August 16, 2008

Still calling 'Action!' in Pioneertown

In 1945, when Hollywood was grinding out Westerns on a regular basis, Roy Rogers led a band of cohorts and founded the town as a live-in movie set

Judith Salkin
The Desert Sun

The U.S. Post Office in Pioneertown is the most photographed post office in the country according to a plaque on a historical marker outside the building. (Crystal Chatham, The Desert Sun)

You don't have to go to Los Angeles to discover a bit of Hollywood history.

Just take the drive up Highway 62, make a left at the Water Canyon Coffee Co. and head up the road to Pioneertown.

In 1945, when Hollywood was grinding out Westerns on a regular basis, Roy Rogers led a band of cohorts that included actors Dick Curtis and Russell Hayden, the Sons of the Pioneers (Roy's backup band), Bud Abbott (of Abbott and Costello) and gossip columnist Louella Parsons, and founded the town as a live-in movie set.

Back then, Pioneertown boasted a post office (still in use and according to a historical marker, the most photographed U.S. Post Office in the country), a cantina, general store and motel, where cast and crew would hunker down during shoots.

According to the Pioneertown Web site, it was almost called “Rogersville” in honor of the famed cowboy.

“But after some spirited discussion we named it Pioneertown in honor of The Sons of the Pioneers,” wrote Hayden, who died in Palm Springs in 1981.

“That way, no one man was getting top billing.”

Today, the town is a rustic reminder of gentler days — and of the primeval forces Mother Nature can unleash.

Two years ago, the Sawtooth fire ravaged the foothills behind Yucca Valley. Miraculously, Pioneertown survived. But there's much more to see than nature renewing herself in this high desert community.

Shacking up

Ernest “Ernie” Kester, who along with his wife Carol owned the Pioneertown Motel for a number of years, is a collector of all things Pioneertown.

If you find him on the streets (he's one of the members of the Pioneertown Posse that performs gunfights) he can tell you just about anything you want to know about the town.

“All the old stars — Gene Autry, Duncan Reynaldo (The Cisco Kid), Russell Haney, Clayton Moore — they all worked up here,” he said.

If you're looking for a place to stay while exploring the area, there's the Pioneertown Lodge and Stable, owned by Bill and Peggy McKinley.

“Roy's (Rogers) was number 10 and room 9 was the club room where they all got together after a day of shooting,” Peggy McKinley said.

The McKinleys have been making some changes, including adding a stable and a pavilion for special events. This weekend, the lodge is holding its first kids' riding camp, complete with barbecue and Sunday brunch.

Pappy and Harriet's

Today's Pioneertown is a charming place. You can wander around Mane Street, see a staged gunfight, head north to Pipes Canyon, or stop in at Pappy and Harriet's Pioneertown Palace for a long neck and live music.

According to its Web site, Pappy's began as a one-pump gas station with a dual purpose. The facade was used as a set for westerns well into the 1950s. In 1972, Harriet's mother, Francis Aleba, and her husband, John, purchased the building and opened “Cantina,” a biker bar that became a destination for bikers traveling to Big Bear and Las Vegas.

In 1982, Harriet and her husband, Claude “Pappy” Allen, opened “Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace,” served Tex-Mex and brought in live music.

More than 25 years later, Pappy's is still the place to be for good grub and entertainment.

Regular performers include The Thrift Store All-Stars, Ritmo Loco and Ted Quinn.

And you never know who's going to show up on stage — Eric Burdon, Leon Russell, Shooter Jennings, Lucinda Williams, Johnette Napolitano (of Concrete Blonde) and even Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant.