Let the wanderer sing where the wanderers go
The film tycoons who founded Pioneertown loved it for its versatile terrain — scenery of seven western states could be duplicated by immediate surroundings. The true origin story of Pioneertown is hotly contested.
The legend of the place often overshadows its true historical trajectory, and the more people you talk to, the more scrambled it gets. Alice “Honey” Fellers who wrote the book, Pioneertown, Then and Now, was quoted saying “Psychologically speaking, Pioneertown is not a town. It is a legend.” What we know is that Pioneertown began in 1946 when perennial movie bad guy Dick Curtis — a strapping man with a black mustache — whoa’d his horse on a grassy knoll and proclaimed, “This is the place.” Other accounts say an old lady owed him twenty-five dollars and repaid him with a deed to an unseen homesteader plot. Along with Curtis, Roy Rogers, Philip N. Krasne, Gene Autry, Russell Hayden, and the Sons of the Pioneers (for whom the town was named) were some of the original investors and personalities who helped build and invent Pioneertown. More than 50 films and several television shows were filmed there, most notably The Cisco Kid and The Gene Autry Show.
Promoted as a scenic, smog-free, 32,000 acre “all inclusive filming location,” Pioneertown featured a variety of fully-built circa 1870s western movie set buildings along “Mane” Street, including corrals, stables, a sound stage, storage facilities, a Chinese restaurant called the Golden Stallion, two saloons, a 6-lane bowling alley built because Roy Rogers loved to bowl and a motel, originally christened The Townhouse, was part of an original plan conceived by Curtis, Rogers and Hayden. Even its two sturdy-looking buildings assembled from what may be old railroad ties, had doubled as an army fort in one of the first films ever shot at Pioneertown.
It fell into the hands of its citizens until the early 60s, when Benton Lefton — who has been described in varying sources as a young entrepreneur, a shopping-center developer from Ohio and a car salesman — came west looking for the next “El Dorado.” He fell in love with the town, and much like Dick Curtis before him, was a man of vision. He bought Pioneertown and drew up extensive plans to develop it into a $400 million endeavor called “California Golden Empire.” Lefton elicited the help of California architectural designer Wil Hanson to master plan the future utopia, which was slated to include thousands of housing lots, a swimming pool, airstrip, equestrian center and golf course. When they couldn’t get water to the area, the plan flopped. (There are still half-built water pipes leading to nowhere beneath Pioneertown.)
There were also plans in the works to build a highway between Pioneertown and Big Bear, thought to bring in hundreds of thousands of tourists to the area each year. The project never came to fruition.
Today Pioneertown stands much as it has for the past twenty years, though residents have constant plans to improve and renovate the site. Pappy & Harriet’s is an oasis of the music scene — both local and worldwide.