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Exploring historic films in SCV

Community: Class sends students trekking to ‘Newhallywood’ sites seen in early western cinema

Posted: July 29, 2010 10:51 p.m.
Updated: July 30, 2010 6:30 a.m.

Historian E.J. Stephens, center, leads a tour at the historic oil boom town of Mentryville as part of the Newhallywood on Location history class in Santa Clarita on Saturday. The last course will take place Saturday from 1-4 p.m.

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A group of about 10 individuals trekked up a steep bluff to Beale’s Cut, a historic stagecoach passage only visible after a short hike through the hills between Sierra Highway and Highway 14.

Landslides and rainstorms have dumped rocks and dirt into what was once a 30-foot-deep pass carved out by Gen. Edward Fitzgerald Beale in 1863 as part of a major transportation route through California.

Some group members asked questions and others simply gazed out through the cut as group leader Alan Pollack rattled off historical anecdotes about the pass, which currently exists on private property.

The path was also the SCV’s first and toll road, and a popular location for filming Westerns, such as John Ford’s “Stagecoach,” starring John Wayne.

The tour, which also took participants to Mentryville and Tesoro Adobe Historic Park, was part of the SCV Historical Society’s four-week “Newhallywood” course that ends Saturday.

“Back in the (1910s) and ’20s, Newhall was such a popular filming place — especially for Westerns — that (producers) nicknamed it ‘Newhallywood,’” said E.J. Stephens, a film historian who helped lead the tour.

The Canyon Country resident and his wife bought the trademark for “Newhallywood.”

Participants in the class have explored some of the film and general history of the Santa Clarita Valley with lectures, film clips and visits to actual locations.

Exploring history
After the group carpooled over to Mentryville, they learned about the historic oil-drilling town that continues to carry an appeal for producers and directors, including Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg filmed part of “The Color Purple” in Mentryville, which is found at the end of Pico Canyon Road.

“Once you see it, you can visualize how they’d use it for filming,” he said. “It’s a ghost town. Actually, a couple of the buildings that look historic are not; they were actually built by film companies.”

Oil workers began to abandon Mentryville in the early 1900s as the flow of oil ebbed. Many of the class participants had heard about Mentryville, but didn’t know much about its past and had never stepped foot on the historic landmark.

Pollack and Stephens made sure to balance facts about the spot’s film history with anecdotes about its general historical significance.

L.A. author’s research

Among the group was Lisa Rosenbaum, who diligently scribbled down notes throughout the tour.

The Saturday tour gave her the perfect opportunity to conduct some on-site research for a book she is writing.

The book is a novel set in the Santa Clarita Valley. Rosenbaum has been studying the SCV’s past, including the St. Francis Dam disaster and the origin of Beale’s Cut.

“It’s one thing to read about things and see pictures, but you don’t have an idea of scale until you actually come and see the place,” Rosenbaum said.

The Los Angeles author’s interest in the SCV as a story setting developed as she began reading about the St. Francis Dam failure and the resulting flood that killed more than 450 people in 1928.

“The more I started researching about (the dam disaster), the more fascinated I became,” she said, “and the more I realized that people don’t know much about this area and what happened to it.”

Beginning of dream

Alan Pollack, president of the Historical Society, agrees.

“A lot of people who moved out here don’t know this place is extremely historic, not just a bedroom community of cookie-cutter tract homes,” he said.

Pollack said he has long dreamed of a program that would allow residents to actually tour the SCV’s historic sites. He hopes the launch of the “Newhallywood” course is just the beginning of that dream.

“There’s nothing like seeing the actual place where history happened,” Pollack said. “It brings it to life.”

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