Monday, March 07, 2011

Studio Geo: The Golden Oak Ranch

Walt Disney began his career as a filmmaker in January of 1920 when he took a job making animated advertisements for the Kansas City Film Ad Company. It was the beginning of a journey that would take a struggling young artist and entrepreneur and eventually mold him into one of the most celebrated icons of 20th century popular culture. The historical map of that journey is an extraordinary one.

Welcome to Studio Geo. These are the places where Walt Disney created his moving pictures:

The Golden Oak Ranch
Over the years, millions upon millions of movie and television viewers have looked upon and admired the beautiful outdoor landscapes and rustic scenery of the Golden Oak Ranch. It is a significant, though almost wholly unrecognized facet of Disney film history.

Movie ranches primarily emerged during the waning years of the silent film era and were widely used throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The popularity of western movies in particular, sent Hollywood producers looking for optimal outdoor shooting locations that were still within a convenient distance from Hollywood. If a film crew could remain within a thirty mile radius of their home studio, they did not have to pay their union workers an out-of-town stipend. Popular locations for the movie ranches included the Santa Monica Mountains, the Canyon Country of Los Angeles and the Simi Hills in Ventura County.


Walt Disney first made use of such a location in 1955 when he leased the 315-acre Golden Oak Ranch for the filming of The Adventures of Spin and Marty. Located in the Santa Clarita area approximately 25 miles north of Disney's Burbank studio, the ranch had earned a filmmaking pedigree more than two decades prior to its playing the role of the Triple R Ranch in the popular Mickey Mouse Club serial. Trem Carr, one of the founders of Monogram Studios, leased the same land for his own self-named studio in 1931, and had his set designer Ernie Hickson build a full scale western town on the property. When the lease ran out in 1936, Hickson purchased land two miles to the west and moved his sets and buildings to the new location. That facility became especially well known when singing cowboy Gene Autry purchased it shortly after Hickson's death in 1952 and turned it into his own Melody Ranch.

Following the exodus of Carr and Hickman, the Golden Oak property reverted to a traditional cattle ranch which was still occasionally used by Hollywood filmmakers. In 1959, Walt decided to purchase the property, seeing it as a valuable asset for his ever increasing slate of live-action productions. Bringing his theme park expertise to bear, he enlisted Disneyland master planner Marvin Davis to upgrade the property. Davis installed two man-made lakes (one of which could double as a river, complete with water pumps to simulate currents), a waterfall and an extensive irrigation system to keep the greenery as green as possible. In subsequent years, additional land surrounding the property was purchased, increasing the ranch to its present-day size of close to 700 acres.

Among the notable early Disney live-action films to use the Golden Oak Ranch: Old Yeller, Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus, The Shaggy Dog, The Parent Trap and Follow Me, Boys! The ranch has hosted countless other Hollywood productions, ranging from classic television programs such as Bonanza, The Virginian and Lassie, to contemporary shows such as Bones, Boston Legal and My Name is Earl.

The name of the ranch refers to the discovery of gold on the property, some seven years prior to the famed California gold rush of 1849. An oak tree close to where rancher Francisco Lopez dug up small gold flakes and nuggets in 1842 still purportedly remains on the ranch and is commemorated with a small plaque.


The Golden Oak Ranch continues to serve both the Walt Disney Company and entire film industry and remains one of the few surviving southern California movie ranches.  It has recently added a residential neighborhood set featuring thirteen different houses, each with their own unique architectural style.  Work is proceeding on an urban business district set that will include 43 different storefronts and will be complete sometime in 2011.

The Disney corporate web site currently features concept art of a new entrance to the ranch where it is identified as Disney-ABC Studios at the Ranch.  According to the site: "Walt Disney personally selected Golden Oak Ranch as the location for segments of his iconic television show, The Mickey Mouse Club. Now, 50 years later, the Disney-ABC Studios at The Ranch project will transform a small portion of Golden Oak Ranch into a state-of-the-art soundstage and production complex."  The proposed project would develop 56 of the ranch's 890 acres and include up to twelve soundstages, a warehouse, writers/producers bungalows and a commissary.

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6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Here is a great site that shows what is no the ranch:
http://studioservices.go.com/goldenoakranch/index.html

Jeff Kurtti said...

"If a film crew could remain within a thirty mile radius of their home studio, they did not have to pay their union workers an out-of-town stipend."

This was known as the "Thirty Mile Zone," or "TMZ," which is where the tabloid web site and TV show get their name.

A Snow White Sanctum said...

Sounds like a filmmaker's paradise. Wonder if they have tours for the public. Would love to see the place.

George Taylor said...

The wooden bridge on the Ranch has been in a lot of movies and television series. I wonder if it deserves its own"What a Character" post!

Gator Chris said...

Studio Geo is a great series. Thanks for writing it!

Don Bitz said...

While I'm a historian for Paramount Ranch, a movie location in the Santa Monica Mountains that is now a National Park, I have an interest in other movie ranches, so enjoyed this post. So many of the old movie ranches are gone now, so it's great that sites such as Golden Oak and Paramount Ranch are still around. While Golden Oak is not open to the public, Paramount Ranch, as a National Park, is open to the public (and, for free) as a historical and recreational site. It also still serves as a film location, although we don't get as much filming these days as we once did. The ranch became well-known in the 1990's as the home to Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. From the 1960's to 1980's it was known for being home to the original Renaissance Faire. The Park Service offers history tours of the Western Town at Paramount Ranch about once a month as well as occasional special events, some of which I help with at times. Further info may be found at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area website.

As a Disney fan, I always hoped to one day find a Disney connection to Paramount Ranch. For many years, to my disappointment, nothing turned up. Then, one day I happened to be watching The Love Bug and recognized Sugarloaf Peak, a prominent mountain in the Paramount Ranch landcape, and realized some of the scenes could be Paramount Ranch. Disney Archivist Dave Smith confirmed that The Love Bug had shot there. I don't know if anybody at Disney realized at that time that Paramount Ranch still existed, or that some of the old racetrack is still there. Certainly, no one at the Park Service knew that the movie had shot there. Later I discovered that a scene for Herbie Rides Again was shot there. It's pretty cool for myself and my NPS history colleagues to know that one of the world's most iconic and beloved vehicles is part of the list of other famous vehicles that have rolled their wheels across Paramount Ranch! Disney has used the ranch in more recent years for things, since they tore down the Golden Oak Western set that had been built for Roots II.