Ronald Reagan

IN SO CAL, FILM SETS ARE EVERYWHERE By Victoria Giraud

In Southern California, the entertainment capital of the world,  it’s not unusual to see large white trucks parked on local streets—film crews have come for a day or two of filming. It could be for a commercial, a TV show or perhaps even a glamorous exciting movie! On my way to Trader Joe’s to get groceries recently, I saw them lined up about a block long on the street bordering a local park. I get a kick out of seeing the long trucks full of dressing rooms and imagining who will use them. When the rooms are small,  it’s not going to be anyone famous.

Not long ago, one of the local car washes looked like it was open for business, but they were using it for some kind of film shoot. Since Fashion Square car wash didn’t want to lose its regular clientele (it was on the weekend), a man and woman were sitting near the entrance handing out free washes because of the inconvenience.

The Los Angeles Times prints a map and a list of “permitted shoots” for the week in the Business section. “Harry’s Law” TV show with Kathy Bates was going to be in Santa Clarita on Monday; “Luck” the new HBO series about horse racing was shooting in Beverly Hills on Sunday. In Van Nuys, which is only minutes away from me, I could check out the TV filming for “Rizzoli and Isles.”  If I wanted to see a commercial for Capital One (I have one of their credit cards), I could drive over to Tujunga Canyon anytime this week.

One of the best, almost perpetual film sets is a natural one: Malibu Creek State Park, 7,000 acres located off Malibu Canyon Road in the Conejo Valley. I was living with my family in that general area when it opened to the public in 1976, and we were eager to hike through it. The State of California combined the old 20th Century Fox movie ranch, extensive property owned by Bob Hope and 250 acres belonging to Ronald Reagan from 1951-1967. The valley and surrounding Santa Monica Mountains were once the territory of the Chumash Indians.

On one of our first hikes, there were still some movie sets around—the dome-shaped homes of the apes in “Planet of the Apes,” which starred Charlton Heston, for instance. What looked like a shallow concrete pool was the miniature set for “Tora, Tora, Tora,” a movie about World War II. The lovely home used for Cary Grant’s film, “Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House” is still there and used for an administrative office for California State Parks.

Some of the many movies made in that scenic area included: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. The park was supposed to be South America and one of the characters actors in it, Strother Martin, lived nearby in Malibu Lake. Elvis Presley made “Love Me Tender” there, and in the classic 1941 film, “How Green Was My Valley,” the area posed as Wales.

A more recent film made by Mel Brooks: “Robin Hood, Men in Tights”  was filmed there.  I met Mel Brooks shortly after his film came out. I was doing an interview in Santa Monica at the Pritikin Institute. He and his wife, Anne Bancroft, were having dinner in the Pritikin banquet hall and I introduced myself. I couldn’t resist telling Mel how much I liked his funny movies, particularly the Robin Hood movie. He had one particular joke in the film that applied to the area’s history: the actors used a real fox as a messenger and as it ran away, the line was, if I remember correctly: “There goes the 20th Century Fox!”

One of the most popular shows on television, “MASH” was filmed in Malibu Creek State Park. The area must have resembled Korea. I missed the opportunity to ask my dad, who had fought in the Korean War, if he had ever watched “MASH.” The TV set is now long gone, but they left behind an old Army truck, which stands as a souvenir in the area that was once the set.

Old Army truck from MASH

 

FUNERALS OF THE MOVIE STAR KIND

Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke

Movie stars are people too—they live, enjoy some fame and notoriety and eventually die, like we all do!

Character actors, like Strother Martin, are oftentimes the more approachable kind of person in the movie trade. He and his wife Helen had lived near where I lived and worked in the Conejo Valley (Agoura Hills, Westlake Village and Thousand Oaks) for years.

Strother and Helen were active in the community. Helen was an enthusiastic member of the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District (TLVRCD), which dealt with the Santa Monica Mountains—the western boundary of the Conejo Valley. Coincidentally, Ronald Reagan’s first political job was his election to the Board of the TLVRCD: having a ranch in the area in the 1950s was the reason he got involved. We all know what that position eventually led to!

Strother had an active career in film. Who can forget his famous words as the prison camp superintendent of “prisoner” Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke? “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” He and Newman did several movies together—Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Slapshot among them.

Considering himself a member of the community, Strother volunteered to be part of the local chamber of commerce’s Christmas celebration at the Calabasas Inn one year. I believe he read something from Dickens, and we all felt honored to hear his dulcet tones.

I was the editor of the Acorn, a local weekly newspaper, in the early 1980s and had decided to do an interview with Strother. He was an interesting subject, especially since had made a movie not long before with John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn: Rooster Cogburn. He gave me some publicity shots from the film and then mentioned he was due to host Saturday Night Live on NBC. It was April 1980 and it was one of his last jobs.

Shortly after my story was published, I got the news that Strother had had a fatal heart attack. He was only 61. Helen informed their friends in the chamber of commerce about the funeral plans and we were all invited to attend. As the local newspaper editor, I was an active member.

The service and burial were scheduled for the famous Forest Lawn Cemetery; this one is in the Hollywood hills. I distinctly remember following Ernest Borgnine’s expensive car into the cemetery. I knew it was him by the personalized license plate.

Sitting in the small chapel, we chamber members were among some of Hollywood’s elite. I noticed Lee Marvin and Jimmy Stewart, both favorites of mine. Paul Newman, I was told, couldn’t attend but had sent his daughter. It was strange to see the once vital and entertaining Strother in an open casket as we filed by for the obligatory viewing.

After the funeral, a few of us (no one famous) were invited back to the Martin’s house. Helen let us know she was surprised and honored when President Jimmy Carter called personally to give her his condolences.

For a few years afterward I would see Helen Martin, who kept herself busy with the community and the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District. One night I was invited to accompany her to a play at the Ahmanson Theater at the Music Center in downtown L.A. She drove us in her huge yellow Cadillac.

At intermission, she introduced me to Strother’s former agent, whose name I don’t remember. What I do recall was that the man also represented Richard Dreyfuss, who had gotten married at the agent’s Beverly Hills home.

In Southern California it can be both odd and exciting to meet and perhaps be a small part of the lives of those you’ve admired on the silver screen.

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