As you have zoomed along Highway 395 on the way to Mammoth Mountain Ski Area or the fish-stocked lakes that surround the Central California resort, you may have noticed that the hills between the towns of Lone Pine and Bishop look awfully familiar.
That's completely understandable if you are a movie-lover.
One such movie-lover, Jim Rogers, was so taken by the Owens Valley of Inyo County—which served as settings in numerous feature films, television shows and documentaries—that he and his wife lent their financial support to the opening of the Beverly and Jim Rogers Lone Pine Film History Museum in 2006.
As the museum's collection of documents, memorabilia and other cultural material grew in the years that followed—it's now among the largest of its kind in the country—the building and its infrastructure were expanded, prompting the museum board in 2015 to rename the more diverse facility the Museum of Western Film History.
Newspaper reports on the 1919 filming of the silent western The Round-up, which starred Fatty Arbuckle and is the first known film shot entirely on location in Lone Pine, indicate that movie crews had been in town in the years before that.
The same Alabama Hills are off in the distance behind Charlton Heston as he rides his brown horse during a cattle drive in Will Penny (1968) as well as Clint Eastwood as he hides behind rocks with his trusty C96 "Broomhandle" Mauser semi-automatic pistol in Joe Kidd (1972). They don't make as many westerns as they used to, but the same area did make its way into a relatively recent one, Django Unchained (2012).
During the heyday of the television westerns in the 1950s and '60s, Bonanza, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, The Gene Autry Show, Annie Oakley and, probably my favorite, Have Gun Will Travel all shot scenes in the valley.
Locals call the area most called upon by Hollywood "the Buttermilks" because it is at the end of Buttermilk Road. It has served as the backdrop in not only western movies and TV shows, but also productions of other genres, especially science-fiction, including Star Trek V, Star Trek: Generations and Deep Space 9. Hit films such as Gladiator, Tremors and Iron Man also relied on local settings. The Alabama Hills area has stood in for Iraq, India, China, Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip, the Himalayas and, in two Tarzan pictures, Africa.
Seeing as how I drove through a lot of nowhere to get to this Hollywood-away-from-Hollywood, I expected the worst walking into the Lone Pine museum, but I was immediately blown away by the breadth of the collection, the deep thought that went into the displays and the option to self-guide my way through or hit up a helpful volunteer.
One informed me Where the Real West Becomes the Reel West was about to start rolling in the screening room. So, after a quick trip to the loo—give me and my bladder a break; we'd been on the road for five hours—I took in the short film overview on the area's significance to movie makers. I am glad I did because it made viewing the exhibits much more enriching.
You'll find worn costumes, signed cowboy hats and old-timey filmmaking gear. I learned a thing or three I did not know from the displays dedicated to Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger and a couple of cowpokes with Orange County ties: former California Angels owner, the late Gene Autry and former Newport Beach man about town, the late John Wayne. Did you know "Duke" consciously developed his distinctive (and often mocked) posture in his first starring western, 1930's The Big Trail, and maintained it for his next 200-plus pictures?
The list of stars who have worked in the area includes Bing Crosby, Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, Jeff Bridges, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Randolph Scott, Audie Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Kevin Bacon and Jamie Foxx. The director roll is equally impressive, with William Wyler, William Wellman, John Ford, George Stevens, Jon Favreau and Quentin Tarantino, just to name a few.
A gift shop just to the right of the entrance when facing it from the inside is filled with caps, DVDs, knickknacks, John Wayne Cancer Foundation T-shirts and especially books, most of which are about moviemaking in the area and some of which were actually commissioned by the museum's publishing arm.
From the museum, you can also pick up marching/driving orders for Owens Valley hikes/rides to the actual film-shooting locations of yesteryear.
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Of the Big Three Little Towns of Inyo County along the 395 (Bishop, Big Pine and Lone Pine), the latter is the most charming. Long a starting point for those heading up to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States, Lone Pine has a cute downtown filled with shops and eateries. (Shame on me for having pigged out at Erick Schat's Bakery in Bishop.)
The little town surrounding the museum also gets in on the film act every Columbus Day weekend. The most recent Lone Pine Film Festival was held Oct. 5-7 in the local high school auditorium. During those days, horses and re-enactors of the Duke and Hopalong fill the streets. Giddy-up!
The Museum of Western Film History, 701 S. Main St., Lone Pine, (760) 876-9909; www.lonepinefilmhistorymuseum.org. Open Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. through Oct. 31; open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Nov. 1-April 30. Donation, $5; museum members, enlisted military and children under 12, free. Pets on leashes are allowed.