by Constance Walsh
Pioneertown! "How The West Was Once." Where Bullet barked and Trigger rose on golden haunches... where Roy and Gene threw dry grins at each other from either side of the too-wide Mane Street...where good guys were gorgeous and bad guys were too, like Russel Hayden, a Pioneertown resident who shot his way to acting stardom usually wearing the black hat. Pioneertown! with those bleeding-mango sunsets...where the lunar pebbles of Sawtooth Mountains cut the horizon like an old black knife...where Joshua's arms turn into trees begging mercy to the skies...and where little winding dirt roads are just made for a stagecoach chase, a dramatic topple down the ravine, or a romantic rendezvous by moonlight...Pioneertown!
Mane Street was built in 1946/47 as an alternative location for Hollywood westerns, but at first Dick Curtis, original dream-founder, was just looking for a place where his movie friends could play away from the city. Lounging around swimming pools in Palm Springs was not their style. They needed a hee-haw spot where they could do their own thing. One day Curtis rode up the dusty cattle trail from Yucca Valley and stopped on a bluff to rest. A round plateau of softly swaying bunchgrass lay nestled at the foot of the Little San Bernardino Mountains like a hidden gem. "This is the place," said Mr. Curtis to his horse. And it was.
Of course, Mane Street did turn out to be an extremely popular film location, but notice that the "false" fronts are affixed to real structures, providing accommodations for movie people, sets, and actual small businesses such as Clip 'n' Curl beauty salon, (now Mary Gaffney's private home), the Pioneertown Gazette, and the official post office (zip 92268) which celebrated, along with the rest of the town, its 50th anniversary in 1995.
Mane Street's distinctive architecture is the bequest of the founding men and women. They knew the feel and look of the Old West. With the antiqueing expertise of Ernie Sall, a painter and original Pioneertowner, everything looked a hundred years old the day it was built. With the demise of cowboy movies, Pioneertown in the nineteen sixties was on the verge of succumbing to an ambitious project called "The Golden Empire" headed by shopping-center developer Benton Lefton. Corporate water-witching tapped one dry well after another, and the big plans - which included three golf courses - were (blessedly) doomed. Wil Hanson, architect for the failed project, was not sorry. He describes his first visit to Pioneertown: "We drove through the town at dusk. One rather short, but excessively wide dirt street with a scattering of western buildings on either side, beginning with the Golden Stallion Saloon at one end, the Red Dog Saloon in the middle, and ending with a ramshakle OK Corral. Everything looked like a heavy step would collapse it, but I found myself instantly and totally in love."
About the fires which claimed The Golden Stallion and The Red Dog Saloon. Hanson claims that both buildings, very active at the time, burned down on Easter weekend, 1963. An investigation purportedly revealed no reason to suspect arson, but the coincidence still puzzles many. The Red Dog was hurriedly rebuilt, in no way resembling its former glory, and The Golden Stallion is a qhost of a memory on a dusty spot of Mane Street.
After bankruptcy claimed the grandiose Empire project,a silver- tressed matriarch, Frances Aleba, purchased several buildings on Mane Street, including the old gas station. She turned it into the "Cantina", famous for its Mexican-style food and somewhat infamous for its two-wheeled silver steeds and their none too angelic riders. Around 1980 Fran turned her business over to her daughter, Harriet Allen, and her husband Pappy. For the next decade, the food, the music, the people and the unequaled ambience of Pappy and Harriet's Pioneertown Palace thrilled locals and visitors world-wide. After Pappy's death in 1992, Harriet carried on, and the party continued while Pappy watched over us from Yaro's exquisite sculpture. It has a permanent place behind the bar. The life and love of this incredible couple, Pappy and Harriet, is a self-sustaining legend of Pioneertown.
Today, the horses are back, the bikers are back (barely related to the former) and Pioneertown is home to natural splendor and human inhabitants who treasure a simpler, more earthy way of living. The wheel of life turns, and a new generation carries the torch, with Jay taking over the Palace and filling spaces on Mane Street with romantic Victorian-Western buildings. Stephanie, Valerie and friends are bringing new life to the Bowl after all those wonderful years under Ron and Gladys Young.
We invite you to leave your cares and your cars where the blacktop ends and put your soles on the dust. Take a walk up Mane Street to the OK Corral. Turn your gaze toward the Sawtooth Mountains and feel your vision expand. Have lunch at the Pioneer Bowl. Write a long letter or a short postcard. Take an afternoon nap in your John Wayne room at the Motel. Stay for dinner ÷ great food at the Palace. And the music! Dance under your lucky stars -- and thank them places like this still exist.
Constance Walsh, 1996