Planet of the Apes,” “Tora, Tora, Tora,” “Gunsmoke,” “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” and “MASH,” to name a few, were filmed there.
The 101 Freeway, which was once known primarily as the Ventura Freeway (or in the song as Ventura Highway) essentially bisects this scenic area and leads a traveler from Calabasas (squash in Spanish), through Agoura Hills and Westlake Village to Thousand Oaks. Conejo means rabbit in Spanish and there were plenty of those cottontails around, probably great food for all the coyotes.
And there were various canyon roads that led to celebrated Malibu: Kanan Road, windy and narrow Decker Canyon, and Malibu Canyon, which I consider the loveliest. Malibu Canyon Road takes the explorer past Malibu Creek State Park. When it first opened to the public, there were remains of the apes’ homes from “Planet of the Apes.”
In the 1970s, the 101 Freeway was the main artery through the little communities of Agoura and Westake. Thousand Oaks, a bit further west, was already an incorporated city with a movie theatre, some grocery stores and a small shopping center. The Conejo Valley was just over a steep hill from the vast San Fernando Valley, but it seemed like a different world. When we first moved in, the freeway was only two lanes each direction.
Westlake Village was a beautifully planned community with a man-made lake and island, and a small but nice shopping center, which included a large grocery. Agoura was inhabited by many old-timers with ranches and old houses; it was a funky place with too many billboards along the freeway and no big chain grocery store. Art Whizin, the creator of an original chain of LA restaurants called Chili Bowl in the late 1940s, had moved to outlying Agoura and soon built another restaurant along the freeway. He called it Whizin’s, of course! I remember I’d heard that the eatery was haunted and joked that it was probably someone who’d died of food poisoning.
Although it was exciting to discover we’d soon have more amenities and easier shopping without driving into the San Fernando Valley, it was disheartening to know that developers were planning just about every fast-food outlet available. McDonald’s, however, was an exception. My kids couldn’t wait–it was walking distance from home, requiring some patience and parental supervision.
Hillrise, our housing development was nestled among several hills and overlooked the Morrison Ranch, which still had cattle and sheep until it was bought by a developer and turned into a posh high-end residential development, but still called Morrison Ranch. West of Hillrise, the land was essentially empty except for a couple of small rundown ranches. There was no road connecting the freeway exits—Kanan Road and Lindero Canyon Road. In spring the whole area was covered with tall wild yellow mustard plants that grew prolifically, and little pockets of blue-purple lupins.
When Thousand Oaks Boulevard was built (location photo at the top), it was a huge event. I covered the opening for the Acorn newspaper with a story and a front-page photo of local politicians and developers. I also joined the honchos for a fire engine ride to celebrate the new road.
Kanan Road, the main artery from the 101 Freeway, led north to the Oak Park housing development, which later grew by thousands of new homes. Driving south on Kanan led through the Santa Monica Mountains to end up in Malibu—before Barbra Streisand moved there.
Things were changing rapidly by the end of the 1970s. Empty acres with a billboard announcing the imminent construction of a Vons grocery store stood lonely for years before its grassy surface supported three shopping centers and two grocery stores.
During those early years, I never would have imagined that I would do public relations and advertising for the Morrison Ranch development and for two of the new shopping centers.
There were quite a few stars who enjoyed the Conejo Valley and adjoining mountain areas: Robert Young, Joel McCrae, Mickey Rooney, Gallagher, Tom Selleck, Kelsey Grammar, Kurt Russell, Sophia Loren, along with various rock stars and sports stars.