This entry into the California Fool’s Gold series is about Pioneertown. Pioneertown has actually received zero votes or requests from readers, and that’s usually how I determine which communities to cover. However, a friend’s band was playing there, so I decided I would use the occasion to explore this small town that I’ve long been curious about but never been to until now. That said, if you’d like to see other communities covered by California Fool’s Gold, let me know which ones in the comments. And if no one makes any votes or suggestions, it’s probably going to be Torrance — a community I’ve both long loved and which readers have voted for.
Pioneertown is a very small town in the Morongo Basin. The Morongo Basin is an endorheic drainage basin in the Mojave Desert fed, in winter, by water flowing down from the Little San Bernardino Mountains. Pioneertown is encircled by the redundantly named Flat Top Buttes to the north and the Sawtooth Mountains to the south — a range with an only slightly more creative name that is not surprisingly shared by more than one range in Southern California.
The region’s inhabitants have long included bighorn sheep, black-tailed jackrabbits, coyotes, creosote, desert lavender, Desert Tortoises, desert truffles, foxes, Joshua trees, kangaroo rats, Mojave rattlesnakes, Mojave yuccas, sage, white-tailed antelope ground squirrels, among other things. Today there are about 420 human inhabitants. The region’s indigenous humans were the ʔívil̃uqaletem and Yuhaaviatam, two peoples who both spoke a Takic language and who may’ve migrated to the area as Lake Cahuilla dried up. The Spanish sailed along the coast of California in 1542, claiming everything they saw for their empire. They didn’t, however, truly establish a presence in the region until the 18th century, when they began building missions and presidios along the coast. It wasn’t until 1810 that the Spanish established a mission in what’s now San Bernardino County. A mere four months later, Mexico (including California) declared independence from Spain. Missions were secularized and ranches were granted to Mexican citizens. The US invaded Mexico in 1846 and in 1850, made California a state. In 1853, San Bernardino County was cobbled together from fragments carved from Los Angeles, Mariposa, and San Diego counties.
Almost a century later, Dick Curtis (né Richard Dye) entered the picture. Curtis was a Newport, Kentucky-born actor who mostly played baddies in Western films. Curtis assembled a group of sixteen other investors to create a Western film set there called Pioneertown. Other investors included Curtis’s trusty sidekick, Chico-born actor Russell Hayden (né Hayden Michael “Pate” Lucid), best known to audiences of the day for playing Lucky Jenkins in the Hopalong Cassidy film series. Other investors included comedian William Alexander “Bud” Abbott, gossip columnist Louella Parsons, famous cowboy singer/actor Gene Autry, famous cowboy singer/actor Roy Rogers and the Western music group, The Sons of the Pioneers (who wrote a song called “Out in Pioneertown”). Naturally, on our way out to Pioneertown, I made my comrades listen to my Western & Norteño playlist.
The first time I saw a sign for Pioneertown was om 1998 or ’99. At that time, I expressed interest to a friend from the Inland Empire. He was dismissive. Pioneertown was inauthentic, he said, or something to that effect. Pioneertown (or at least Mane Street), after all, was only designed to resemble a “wild west” frontier town from the 1870s or 1880s. The oldest buildings only date back to 1946. That said, if history is measured in years, surely Pioneertown is historic. It was only pretending, at the time of its founding, to be about 65 years. Today, though, it’s actually 76 years old. As with San Pedro‘s tragically demolished Ports ‘O Call Village, what was once a simulacrum became “authentic.” And Pioneertown is an actual town. It may be small — but it’s still got a larger combined population than the so-called cities of Industry and Vernon.
One of the cool things about Pioneertown is that from the get-go, there were businesses built for the cast and crews of productions filmed there — as well as the residents who lived there to operate them. One of the oldest businesses in Pioneertown was Pioneer Bowl, where Roy Rogers bowled a 211 in his cowboy boots. It was in Pioneer Bowl, too, that the town’s first post office was located. In 2020, Mane Street was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Whilst Hollywood and Poverty Row continued to churn out Westerns at a furious pace in the 1950s, that well went dry in the late 1960s. Tastes changed The dry wind whistled and whipped up dust devils. Saloon doors and shutters clacked against wooden walls. Tumbleweeds rolled across Mane Street.
Curtis barely lived to see the completion of Pioneertown. He died of pneumonia in 1952 at the age of 49. Hayden, too, would die of pneumonia, albeit at the older age of 68, in 1981. At least 78 films, television shows, and commercials — mainly low-budget Westerns — have been filmed in part or in whole in Pioneertown including series like The Range Rider and 26 Men,; and films like The Gay Amigo and On Top of Old Smoky. The Gene Autry Show was also filmed there in the 1950s. Streets are named after Hollywood cowboys like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Tom Mix, William S. Hart; actress Minna Gombell; comic strip character Red Ryder; and Ohio-born sharpshooter Annie Oakley (née Phoebe Ann Moses). Aside from Pioneertown Road, though, the roads are dirt ones and off of them are dirt driveways. They’re not quite “paper streets” — that is, ones that only exist on maps — but the distinction between road, driveway, yard, and desert is a fuzzy and dusty one.
There are a few Old West-themed or otherwise interesting buildings on Pioneertown’s side streets but mostly one just sees ranch homes built, apparently, in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Those decades seem to mark a period of growth in Pioneertown that was kicked off by an unlikely catalyst. The town began to awaken from its slumber thanks, in large part, to burritos and bikers. In 1972, see, Francis and John Aleba bought the town’s film cantina and opened The Cantina. In 1982, The Cantina was taken over by the Aleba’s daughter, Harriet, and her husband, Claude “Pappy” Allen, who rechristened it Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. Pappy died in 1994. He was commemorated by Victoria Williams, who memorialized him with the song, “Happy to Have Known Pappy.” Harriet sold the bar to a friend in ’01 or ’02. In 2003, that friend sold it to Robyn Celia and Linda Krantz — a pair from New York City. In 2021, it was taken over by Knitting Factory Entertainment, Inc. Lots of performers that I’ve seen live had played at Pappy & Harriet’s, including The Allah-Las, The Church, Los Lobos, Melvins, Paul McCartney, Peaches, Robyn Hitchcock, Tinariwen, and The Zombies. However, I hadn’t seen any of those or any other bands play at Pappy & Harriet’s, obviously, since this was my first visit to Pioneertown. On 5 June, a bunch of friends and I headed there to see Belle & Sebastian.
A co-worker told me to check out the Red Dog Saloon, owned by a fan of Liverpool FC, and originally opened in 1946. Other local establishments include the post office (no longer located inside Pioneer Bowl), the fire department, Camp Pioneertown, Desert Willow Ranch, Fletcher Moore Consultants, Hayden Ranch Historic Western Movie Town, Homestead Modern No. 1, House of Roy, Jessie Keylon’s Art Studio, JoAnne’s Goat Soap Shop, MazAmar Art Pottery, Mercado Mojave, Pioneertown Corrals, Pioneertown Film Museum, Pioneertown General Store, Pioneertown Motel, Pioneertown Pantry, Pioneertown Tower Ranch, The Church in Pioneertown, The Sound Stage, and Trailer Tags.
I drove Mike, Una and myself to Pioneertown in a rented car. I opted to take a scenic route, along the Rim of the World Highway, through all of those charming mountain towns in the San Bernardinos: Crestline, Twin Peaks, Rimforest, Running Springs, Fawnskin, and Big Bear City. Our meal at Crestline’s Bear House Family Restaurant was good but took over an hour to arrive from the kitchen to our table. There was no explanation but I was more baffled than annoyed — although I think hanger might’ve gotten the better of my partners. Thus, we couldn’t linger long in the mountains and instead had to get our wiggle on. When we got to Big Bear, we high-tailed it downhill into the high desert through Cushenbury, Lucerne Valley, and Flamingo Heights. At the junction of Pipes Canyon Road, Rimrock Road, and Pioneertown Road; we headed southeast toward the low buttes.
Pioneertown is so small I initially overshot our destination, the Pioneertown Hotel. Once there, however, the room proved to be clean and pleasant. The staff was friendly. The in-house bath products smelled great. Ace-high, in other words. After a cold shower, we ran into a couple of friends at the Red Dog Saloon — although we probably should’ve assumed that they’d be there. Una and her friend went to Pappy & Harriet’s and put our name on the list. Mike and I grabbed beers and played a lightning-fast game of chess (I lost) before moseying over to the venue. We could hear Thee Sacred Souls playing as we ate inside and they — despite being a modern act from San Diego — sounded convincingly like an Eastside soul group from back in the day. I would’ve liked to have watched their performance but supper was our first priority. Belle & Sebastian played underneath a yellow half-moon and a sky full of stars. Afterward, we hung out at the hotel. I brought mesquite flavored almonds, corn chips, and Trader Joe’s‘ Cowboy Caviar. Other folks brought stuff to drink, snack on, and smoke.
We yarned the hours away until the moon dipped down to the horizon. We all headed back to our rooms. I had ambitions to get up at dawn to walk around and take photos before it got too bright and sunny out but, having gotten thoroughly roostered the night before, most everyone ended up sleeping in. A group of us re-assembled in the morning and drove over to Joshua Tree for a really satisfying breakfast at Crossroads Cafe. From the Crossroads we went our separate ways. The band was playing Phoenix. Others returned to their respective homes. Mike, Una, and I headed to Riverside, I town I discovered I liked a lot on my Great Metrolink Four Counties Ride.
UPDATE: A reader commented:
I was disappointed that Eric didnt mention the Pioneer Posse aka Mane Street Players. The Wild West Show put on by volunteers who garner old west gear and strap on pistols to raise money for the Boys and Girls Club is a real hoot! The show climaxes in a shootout after several skits that garner chuckles, giggles and big laughs from the crowd. Shows begin in October and run through to Memorial Day – every other Saturday at High Noon on Mane Street.
Thanks for that! I added a link to the Pioneer Posse’s Facebook page.