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JAUNTS : The Frontier Lives On at Paramount Ranch : Popular film location, now part of a national recreation area, has been used so long it's become part of history itself.

September 02, 1993|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you watch the television show, "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," you know that the frontier doctor practices medicine in a rustic rock cabin on the dirt streets of early Colorado Springs.

But those dusty streets are really at the Paramount Ranch, a re-created Western town near Agoura Hills in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

Oh, and about the doctor's rock cabin: Those aren't really rocks either. They're made of fiberglass. And the dust, well, that's finely ground walnut shells spread on the street for filming.

These are some of the filming gems you'll pick up if you take a tour of the ranch led by National Park Service rangers. During an hourlong walk, they lead groups through the Western set at least once a month on Saturdays.

The set is open to visitors during filming, so if you want to see Dr. Quinn (Jane Seymour) in action, you can come out and observe on weekdays. Shooting for the series will resume in mid-September.

You have to follow some etiquette guidelines, though, rangers advise. Don't ask for autographs, don't take pictures during filming, and stay out of the way.

"It's not a 100% guaranteed thing" you'll see any filming, said ranger Jaquie Stiver. If crews are shooting inside the buildings, you're out of luck.

The Western set is used primarily these days for "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," but the mountainous setting has a long history in the film industry, said Ranger Ken Low, who led 23 people on a recent Saturday tour.

Paramount Pictures bought 2,700 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains near Agoura Hills in 1927. The land was perfect for Westerns: oak groves, grasslands, creeks, canyons, and a mountain, Sugarloaf Peak, that resembled the film company's logo.

For 20 years Paramount used it not just for Westerns like "Wells Fargo" and "Man from Wyoming," but for other diverse settings, like China for "The Adventures of Marco Polo," or Missouri for "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."

After the studio sold the land, it was divided into smaller pieces and the sets were torn down. However, in 1952, a portion of it was sold to William Hertz, a Western buff, who with his family slowly created the current version of the Western town. Here, Westerns such as "The Cisco Kid" and "Bat Masterson" were filmed.

The 436-acre ranch was acquired by the National Park Service in 1980 and restored four years later. What you'll see now are a few streets with weathered buildings whose signs read: Assay Office, Huckleby's Feed and Grain, Blacksmith, Barbershop, Mine Supplies. A quaint weathered chapel, built for the Dr. Quinn series, stands alone in a grassy field.

On Ranger Low's tour, much of the time was spent in front of Bray's Mercantile, one of the few remaining structures from the early years. Outside the two-story structure, snowshoes hang on the wall, along with a saw, lanterns, and bales of wire.

The building has had several temporary transformations. It sported an adobe facade for one film project, and for another it was made over into a modern-day gas station.

Low sprinkles his tour with a few insider nuggets. How could filmmakers have filmed swarms of locusts? By shaking coffee grounds in a water-filled glass jar.

And those icicles you see during chilly Colorado winters on the Dr. Quinn show? They're fake too.

* FYI

WHAT: Paramount Ranch, a re-created Western movie set.

WHERE: Located south of Agoura Hills on Cornell Road in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

WHEN: Tours given at least once a month on Saturday at 9:30 a.m. Next tour is on Sept. 4.

COST: Free

CALL: 818-597-9192.

ALSO: There are trails on the ranch grounds for hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding. Watch out for bees and wasps.

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