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‘Ramona’ turns 100

Silent era film starring Mary Pickford had its location shoot at Rancho Camulos a century ago

Posted: May 20, 2010 5:01 p.m.
Updated: May 21, 2010 6:00 a.m.

Produce grown on the rancho used to carry labels such as this one.

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Like most fans of history, I get a kick out of standing at a spot where something of historical importance once took place. It's an added thrill if I happen to be there on an anniversary of the event in question.

That's why I was positively giddy last month to be at Rancho Camulos near Piru exactly 100 years to the day from the filming of the 1910 movie "Ramona," which was directed by the legendary D.W. Griffith, and starred silent superstar Mary Pickford.

Rancho Camulos Museum, at 5164 E. Telegraph Road (CA 126), two miles east of Piru, is a 40-acre National Historic Landmark situated within an 1,800-acre working ranch. According to its website, Camulos is "the only Mexican land grant rancho in California that is open to the public and still preserved in its original rural environment."

It was originally part of the huge 48,000-acre Rancho San Francisco Mexican land grant awarded to Antonio Del Valle in 1839. The house was built in 1853 by Antonio's son Ygnacio and got its name from a Tataviam Indian settlement on the site called Kamulus.
The movie "Ramona" was based on the enormously popular 1884 novel of the same name written by Helen Hunt Jackson.

Though largely forgotten today, "Ramona" was one of the 19th century's best loved novels. It is a story about a privileged young Californio senorita named Ramona who is rejected by her own culture when she marries a Native American man named Alessandro.

Hunt Jackson intended the novel to be an "Uncle Tom's Cabin" for Native Americans, dramatizing the harsh oppression of California's mission Indians at the hands of white Californians. It gave birth to the "Ramona myth," in which Ramona, who was a fictional character, took on a life of her own. As author Dydia DeLyser states in the introduction to her book "Ramona Memories," "The most important woman in the history of southern California never lived. Nor has she yet died."

Hunt Jackson used real locations for the basis of her story, and soon thousands of readers began arriving in California from back East, hoping to see where Ramona "lived." Various California cities cashed in on the travel boom, claiming to be Ramona's birthplace, home, marriage location, and even grave site.

The phenomenon continued long after Hunt Jackson's death in 1885. The novel spawned the Ramona Pageant in Hemet in 1923, which is still held annually outdoors in April and May. A few years later, showman Robert E. Callahan penned a sequel to "Ramona" and founded one of California's first theme parks in Culver City, known as Ramona Village.

After going bankrupt, the relocated park stood for many years on Sierra Highway near Canyon Country under the name "Callahan's Wild West." Many of the items from the park are now found at Heritage Junction in Newhall, including Ramona's Chapel, a replica of the one found at Rancho Camulos that is seen in the film.

Although not specifically mentioned in the book, Rancho Camulos was believed to be the setting for Ramona's home, and for many years the rancho even marketed fruits grown there under the "Home of Ramona" label.

"When the book came out, it was so popular that many ranchos vied for the title of "home of Ramona," says Camulos docent Maria Christopher. "In reality, Helen Hunt Jackson had visited several ranchos but never identified the inspiration for the home of Ramona.

A few years after the book came out, Charles Lummis published a book of photos based on his knowledge of California ranchos, illustrating how Camulos fit the description in the book. Also, in an appendix to one of the early editions, a journalist documented his visit to Rancho Camulos, identifying it as the true home of Ramona."

The rancho quickly became a place of pilgrimage, and for years the Southern Pacific railroad made stops at Camulos' own train station to accommodate all the tourists wishing to visit Ramona's house. This did not sit well with the Del Valle's, who complained about tourists who took souvenirs, trampled the gardens, and entered the home uninvited - often asking to see a torn altar cloth that was said to have been mended by Ramona herself.

At the time of the film, D.W. Griffith, one of early cinema's true titans, had been directing movies for two years and was five years away from making his controversial silent epic "The Birth of a Nation."

At the same time, 18-year-old Mary Pickford, who was born in Canada, was well on her way to becoming "America's Sweetheart," with nearly 70 films under her belt. In 1919, Griffith and Pickford would become business partners when they formed United Artists (along with Charlie Chaplin and Pickford's husband Douglas Fairbanks).

Griffith secured the "Ramona" filming rights for only $100, and boiled the 350-page novel down to a 17-minute one-reeler that was shot over two days at Camulos and in the hills surrounding Piru. Another two days were spent filming interior shots at Griffith's studio in Los Angeles.

Other stars who later achieved Hollywood fame appear in "Ramona" alongside Pickford, including Mack Sennett, Mae Marsh and Pickford's younger brother Jack. Henry Walthall, who plays Alessandro, would also star in Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" in 1915.

But the true star of "Ramona" is Rancho Camulos, which looks almost exactly the same today as it did 100 years ago. In fact, Camulos is noted for being the first location to ever be given a screen credit when the following banner appeared at the beginning of the film: "The production was taken at Camulos, Ventura County, California, the actual scenes where Mrs. Jackson placed her characters in the story."

As I walked the grounds of the rancho on the filming centennial I was quickly able to identify several locations that were used in the film. I found the courtyard where Ramona spurns a would-be suitor, the entryway where Ramona and Alessandro flirt with one another, and the pathway where they both leave the rancho together.

During later forays around Piru, I was able to locate the canyon where many of the mountain scenes were shot near the Heritage Valley Inn (where the cast stayed during filming). I was also able to locate the site near Lake Piru of a sequence where Alessandro looks on from the foreground while his village is destroyed far below. This scene, easily the most interesting in the film, employed a technique Griffith created called "distant views."

The 1910 film will celebrate another centennial this Saturday, May 23, when a newly-restored version of the movie, along with an original score composed by Maria Newman, will be presented at Rancho Camulos, marking the 100th anniversary of the film's initial release. The presentation will be a "picnic and movie" beginning at 1 p.m. with a lecture by Hugh Monro Neely of the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education, who remastered the movie in 2009.

The film will be presented afterward in the rancho's schoolhouse.

"Ramona" will also be presented at Heritage Junction in Newhall on the evening of Saturday, June 12 as part of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society's Flickers at the Junction film series. It will be followed by a screening of Frank Sinatra's 1954 drama "Suddenly," which will be presented outside of the Saugus Train Station, which was used as a location in the film.

Any insomniacs wishing to see "Ramona" can tune in to Turner Classic Movies, which will be broadcasting it at 3:15 a.m. on May 25.
Rancho Camulos is located at 5164 E. Telegraph Road (CA 126), two miles east of Piru. Tours are available on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Visit www.ranchocamulos.org for more information. For reservations to the Picnic and Movie, call (805) 521-1501 or contact info@ranchocamulos.org. The suggested donation is $8.

Heritage Junction is located inside the William S. Hart Park in downtown Newhall at 24107 Newhall Ave. Tours are available on Saturdays and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The showing of "Ramona" and "Suddenly" will take place outdoors on Saturday, June 12 at 8 p.m. Suggested donation is $5. Visit www.scvhs.org for more information or call (661) 254-1275.

E.J. Stephens can be contacted at deadwrite@yahoo.com.

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