Central Valley’s diverse landscapes entice film makers
By Jeff Benziger
Despite Central California’s 300-mile reach from Hollywood, stellar filming locations in Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Tuolumne, Merced and Calaveras counties have, for over a century, drawn a myriad of movie producers to the 209. Since the advent of motion pictures, producers have brought cameras, crews and stars to the 209 for the making of films and TV shows both classic and forgettable.
Much of Hollywood’s interest has been piqued by the Sierra Railroad, which runs from Oakdale to Tuolumne County and features steam trains generally parked in the roundhouse of Railtown 1897 park in Jamestown. Michael J. Fox, Kenny Rogers, Clint Eastwood and Hopalong Cassidy have worked on the historic line. But other aspects of the 209 – such as its foothills found perfect by Michael Landon for filming the pilot for the “Little House on the Prairie” TV series – also command movie company attention. Columbia State Historic Park stands by as a virtual Hollywood set for westerns taking place in the mid- to late-1800s. Hollywood has also appreciated the Delta, our rivers, mountains, meadows and streetscapes.
Turlock basked in Tinseltown glamour for two weeks in 2014. Downtown Turlock caught the eye of actor/ producer Corbin Bernsen who chose it for the backdrop of his 2014 movie, “Christian Mingle.” Lacey Chabert and Jonathan Patrick Moore filmed at Footers on Turlock’s Main Street and on the block where the Dust Bowl is located.
A review of Hollywood activity in the 209 since 1914 and the countless films shot here proves mind-boggling. Silent film stars William S. Hart, Tom Mix, Jack Hoxie, Douglas Fairbanks and Buck Jones trekked to Jamestown to use the steam locomotives in the first decades of movie making.
Legendary actor Gary Cooper made at least six movies in the 209 during his illustrious film career. Cooper spent May 20-21, 1929 here filming “The Virginian” – the first talkie shot on the Sierra Railroad. Scenes were shot at once active Cooperstown in eastern Stanislaus County. There is no trace of it today.
In April 1930 Cooper filmed “The Texan” in Tuolumne County and a year later filmed “Fighting Caravans” in the snow-blanketed area of Dardanelle. The cast became snow-bound in cabins near Kennedy Meadows. The movie includes scenes on Phoenix Lake near Sonora. According to the late Sonora resident Leonard Ruoff, Cooper was known to frequent an establishment in Confidence – possibly the recently razed Confidence Inn – serving alcohol during Prohibition. Ruoff said there was a rule for the last film crew member driving downhill from a day of shooting to check for Cooper there.
A publicity still from the “Traveling Salesman,” showing Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle waving from the back of a railcar, shows how little Railtown has changed since 1921. The film was Arbuckle’s last as his career ended with a sensational rape and manslaughter trial resulting from a raucous night of drinking and carousing at a San Francisco hotel that September.
Dashing actor Errol Flynn came to the 238-acre Ratto Ranch (10500 Ratto Road, Sonora) for the 1936 filming of “Charge of the Light Brigade.” Flynn also rode a horse alongside a moving steam train near the Stanislaus-Tuolumne County border for the 1939 film, “Dodge City.”
Phoenix Lake and the Jamestown foothills attracted cowboy matinee idol Randolph Scott for the 1934 movie, “Wagon Wheels.”
William Boyd, (AKA Hopalong Cassidy), with sidekick Gabby Hayes filmed on the Sierra Railroad for “North of the Rio Grande” in 1937. Cassidy returned to make his TV series there. Boyd shot scenes for “The Eagle’s Brood” at Kennedy Meadows, where incidentally Buddy Ebsen, Keir Dullea and Lois Nettleton filmed “Mail Order Bride” in 1964.
Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx shot train scenes in the Red Hills in 1940 for “Go West.”
Railtown is also seen in the opening credits of “Petticoat Junction,” the 1960’s TV series.
Twain Harte provided the backdrop for the 1930 film, “The Storm,” starring Lupe Velez.
Before she became a Hollywood sex symbol, child actress Natalie Wood filmed 1948 scenes near Twain Harte for “Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!” June Haver also appeared in the film along with veteran actor Walter Brennan. Wood also appeared in “The Great Race,” which was filmed in part in Jamestown in 1965.
In 1941 Jimmy Stewart and Hedy Lamarr filmed “Come Live With Me,” partially in Tuolumne County. The sultry Lamarr had another connection with the 209 when she married Turlock native and Los Angeles attorney Lewis W. Boies Jr. in 1963. They stayed at his parents’ home at the corner of Sierra and Shasta streets in Turlock, and were the talk of town before it all ended with their 1964 divorce.
“For Whom the Bell Tolls” brought Cooper to Kennedy Meadows on the Sonora Pass in the summer of 1942 – this time joined by Ingrid Bergman. A crew of 25 craftsmen built a cave set of plastic material in Blue Canyon, near the summit of Sonora Pass, and a sawmill set 20 miles away on Clark’s Fork. Production was hampered that July when rain and high winds played havoc with sets and drove them back to the comfort of the Sonora Inn.
In 1948 Kennedy Meadows hosted a very young Frank Sinatra for a role in “The Kissing Bandit,” which he despised. The same meadow also is where George O’Brien prospected for gold in “Thunder Mountain” in 1935.
Cooper returned in July 1952 for the filming of the classic western drama “High Noon.” Scenes were filmed in Stanislaus and Tuolumne counties while town scenes were blended between Columbia and the Warner Brothers backlot in Burbank. Scenes of Cooper and Grace Kelly riding aboard a horse-drawn buggy were shot on the oak tree dotted landscape of the Brooke Ranch near Cooperstown. Not far away was the fake train station built at Crabtree and Warnerville roads northeast of Waterford. The Stanislaus County location looks virtually the same as it did in the 1952 – minus the station and the working water tank which fell in the 1990s. Only one structure seen on screen with movie bad guys Lee Van Cleef, Robert “Bob” Wilke, Sheb Wooley and Ian McDonald stands today.
Roberts Ferry resident Bill Crabtree remembers his parents taking him to the set and marveling at Grace Kelly’s beauty in that white dress, as if she were a princess. Four years later Kelly became a princess when she married Prince Rainer of Monaco. Mexican actress Katy Jurado was also on location.
The church scenes of “High Noon” were shot at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Tuolumne City at 18473 Gardner Avenue. The historic Wilson-McConnell House in Columbia looks the same as when Cooper (Marshall Will Cain) visits to recruit Harry Morgan as his deputy. Eve McVeagh answers the door to cover for her cowardly husband, played by Harry Morgan. Incidentally, McVeagh came to La Grange to film a 1983 scene with Michael Landon in “Highway to Heaven.”
David Carradine of “Kung Fu” TV show fame came to Oakdale to ride the rails atop a moving boxcar as Woody Guthrie in the 1976 movie “Bound for Glory.” Also on the set in south Oakdale was Randy Quaid, best known as Cousin Eddie in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” Kennedy Road in Knights Ferry doubled as the New Mexico border where Carradine hitchhiked in the film.
Knights Ferry hosted movie activity more than once. In 1982 Tom Selleck, Katherine Ross, Sam Elliott and Ben Johnson filmed a scene on the north side of the Stanislaus River just east of the covered bridge for the made-for-TV movie “Shadow Riders,” based on the Louis L’Amour novel. Selleck was impressed with the number of rattle snakes at Knights Ferry as he mentioned them while filming in Columbia’s town block of exposed limestone rock. Ranch house scenes involving Jane Greer and Harry Carey Jr. were shot at the Ratto Ranch west of Sonora.
Viewers of the movie “Another 48 Hours” starring Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy may recognize the scenery in the prison bus attack scene. It was shot on a closed-off section of eastbound Highway 120 east of Knights Ferry. The 1950s Roadhouse Restaurant on Kennedy Road was the diner where Nolte had sat down inside only to be shot at through the window by bad guy actor David Anthony Marshall.
Knights Ferry played a starring role in the TV movie “River Raft Nightmare,” shot in April 2014. The movie starred “Army Wives” actress Brigid Brannagh as well as aspiring young Turlock actress Leah Bateman.
Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, Burt Reynolds and John Ritter, spent weeks at a movie set constructed in a field south of the Sierra tracks south of Cooperstown Road for “Nickelodeon.” The 1976 comedy about the early days of movie making was a box office flop. The stars stayed at Modesto’s Holiday Inn (now the Clarion) during filming. In her autobiography, “A Paper Life,” Tatum O’Neal recounts her misery during shooting, mostly because of her father’s drug use and his treatment of her.
“We were shooting near Modesto, which was hot and desolate and poor,” wrote O’Neal. “I was reading ‘Of Mice and Men,’ and being in a setting so similar to Steinbeck’s just broke my heart. I remember crying a lot.”
Tatum was also upset because ostriches were ridden and wires were used to trip horses. The actress admitted a secret crush on Reynolds, who also didn’t like the experience. He kept botching one scene in which he had to carry Tatum on his shoulders and reportedly cried: “No more takes. This is killing me. I hate Modesto, and I’ve had it with this movie.” She was drawn to John Ritter’s warm nature; he had a great sense of humor and let her drive his Karmann Ghia.
A major sequence of the 1968 film “Love Bug” was shot at a Chinese Camp gas station in Tuolumne County.
A small snippet of the ultralight flight scene in “Howard the Duck” was shot on Wamble Road east of Oakdale. During a police chase, Howard haphazardly flies an ultralight through a narrow opening of a moving box car on Sierra Railroad tracks and clips the wings. The 1986 film met with terrible reviews.
In 1974 Peter Fonda was here shooting scenes for the car chase film, “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” starring himself and Susan George. Locals may recognize the scenes shot in front of the white two-story building in Farmington still at the southeast corner of Escalon-Bellota Road and Highway 4 in Farmington; and the Sonora Save Mart store which Fonda robs. However, the robbery itself was shot inside the former Don Quick Market, now Fitness Evolution at 1275 East “F” St #1, Oakdale. The apartment in the film was shot off of Fairview Avenue in Sonora. The near collision with a Greyhound bus was at Highway 26 at Witmer Road near Linden. The drawbridge scene was shot on Tracy Boulevard while other scenes were also filmed at The White House on Charter Way, a French Camp fruit stand, on rural Stockton and Delta roads and a swap meet in Clements. The final scene – in which the fleeing felons meet their fate in a fiery crash into a passing train – was shot on Archerdale Road at Ketcham Lane. Pete Mohl, Linden’s fire chief at the time, stood by with his crew in the event of an emergency.
Cicely Tyson starred in the TV mini-series “A Woman Called Moses” partially shot at a ranch house near Oakdale in 1978 to illustrate the life of Harriet Tubman. Scenes were also shot in Columbia and at Railtown – which was billed as a Rochester, New York train station.
More recently, a mansion near Woodward Reservoir north of Oakdale was used in filming the 2010 independent romantic comedy “Chateau Meroux” starring Christopher Lloyd. The film is about a girl who, after living in the city, returns to Oakdale after inheriting her father’s winery. However, trouble brews when she falls in love with the competitor’s son. Oakdale resident Sean Gnekow and actor Daniel Bastreghi wrote the story around the home and location.
Oakdale’s A.L. Gilbert Feed & Seed hosted Richard Dean Anderson and Peter Horton for the “The Man in the White Hat” episode of the 1982 CBS-TV series “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” The series was based in Murphys and featured a young River Phoenix. Interior house scenes were shot in a set constructed inside a building at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds in Angels Camp while outdoor scenes were shot at a 1897 ranch house on Pennsylvania Gulch Road. Too corny for audiences, the musical was cancelled in March 1983.
The area between Oakdale and Jamestown contributed to some early films, including “In Old Chicago,” a 1937 film starring Tyrone Power and Alice Faye. The terrain around Oakdale is also visible in the 1922 film “The Half Breed.”
Clint Eastwood spent considerable time in Tuolumne County filming “Pale Rider” in 1984 and “Unforgiven” in 1992. Eastwood walks into the Wells Fargo building in Columbia in one scene. A main actor in “Pale Rider,” Richard Kiel (best known as “Jaws” in the James Bond film), made his home in Coarsegold near Oakhurst. Eastwood stayed in a bungalow at the Royal Carriage Inn in Jamestown.
Eastwood filmed his 1982 movie, “Honkytonk Man,” in Calaveras County, using Main Street in Mountain Ranch and the Pioneer Hotel in Sheep Ranch for period authenticity.
No 209 movie production has occurred on such an epic scale as the one for “Back to the Future III.” The last of the film trilogy required the building of a “false front” town set to represent early-day Hill Valley. The set and a fake depot were built in 1989 near the Keystone Ranch in the Red Hills area west of Chinese Camp. It was there that Michael J. Fox had an accident while filming the hanging of Marty McFly by villain Buford Tannen (Tom Wilson). The rope was too tight and Fox passed out. Fox wrote in his autobiography: “I swung, unconscious, at the end of the rope for several seconds before Bob Zemekis, fan of mine though he was, realized even I wasn’t that good an actor.” A 4,000-square-foot saloon building was used for scenes with Fox, Christopher Lloyd, bartender actor Matt Clark and character western actors Dub Taylor, Pat Buttram and Harry Carey Jr. After each day of filming, Fox quietly tucked himself into bed at the Gables Inn in Twain Harte.
The BTTF set also was used for “Bad Girls,” which placed Andie McDowall and Drew Barrymore in Sonora during the summer of 1993, at which time they visited the Mother Lode Fair.
The set was completely destroyed during an Aug. 12, 1996 wildfire.
Also removed from the scenery along Highway 120 was a grist mill set used in an episode of the “Columbo” TV show as well as “The Gambler II” starring Kenny Rogers. It was located along the tracks near Keystone.
Around the bend, a scene in the 1979 film, “The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again,” was shot near the highway. Crews lined a low spot near the tracks with black plastic to form a pond which stuntmen landed in while bailing from a moving steam train. A dirt road opposite the Keystone Ranch is where actor Dean Stockwell filmed a scene for “Return to Bonanza” in 1993.
Starting from his early days as an actor, Landon was a frequent visitor to the 209. With Tina Louise, Jack Lord, Robert Ryan and Buddy Hackett, Landon came to Stockton in 1958 for the filming of “God’s Little Acre.” The production used a ranch in rural Stockton and Washington Street.
Landon came to Tuolumne County for the 1972 shooting of a Bonanza episode. Landon directed the episode dealing with the death of TV brother Hoss Cartwright (actor Dan Blocker) which was shot at the Donnell Vista overlooking Donnell Lake on Highway 108. Ironically, Blocker filmed on both the Sierra tracks and in Columbia for the TV movie, “Something For a Lonely Man” in 1968.
The Donnell Vista is also where Johnny Mack Brown filmed part of MGM’s “The Great Meadow” in 1931.
In 1974 Landon filmed the pilot for the “Little House on the Prairie” series with the first Ingalls prairie home on the Orvis Ranch northeast of Woodward Reservoir on Highway 4 and east of Milton Road. Landon took time from his schedule to visit with students from Valley Home School, an event which made the Oakdale Leader.
In the “The Lord is My Shepherd” episode, Landon directed Melissa Gilbert and Ernest Borgnine at the Donnell Vista. Landon and Victor French also shot scenes at Iceberg Meadow near Clark Fork.
In the “Someone Love Me Please” episode, Landon is seen walking from the Columbia Gazette office to a “saloon” inside of the Fallon House Theatre lobby in Columbia.
During the 1980s production of “Highway to Heaven,” Landon often flew into the Columbia Airport (also where airport scenes in “Radio Flyer” were filmed in 1992). Landon and French filmed at the Tulloch Lake lodge and the filling station on Main Street in Copperopolis for the “One Winged Angel” episode. A week later, in December 1984, Landon was in La Grange filming the “Going Home, Going Home” episode on the Old La Grange Bridge and in town for the doctor’s home visit. Landon filmed the “Plane Death” episode of “Highway” (it aired in January 1985) at the building at the northwest corner of Bay and Pine streets in Tuolumne City as a sheriff’s office as well as the nearby cemetery.
Despite its size, Modesto has been largely overlooked by movie producers but “Dead Man on Campus” was filmed on the Seventh Street Bridge. The 1998 movie also shot at the UOP campus. Despite rumors to the contrary, Modesto was not used in the Modesto-based movie “American Graffiti.” Petaluma had the honors. Modesto did, however, give the world George Lucas, and actors Jeremy Renner, Harve Presnell and Robert Ulrich.
Eagle Field, a private airfield in rural Dos Palos, was the location of the airport scenes in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” The location doubled as an airport in Nazca, Peru in 1957. On scene in October 2007 were director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas. Harrison Ford flew himself to the site west of Madera in his Cessna.
San Joaquin locations
Film production crews took advantage of a Tracy High School Homecoming Parade down 11th Street for scenes in the Robert Redford film “The Candidate.” Locals, including Tracy High staff, played parts such as Secret Service agents.
The San Joaquin Delta has been used extensively by Hollywood, and doubled as the Mississippi River in the 1935 Will Rogers movie, “Steamboat Round the Bend.” The 144-foot sternwheeler Leader was transformed into the Claremore Queen for the movie.
Broderick Crawford and John Ireland came to Stockton in 1946 for “All the King’s Men.” A night scene was filmed on the steps of Stockton’s City Hall. After his election as governor, Willie Stark (Crawford) makes a speech from the balcony of the Hotel Stockton, 133 E. Weber Avenue, which closed in 1960 and is now private apartments. The old San Joaquin County courthouse, the city jail, Atherton Island, McLeod Lake, the waterfront area and sections of Lower Sacramento Road were also used.
The Delta was also the location for scenes shot for the 1955 “Blood Alley.” Actor John Wayne and actress Lauren Bacall stayed at the Hotel Stockton where hundreds of autograph seekers awaited them after a long day of filming. Bacall’s husband, Humphrey Bogart, accompanied her.
One year later Eve Arden and Richard Crenna came to the Delta to film “Our Miss Brooks.” That was the same year that Karl Malden and Carroll Baker filmed “Baby Doll” in Stockton.
Sammy Davis Jr. partook of the big picnic sequence in the 1959 movie “Porgy and Bess” which was filmed on a Delta island and other scenes on the surrounding rivers.
The 1958 movie “The Big Country” was partially filmed near Snow Ranch, headquarters of the Orvis Cattle Company on Highway 4 between Farmington and Copperopolis where a set of a hotel, livery stable and house were built. After filming, the structures were moved to Stockton’s Pollardville on Highway 99 for its Tule Flats Ghost Town. (The tourist attraction closed in 2007). Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons shot scenes riding the ranch’s range. Chuck Connors was involved with a number of ambush scenes shot on the ranch. Part of the stage coach run at the beginning of “The Big Country” was filmed along Copperopolis Road near Farmington Road, achieved by the crew removing a fence and constructing a dirt road parallel to the highway where the camera car traveled.
The Orvis Ranch was the destination for producers of the 1969 film “Sam Whiskey.” Burt Reynolds and Clint Walker appear in scenes shot in the foothills as well as at Lake Camanche near Ione.
University of the Pacific, Stockton Junior High School auditorium and Amos Alonzo Stagg High School were three of the locations for the filming of Bing Crosby’s comedy “High Time” in 1960. Crosby, Fabian and Tuesday Weld appeared on location.
Actor Paul Newman spent some time in the fall of 1966 on Davis Road in and around what is now Dentoni Park in Stockton for “Cool Hand Luke.” Oak trees near the “southern” prison camp were draped with truckloads of Spanish moss shipped in from Louisiana to add realism. The north Stockton set consisted of barracks, mess hall, warden’s quarters, guard shack, and dog kennels. It was reported that a San Joaquin County building inspector drove by and mistook the set for a recently constructed migrant worker’s complex and posted notices on the buildings to condemn them for not being up to code.
The opening scene, where Newman is removing the heads of parking meters, was filmed in Lodi. The city did not replace the meters, and for many years, one could see a long row of metal posts missing meters. Cool Hand scenes were also shot on rural Stockton roads, on the Roberts Island side of the San Joaquin River – where a chapel and some other structures were built near the old Brandt Bridge – and at an unidentified Lodi site. The bridge and chapel are gone. Ralph Waite (best known as John Walton on “The Waltons” TV series) also filmed in Stockton.
The 1970s brought loads of Hollywood activity to Stockton.
“The Moonshine War” was filmed in the Farmington area and the foothills, which had turned brown for the season, were spray-painted green for the desired effect.
The 1971 “The Name of the Game” TV series was shot at the downtown Holiday Inn pool and at the San Joaquin County Hospital in French Camp, where actress Jill St. John visited actor Gene Barry and charmed onlookers.
Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrell and Candy Clark were involved in the filming of “Fat City,” a 1972 boxing movie which filmed at the El Dorado Hotel, Red Men’s Hall, Stockton Civic Auditorium and rural areas including Zuckerman’s Family Farms northwest of Stockton. An old macaroni factory near Gleason Park is in the film for a boxing ring scene.
Jan Michael Vincent filmed “The World’s Greatest Athlete” in 1973 on the tracks at the University of the Pacific and the old San Joaquin Delta College. The same year, George C. Scott, John Mills, Jack Palance Faye Dunaway and visited the Ospital Ranch on Highway 26 near Jenny Lind to film “Oklahoma Crude.” Director Stanley Kramer created his Oklahoma oil fields in the hilly region east of Stockton.
The Stockton Airport played a starring role for the 1976 TV movie “Raid on Entebbe.” Charles Bronson, James Wood and Peter Finch were on location at the airport, which underwent an expensive façade remodel to transform it into an African airport. Finch died on Jan. 14, 1977 shortly after leaving Stockton.
Wood had been in Stockton previously to film “Alex & the Gypsy” at St. Basil’s Greek Orthodox Church on March Lane. Filming also took him to Sonora.
The airport was one of many shooting locations for the 1979 TV film “Friendly Fire.” Scenes with Carol Burnett were also shot at O.K. Monument. Timothy Hutton also appeared in Stockton.
In 1978 Nick Nolte came to rural San Joaquin County – mostly at a park along the Stanislaus River and the foothills to film “Who’ll Stop the Rain?”
Mall scenes in the movie “Valley Girl” brought a young Nicholas Cage to the Weberstown Mall in 1983.
In 1991 the movie “Shout” was partially shot at the Orvis Ranch. The bunkhouse is now being used for storage on the property.
The Northern California Women’s Facility on Arch Road southeast of Stockton took Rob Schneider as a prisoner for “Big Stan” in June 2006. Jennifer Morrison also filmed at the fictional Oaksburg State Penitentiary.
Stars among us
Honestly, this only scratches the surface of movies shot in the 209, which has also been the stomping ground for some notable actors. Jack Elam once attended Modesto Junior College where he met his wife. Cowboy actor Ben Johnson was a cowpoke in rural Escalon. Happy Days actress Erin Moran lived in Stevinson in Merced County to raise horses. Clayton Moore, TV’s Lone Ranger, married Connie Moore, whose parents lived in Turlock. They visited the Stanislaus County Fair once in the 1980s.
Western actor Slim Pickens lived in Columbia and even did business in Modesto, even renting a tuxedo at Sears in the Vintage Faire Mall for his daughter’s wedding. Pickens died in Modesto at Evergreen Convalescent Hospital on Dec. 8, 1983.
Robert Conrad, known for his 1960s “Wild, Wild West” TV series, lived in Bear Valley near Arnold and in 1987 filmed the football movie, “Glory Days” at UOP. One undesirable role for Conrad was his real life March 31, 2003 drunken driving accident on Highway 4 which sent him Medi-Flight bound for a Modesto hospital. Conrad moved to Thousand Oaks in 2006.
Carol Channing lived in Modesto after marrying a second time to Modestan Harry Kullijian in 2003. She left the Rumble Road home for Palm Springs after his death in 2011.
While he didn’t film anything in the 209, Stanislaus County is the final resting place for actor Dean Jagger, best known as General Waverly in the movie classic “White Christmas.” Jagger married Modesto native Etta Jagger, who is by his side at Lakewood Memorial Park near Hughson.