Zip Code 92268, Pioneertown California sits at just over 4000 feet in elevation on the edge of the Mojave Desert at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains where Joshua Trees meet Pinyon Pine, Manzanita and Juniper. Black bear, deer, bighorn sheep, coyote, fox and desert tortoises all intermingle in this area. I have seen most of these, I even saw a few wild burros many years ago in the area. Originally started in the 1940’s as a movie set that was built so that the buildings were real, not just fake movie fronts, people could actually live in the buildings, it was designed to be a place where the actors and film crew could also live. Being only a few hours from Hollywood it was an ideal location to film western movies and television shows. Many of the Gene Autry television productions were shot at the site. Other notable television shows that utilized the area were “Cisco Kid” and “Judge Roy Bean”. Some of the original investors in the town were Roy Rogers, who also built the Pioneer Bowl, Sons of the Pioneers, which the town was named after, Dick Curtis who was a professional villian in old movies, Bud Abbott, Russell Hayden, who played Lucky on the Hopalong Cassidy series. Roy Rogers himself rolled out the first ball at the Pioneer Bowl in 1949, school-age children were hired as pinsetters until the installation of automatic pin-setting equipment in the 1950s. It is considered by some to be one of the oldest in continuous use in California, though in recent years it is difficult to find open. There are many places to stay the night in the area but two of them really stand out, one I will discuss later, the other is the Pioneertown Motel, originally built to house the movie crews it is now a real motel right on Mane Street (yes correct spelling Mane not Main).
Here is a list of many but not all of the filming that was done in and near to Pioneertown:
The Valiant Hombre (1948), The Cowboy and the Indians (1949), The Daring Caballero (1949), The Gay Amigo (1949), Riders in the Sky (1949), Satan’s Cradle (1949), The Gene Autry Show (1950 TV Series), The Capture (1950), Cody of the Pony Express (1950), Indian Territory (1950), The Cisco Kid (1950 TV Series), The Girl from San Lorenzo (1950), The Range Rider (1951 TV Series), Silver Canyon (1951), Whirlwind (1951), Barbed Wire (1952), Jeopardy (1953), Last of the Pony Riders (1953), Winning of the West (1953), On Top of Old Smoky (1953), Annie Oakley (1954 TV Series), Buffalo Bill, Jr. (1955 TV Series), Judge Roy Bean (1956 TV Series), 26 Men (1957 TV Series), Cain’s Cutthroats (1971), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), Shelter from the Storm (1994), Desert Cross (1994 Short Film), The Howling: New Moon Rising(1995), Last Chance (1999), Fabulous Shiksa in Distress (2003), Cracker & Camper Van Beethoven: First Annual Camp Out Live (2006 Documentary), Cyxork 7 (2006), God’s Way Love (2007 Short Film), Remembering Nigel (2009), Desert Gold (2010 Short Film), The Oregon Trail (2010 Short Film), The Scarlet Worm (2011), Tales of the Frontier (2012 TV Series), Seven Psychopaths (2012), Western Bells: Projection 1 (2013 Short Film).
After the filming boom of Pioneertown slowed down many of the buildings were sold to outside parties as permanent or vacation residences. Even though the heyday of filming westerns has winded down Pioneertown is still used for dozens if not hundreds of music videos, television commercials and still occasionally movies. Its post office is reported to have the distinction of being one of the most photographed post offices in the nation. To retain the old-west flavor and spirit of Pioneertown, the re-enactment groups Gunfighter’s For Hire and Mane Street Stampede perform a variety of shoot-em-up skits on Mane Street every Saturday and Sunday.
With all this said, what is the most popular aspect of Pioneertown today?
PAPPY & HARRIETS PIONEERTOWN PALACE:
I guess you could say that Pioneertown is a faux western town but in the 60-plus years since it was built it has earned quite a historical status, its age and all of the history behind this place has earned it a real page in the history books. In 1946, where Pappy & Harriet’s stands today, was a facade used as a “cantina”. In 1972, Harriet’s mother, Francis Aleba, and her husband, John, purchased the building and opened “The Cantina”, an outlaw biker burrito bar, the Cantina rollicked for 10 years. My first visit there was in the late 1970’s and I remember it being a rowdy biker bar, it was a place I only visited a few times. When it closed, they made sure the building stayed in the family, in 1982, Harriet and her husband, Claude “Pappy” Allen, opened “Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace”. While the bikers still hung around, Pappy & Harriet’s presence created more of a family atmosphere. With family style Tex-Mex cuisine and live music featuring Pappy, Harriet and their granddaughter Kristina, Pappy’s quickly became a local favorite with all walks of life getting along under one roof! Pappy died in 1994 and his friends and fans flew from all over the world to be at Pappy’s for a celebration of his life. I began frequenting Pappy’s more often about this time and was amazed how so many people from different walks of life all gathered here. I would see bikers, cowboys, off road bikers in full riding gear, rock climbers from the nearby Joshua Tree National Park, hippies and families with kids. Harriet and her granddaughter Kristina would often take the stage to the delight of the audience.
Harriet sold the bar to a family friend who changed the atmosphere of the place, removing pool tables, pictures and bad menu changes, so he gave it up after a few failing years. Then Robyn Celia and Linda Krantz, two New Yorkers who loved Pappy’s wanted to see it returned to its glory days. The girls bought the club in 2003 and have done an incredible job, the legendary bar has become an indie rock favorite with a vibe that can’t be matched. Busloads of tourists stop by on many weekdays. When I eat there and watch a show, usually on a weekend, a few locals are always present but I sometimes ask people seated around me where they are from and I get responses such as, Malibu, Burbank, Los Angeles, Beveryl Hills, Orange County, San Diego and Palm Springs, the list goes on and on.
When you walk in the door you feel the history. Some of my favorite acts that I have seen at Pappys are Sean Lennon, the son of Beatle John Lennon, Eric Burdon of the Animals (also a long time resident of the area), Kenny Loggins with his band The Blue Sky Riders and one of my regular favorites, Gram Rabbit along with many other bands from around the world. People that have been seen performing or frequenting Pappy’s are Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, Leon Russell, Bonnie Raitt, Victoria Williams, Dick Dale, Martha & Rufus Wainwright, Pistol Annies, Lucinda Williams, Rickie Lee Jones, Mick Taylor, Josh Homme (Queens of the Stoneage), Counting Crows, Cracker and Shelby Lynne. Famous people spotted enjoying the atmosphere include Cindy Williams, Helen Mirren, Anthony Bourdain, Geri Jewell.
My wife and I and a friend showed up one afternoon for a meal at Pappy’sand Anthony Bourdain was sitting at the bar with Josh Homme. I had no idea who either one was but I ended up taking a picture with Mr. Bourdain after I heard who he was and that he was filming a television episode. Another time we ate dinner, it was crowded and half of our party left. Pappy’s asked if we minded if they sat another party at the other half of our table and of course we said yes. The fellow sitting across from me looked familiar but I was not sure if it was a local person I faintly recognized or a celebrity. I finally realized it was Eric Szmanda who plays Greg Sanders on CSI Las Vegas.
Besides great entertainment their food is incredible with many of the old time favorites still on the menu. My favorites usually involve their chili, chili nachos, chili fries or chili dog. The pork chops and steaks are always favorites. Pappy’s also offers a small house for rent right on Mane Street right behind the building. Room rates vary from the low to high 100’s based on the date, there is a bed, a fold out couch and a kitchen. After a long night at Pappy’s you can walk a few hundred feet to your private bungalow.
If you choose to continue your trip into the mountains all you have to do is drive a few more miles to Burns Canyon Road, National Forest Service road designation 2N02. It is a minimally maintained dirt road that goes all the way to Big Bear, about a 20 mile drive on dirt, a 4-wheel drive vehicle is recommended. In 2006 the Sawtooth Fire, caused by lightening, burned 61,700 acres, nearly 100 square miles of Mojave Desert and the nearby Mountains. It destroyed 50 homes, 8 mobile homes, 13 garages, 171 outbuildings, 191 cars and pick-up trucks, 3, 27 trailers, 2 railcars, 9 tractors and 12 residences were damaged. It nearly burnt downtown Pioneertown to the ground. There were 17 minor injuries and 1 civilian fatality. The surrounding area burnt for miles around, you will see many burnt pine trees and Joshua trees along your route but fortunately recovery is happening, slowly but surely.
If you live within 200 miles of this gem of the Mojave Desert you have no excuse for not visiting “Pioneertown – 92268”.
Here are a few links you might like and please enjoy the pictures at the bottom of this blog:
Take It Easy – Mojave
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