Signal 100 | The Signal & Show Business: Part 2

No. 48 in a series of 52 commemorating the 100-year anniversary of The Signal

“If you kill the arts, you kill love, and you kill progress.”

— Brendon Urie

The first known Santa Clarita Valley artwork appeared thousands of years ago on the walls of Vasquez Rocks. There’s still some there today. One wonders. So long ago, were there art critics to point out that “arms don’t really look like that” or “that resembles more of an antelope than a bunny”?

In The Mighty Signal’s very first issue, Feb. 7, 1919, we carried a show biz story. A movie troupe of 200 took over the town to film a state fair silent movie, starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. The editor opined that the film crew made Downtown Newhall look so much better, he wished they had left the sets.
Courtesy photo

The Mighty Signal has been covering the arts in the SCV for more than a century. We’ve been more cheerleader than critic, urging the community to attend everything from school plays to book clubs. In our very first issue of Feb. 7, 1919, we noted silent film superstar Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was in town, using Downtown Newhall as a set location.

“Market Street from the drug store to the railroad track, was decorated with yards and yards of bunting, signs, flags, etc., not omitting the ‘ice cream’ stands along the way,” The Signal’s first front page noted. Some 200 cast and crew members (that works out to about 40% of the entire SCV’s population then) rolled into town by cars and special train to make the film. In later editions, The Signal lamented that they should have left all the Hollywood touches — it made “a big improvement on our dusty and somewhat homely community.”

Ouch.

The Signal & ‘Newhallywood…’

Entertainment was one of the big employers of the SCV back then. It still is. Decade after decade, hundreds of movies, then later TV shows, commercials and rock videos were staged here. They first employed dozens of actual local cowboys and enriched the economy, from lumber and paint sales for sets to selling cases of soda, beer, bottled water, band aids and box lunches. They rented homes, buildings, ranches and herds of local cattle. Hard to believe, they even supplied morals.

In 1925, The Signal reported how Western superstar Tom Mix was filming at Vasquez Rocks. A couple horses were stolen from the set and Mix himself tracked them down to a neighboring ranch. Instead of having the two teen thieves arrested (or hanged), he gave them a kind lecture and jobs on the set. One later became a local police officer. Mix? He was the top Western movie star on the planet and had his studio office in Downtown Newhall. Right behind him lived the PREVIOUS top Western star in the world, William S. Hart.

The list of actors who lived here is epic, from the famous, like Harry Carey, Hoot Gibson, W.C. Fields, Paul Rubens (Pee Wee Herman), Gene Autry and Cecil B. DeMille, to the hundreds of not-so household names, like Donald Happy.

He died in 2006, at the age of 89. Happy was in hundreds of movies and TV shows, doubled for Ronald Reagan, Elvis Presley, Robert Mitchum and dozens of other stars. He was a stuntman, actor, rodeo star and stock provider. Sadly, not too many people in the valley knew of these quiet legends, until their Signal obituaries were printed. Dolores Steelman lived here in the 1930s. She was an actress and national women’s rodeo champion. So was Roxie McIntyre. In 1973, she took off a little time to not compete. Roxie was pregnant. Belter Tuler (great cowboy name) was a Sand Canyon rancher, Western actor and his own PR agent here in the 1940s. The Signal noted that he billed himself as “The Cowboy Who Is Built To Fit The Horse.”

Belter was terribly bow-legged.

Minstrels, Thespians & Weight Watchers…

Tent shows used to visit the SCV, up until the 1940s. The Signal noted in September 1921 that O’Dette’s Players would be throwing up the canvas at Market and Main. The 17 minstrel singers charged a half-buck a head. “Good show!” noted The Signal.

Of course, the O’Dettes were paid advertisers.

Long before there was the Canyon Theatre Guild, we had the Newhall Community Players. They started in 1921 and lasted until the early 1960s when they became the Canyon Theatre Guild. Nearly a century ago, the NCPs put on the first stage performance, a comedy called “Trust Your Husband.”

First impresario of the 1921 group was none other than forest ranger, lawman and Signal Editor Thornton Doelle.

Local schools were a bastion for the arts. In 1926, The Signal reviewed Castaic Elementary’s comedy performance of “Her Honor, The Mayor.” Cost a quarter to get in. The Signal kindly critiqued: “Given with the same cast that put on the play so successfully a few days ago.”

One of my all-time favorite theater stories took place in 1974. At the Olde Courthouse Building on Market Street, a 12-step Weight Watchers meeting was in session. The overeaters were shocked when the ceiling partially collapsed and an alleged thespian fell through. Phil Noell was rehearsing for the Canyon Theatre Guild production of “Come Blow Your Horn” when his floor gave out and he crashed into the meeting for repentant gluttons.

The Lost Art of Going to the Movies…

For more than a century, The Signal has covered movie showings in the SCV. Silent movies were rented from a San Fernando theater and motored up to the SCV for showing. The wife of SCV historian, Signal columnist and local mucky muck A.B. Perkins would bring the flicks to first the Hapaland Hall on Market and later to Newhall Elementary’s auditorium. In school halls from Castaic to upper Mint Canyon, the task played out for decades until finally, in 1941, we got our very own and first motion picture theater, The American.

Trivia?

The first movies shown were the never-heard-of “Earl of Puddleston” and “Here Comes Happiness.” William S. Hart, who essentially paid for the land and theater construction, was there for the grand opening in May 1941. As he was giving the dedication, he noticed there was a group of Indian servicemen in the audience. He asked their tribe. Delighted when they told him, Hart laughed and addressed them for a good while in their native Sioux. Hart’s epic Western, “Tumbleweeds,” was also on that first bill.

I used to go there when I was a kid. We called the American the “Sit & Scratch” because for a bit, it was infested with fleas. The owners also had a great technical trick. There was an air shaft connected from the popcorn machine in the lobby to the main theater. Right before intermission, the concessionaire would pull a lever, which turned on a fan. The great aroma of hot popcorn would fill the theater. The dratted invention of television, along with a bunch of crappy movies, sealed the American’s fate. It closed several times before finally going out of business in 1965  — same year the brand new Plaza Theater opened on Lyons Avenue, next to the Newhall Bowl (Valencia Lanes today).

More trivia?

First-ever film at The Plaza?

John Wayne in “The Sons of Katie Elder.”

I know. I was there.

The old Corral Drive-in was at the end of the known universe. It opened in 1957 way up Seco Canyon and had about a 10-year-run, until the new, state-of-the-art Mustang Drive-in arrived on Soledad Canyon Road.
Courtesy photo

There was the Corral Drive-in, up San Francisquito/Seco Canyon. It opened in 1957 and lasted for about a decade. Another drive-in, The Mustang, opened in May 1966. Being more centrally located on Soledad pretty much ran the Corral out of business.

The first movie at The Mustang was one of my all-time favorites: “Night of the Grizzly,” starring Clint Walker of TV’s “Cheyenne” fame. It wasn’t long before locals began to fall out of love with the SCV’s smooch and petting pit. Attendance dropped. In 1973, the owners changed the format.

More trivia?

The Signal’s First X-Rated Film Critic…

The Signal’s very first staff film critic was my best pal, Phil Lanier. In the 1970s, Philly went above and beyond the call of duty when he sat through a triple X-rated bill at the ‘Stang. It was also the SCV’s first airing of X-rated movies. The bill was a German-made double-header of “The School Girls” and “The School Girls Growing Up.” The third film was “Swinging Wives.” Dr. Lanier wrote: “…an enterprising underwear magnate could travel to Germany and make a fortune, selling bras and panties to the natives.”

There were unintended consequences to showing nude sex scenes next to a major traffic artery. If you were headed west down Soledad — and you slowed way, way, way, way down — you could get an eyeful of giant, naked people really, really liking themselves. A couple of traffic accidents were reported and the owners were made to knock it off with the steamy ex-snay. It struggled for years before finally closing in October 1984.

Escape and Son of Escape

We’ve always run more than our fair share of entertainment news. But it wasn’t until the mid 1980s when we devoted an entire tabloid section to the alleged arts. It was called Weekend. Weekend was awful. I’m not sure how serious one caller was, but he did leave an actual death threat to the sparse entertainment staff. In the mid 1980s, Signal management reluctantly asked me to return to take over the section before, like the Russian communist revolution of 1917, any fatalities would spread to the Newhall family. Publisher Scott Newhall came up with the name, Escape.

It was a wild, unique section. In the national news, the big story was about a Democratic presidential candidate who had been having an affair with a hotsy-totsy tootsie named Donna Rice. Back then, there was no Photoshop. The very first cover of Escape was an — ahem — tongue-in-cheek satire. It asked: “What if Donna Rice Moved to the SCV?” We used one our fetching ladies (Barbara Morris, who runs B Graphic today in the SCV) from the art department to pose in various positions whilst in a skimpy bikini. Then, photo by photo, we cropped Donna Rice’s head onto the bathing beauty body of Barbara. Then, we posed Barbara (with Donna’s head) with the Top 20 movers and shakers (male) in the SCV.

We’d throw a 50-pound cream pie one week, hide out the next with safer topics, then do something outlandish when the smoke cleared.

Scott Newhall called it, “The dear little comic book.”

But, it was a pragmatic section, running usually between 32 and 72 pages each week. We covered the bases of the local arts and entertainment, but without writing 14,000-word tomes on CalArts oboe players. Escape made the SCV laugh and told them where to buy a great cheeseburger or pizza. Each week, it inspired, with simple wisdoms by history’s great poets. It had nostalgia, history, gossip and America’s ONLY Man and Woman film rating system.

The assistant editor, Cheri Jensen (a girl), would have knockdown, drag-out arguments about how to rate the two dozen or so local movies each week. We had a 1-to-10 rating system and the two of us would frequently be off by 12 points. So. We created a side-by-side rating system, one for men, one for women. The valley loved it.

They also loved that we had a separate rating for children and would warn that just because a film had a PG-13 rating, it could have some terribly inappropriate scenes for children.

In a major split with the paper’s then owner, Charles Morris, the Newhall family walked out the door in September 1988 and immediately started The Citizen newspaper. I left shortly thereafter. Escape withered and died. A few years later, Signal management asked if I’d return to edit it.

Poor Escape. It had gotten such a bad name in the community, advertisers wouldn’t go within a paseo of it. Then-Signal Editor John Green, to my undying surprise, suggested we change the name to “Son of Escape.” Both the original and the sequel won national awards for being best entertainment section in both California and the U.S.

Exit, Stage Left, Chased by a Coyote…

Books could be written about all the stars, heroes and strange entertainment stories The Signal has covered.

In 1945, we wrote about a crime wave that sounded like a Monty Python skit. Local law enforcement was cracking down on what they called “Brush Pirates.” Seems studios were uprooting thousands of native plants and trees — sometimes right from outside the dining room window — for set background in Hollywood.

In 1983, Randall Ranch up Pine Canyon held the mother of all garage sales. For 25 years, they had been supplying Hollywood with everything from wagons to moo cows. Tinseltown stopped making Westerns and they closed their doors, selling all their props. Corky Randall, legendary patriarch of the ranch, had a volunteer worker, a pretty young school teacher. She’d show up regularly just to help and be around horses. One of her duties was to feed, brush and hot walk a certain dark stallion. Christy Parks fell in love with the horse. About a year later, Corky asked if Christy liked the animal. Well. Yeah. More than a little. The old cowboy gave the school marm the horse. Free. It was the same creature that starred in the movie, “The Black Stallion.”

Being sentimental, perhaps my favorite Signal story about entertainment took place summers during the 1940s and 1950s, in the hills of Placerita by Newhall.

During a full summer’s moon, friends would ride their horses from all over the valley and gather on a hilltop. They’d build a safe campfire, set out pads and blankets, cook dinner, drink wine and get out the guitars.

They’d sing. They’d yodel. The Signal would note that in the distance, sometimes a coyote would answer. They’d look up at the Santa Clarita stars.

Remember stars?

Remember looking up long enough from your smartphone to see something called a sky?

To me, that’s entertainment.

Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years. He’s the local historian, novelist, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal and has earned 119 major writing awards. Just four stories left. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 49 out of 52 in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.

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