Pioneertown was built in the 1940s as a backdrop for Hollywood Westerns, with the idea that it would eventually become something much grander. Cameras stopped rolling decades ago, but the greater goal is finally being realized. In the California desert lies a forgotten film set: an entire town, a reproduction of the Old West, built in the 1940s and backdrop to dozens of cowboy movies in that decade and the next. It was Hollywood’s own Westworld.
Some sixty years later its streets have gotten a bit of their bustle back. The main thoroughfare is home to boutique shops. The replica cantina is a near-legendary music venue. And the old cavalry fort is a stylish new hotel. The Pioneertown Motel is the kind of accommodation that generates giddy excitement among even the most jaded of Tablet’s hotel aficionados. We’ve seen every form of lodging there is, and this amount of personality and provenance has no substitute.
Pioneertown’s resurgence is surprising, to say the least. But while the newfound success is no doubt extraordinary, the reasons it failed in the first place might be even more interesting.
Actor Dick Curtis started up the town in 1946 as an 1880s themed live-in Old West living, breathing motion-picture set. The town was designed to provide a place for production companies to enjoy while also using their businesses and homes in movies. Hundreds of Westerns and early television shows were filmed in Pioneertown, including The Cisco Kid and Edgar Buchanan’s Judge Roy Bean.
Dick Curtis, Roy Rogers and Russell Hayden were some of the original developers and investors. Gene Autry filmed his weekly show in town for 5 years, using the buildings and businesses as part of the film set. The first episode accidentally features the Pioneer Bowl sign, which was usually covered for filming, and Pioneer Bowl is still an operating bowling alley. The third building to be built in Pioneertown, Pioneer Bowl was used for recreation for the residents, actors and crew after filming. Roy Rogers made the front page of the local newspaper when he opened the bowl with a strike on Lane one. He bowled a 211 game in his cowboy boots with Dale Evans and 200 town folk watching. Bowling leagues were an active part of American culture, and dozens of businesses had leagues at Pioneer Bowl, especially after western films were no longer being made in town. Many locals remember being pin boys for the bowl until some of the first automatic pinsetters made by Brunswick were installed. The Thompson and White family partnership built the bowl in 1946. Mrs. White volunteered to be the first postmistress of Pioneertown, and the first post office was located inside the bowling alley.
The werewolf movie Howling 7 was filmed in Pioneertown and used many of its locals as cast members.
In 2020, Pioneertown’s Mane Street area was recognized as a historic district by the National Register of Historic Places. #hollywoodstudios #hollywoodfilm #movieset #movielocations #cowboys #westernmovies #westernlifestyle #pioneertown #yuccavalley #joshuatreenationalpark
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