“Somehow, I wound up in the desert just after daylight, Where the Joshua Trees grow that little place you always liked. These Pioneertown people ain’t got too much to say, And if you ever were here baby, they ain’t givin’ you away.”
My first introduction to Pioneertown was via Kenny Chesney’s recording of “El Cerrito Place.” It is the third iteration of the song written in 2002 by Keith Gattis. Imagine my surprise when, years later, I discovered that Pioneertown really existed! I developed a thirst for ghost towns in my youth and even though Pioneertown doesn’t quite qualify (that I’m aware of, the history and characters involved tell a riveting story.
Every town in the land has a story, but the Pioneertown script was written in Hollywood. The town began as an idea to build a set where the filmmakers could avoid the time and expense of traveling all the way to Arizona by building a ‘working’ set. Instead of using only building facades, the structures would house locals, tourists, and actors alike. It was to be a real place to tell fake stories and a fake place inhabited by real people. The genesis of Pioneertown was a movie set which would be an entertainment complex and residential community when not in television and movie production mode. The thought of living on a real-life movie set must’ve seemed an impossible dream in those days and something only Hollywood could attempt.
Westerns were extremely popular in the 1940s and Hollywood produced thousands of them in the post-World War II era. Unfortunately for filmmakers, the post-war period also brought explosive expansion to Los Angeles. This building boom was making it almost impossible to film a Western with a giant influx of airplanes (and their contrails), the honking of automobile horns, and the scarcity of land. Can you begin to imagine just how many hours of film were ruined by lack of continuity?
It’s hardly a secret that Palm Springs was a favorite retreat for the Hollywood elite, so finding a location between the two cities made perfect sense. Joshua Tree had been declared a national monument in 1936 and enjoyed immense popularity, so that became ground zero in the hunt. In the end, the land that is now Pioneertown was chosen much like everything else in Hollywood is chosen: it was picked based on its looks. It doesn’t hurt that the Hi-Desert seemingly possesses magical properties in addition to being beautiful. The desert can be a cruel mistress by day, and life in the Mojave is not easy. Our fragility feels exposed as we soak in all that nature has to offer. When the sun goes down, there seems to cast an enchanted glow. Artists, Bohemians, and Naturalists have been drawn here for decades, and so was Hollywood.
The brainchild of Dick Curtis, Roy Rogers, and Russell Hayden, along with a myriad of Hollywood elite investors, Pioneertown was officially incorporated in 1946. It is rumored that the group even toyed with the idea of naming the town ‘Rogersville’ in an attempt to cash in on Roy Rogers’ stardom as the ‘King of the Cowboys’. In the end, rather than rely on the name of a single star, it was thought that Pioneertown would appeal to a much wider audience base of Western fans.
Filming began in Pioneertown in 1948, but the town was in its heyday throughout most of the 1950s. Fashionable television Westerns such as The Cisco Kid, The Gene Autry Show, and The Range Rider accounted for 326 episodes shot on location or framed in Pioneertown between 1950-1955 and the number of full-length movies is more than admirable. One would think all was well, but when the pendulum swings, it often overcorrects.
Pioneertown fell on hard times as Western movies were replaced by Buck Rogers and the race to space. Financial difficulties ensued and Pioneertown fell into disrepair over the years, cast away like an extra in a decade-old film. The area seemingly disappeared from the map in everything but name for almost a generation.
A glance at any main drag in America will show that business and economic climates have changed, and Pioneertown is no different. As of late, Pioneertown has seen a resurgence. Pappy & Harriet’s, the site of Pioneertown’s original gas station, continues to grow in popularity and stands as a beacon greeting visitors young and old. Red Dog, a survivor from the original development, has been remodeled and does a brisk business of dinner and drinks on evenings and weekends. The cocktail menu is impressive and I’ll personally vouch for both the Chips & Queso (my Kryptonite) as well as the outstanding Beef Brisket Taco…and the house-made Ginger Beer is out of this world!
When you walk Mane Street, you have the opportunity to step back in time and feel the mysterious energy that is Pioneertown. Drop into the Mercantile for a piece of history and you will leave with even more, as the odds are great that you will run into one of the town’s many historians. I leapt at the opportunity to grab a selfie in front of what is possibly the most photographed Post Office in the United States.
Renovations at the Pioneertown Motel have it running at full capacity, as I recently discovered while attempting to book a getaway. A survivor since the town’s inception, the most recent remodel combines original furniture and hardware with modern creature comforts. The Motel sports 19 guest rooms, a 24-hour lounge lovingly referred to as The Canteen and boasts air conditioning, wide open desert skies, and an open invitation to the mysterious aura that is the Hi-Desert.
The upswing of Pioneertown has not happened by accident and much of the progress may be traced to the Friends of Pioneertown. This non-profit organization is responsible for much of the upkeep and many of the improvements Pioneertown has seen over the past decade. You can become a supporter on any level from Tenderfoot to Cattle Baron with many choices in between. Their informative website may be found at: friendsofpioneertown.org. In addition, they work hard to protect Pioneertown’s history and oversee beautification and events such as the Mane Street Christmas Lights, Pioneertown Christmas Pot Luck, coordinate trash pick-ups, and perform invasive plant removal. Plans for Pioneertown’s 75th Anniversary have been postponed as of press time, but will occur sometime in the near future.
An evening stroll down Mane Street when the sun drops behind the mountains is simply sublime. You will witness folks of all ages and all walks of life, simply basking in the slow lane for a change and remembering just how much fun an ole Western town can be. The blanket of stars stirs memories of the childhood sky as the stage that is Pioneertown comes to life.
Not only will you vow to return, you will also wonder why it took you so long to get here.
By Ed Heethuis
Dearest Pioneertown and Rimrock family,
It is my great honor, as publisher, to create a space for this wonderful, historied place. Every month, we hope to bring someone’s personal experience or history, knowing firsthand, that it is the people who work and live here that make it truly special. We anxiously await to hear from you and to hear your stories in hopes of sharing them with the world and preserving them for posterity. – Lisa Lynn Email: firstname.lastname@example.org