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ON CALIFORNIA / PETER H. KING

Waiting for the Cavalry

October 18, 1995|Peter H. King

PIRU — This little town, tucked away in the citrus belt of eastern Ventura County, does not have a mayor. Nor does it have a working downtown, not anymore. What it does have is Al Gaitan, native son, head of the Neighborhood Council and, on this day, tour guide through the heart of old Piru.

"That," he says, pointing to a Center Street storefront, "was our barbershop.

"And that," he says, "was our beauty salon.

"That was our market.

"That was the video store.

"And that was our bank."

And that was downtown Piru. It ran only for a single block, a few squat brick structures that looked like something out of the Old West, which, in fact, they were. Now the storefronts are enclosed within a sagging chain link fence, their interiors emptied of everything but dust. Signs hanging in the general store list prices of fresh winter produce, prices that would have been in effect if the doors had opened Jan. 17, 1994. Of course they did not open that day, and everybody in Southern California knows why.

*

Piru (population 1,600) is situated 15 miles west of Magic Mountain, 10 miles east of Fillmore, and a couple miles off California 126, a notoriously lethal stretch of highway that cuts a straight line from Valencia to Ventura. From a Piru perspective, these nearby places might as well be in Nebraska. As Gaitan puts it: "We sit right out in the wide open, all by ourselves."

Isolation does offer advantages. A few years back, Piru received favorable press attention as the California town that had stayed more the same than any other. Townsfolk are quick to point out, while the houses are humble, and the amenities few, this is a community that has experienced little trouble with gangs or graffiti. And it's a quiet, pretty setting, with panoramic views of the Santa Susana Mountains and sunken orange groves. In the afternoons, Pacific breezes will blow up Santa Clara Valley, carrying with them the sweet smell of oranges.

The town was founded in the 1880s by Illinois publisher David C. Cook. He dreamed, fancifully enough, that his Piru City would serve as the capital of a "Second Garden of Eden." The founder planted groves and orchards intended to duplicate the gardens of the Holy Land, and for a time Piru was considered the continent's horticulture hot spot. Fifteen years into the project, however, Cook moved back to the Midwest, leaving the Second Garden of Eden to fend for itself. And that was the end of the Piru golden era.

Eventually, Piru's lack of conventional progress would come to be seen, strangely enough, as its main virtue--at least among those who see the world through camera lenses. Gaitan has a second tour, a survey of places that have served as settings for film and television productions. Here is the bridge where they filmed the crash scene from "Heroes." Here is the mansion where the Fantasy Island's host heard Tattoo shout: "Look, Boss, de plane." Here is the abandoned filling station where Rod Stewart staged his "Hot Legs" video. And on and on. When it comes to location shots, Piru--and especially its downtown block--is about as well-worked as they come.

"Piru," says Gaitan, "can be any place in the United States. It has played the Deep South. It has played Chicago. It has been the place where Dillinger was shot. The movie people loved our old bank. . . ."

*

And then came the earthquake, and the downside of isolation. Days passed before the outside world learned how badly Piru had been hit. Bypassed by the cavalries of relief, the town took care of itself. A resident with a gas stove cooked dinner for an entire block. A store owner dug into his wreckage and passed out free supplies. Those whose homes were intact took in those whose homes had fallen.

"Everybody," Gaitan says, "was a hero in those days."

Recovery, slow everywhere, has been even slower here. Piru was on no politician's list of post-quake photo ops--a nowhere town of 1,600 doesn't have much to offer ambitious saviors bearing relief checks and counting votes. Left to their own methods once again, the people of Piru have come up with a plan.

In short, what once was a source of both civic amusement and, sometimes, frustration--watching production companies come in and take over town--they want to turn into a principal industry. The plan is to restore downtown in a way that makes it even more attractive to movie-makers. This won't be easy. And the people of Piru have suggested, quite politely, that perhaps Hollywood might want to pitch in. Meetings have been taken along this line. A consultant has been hired.

"But so far," Gaitan reports, "nothing major has shaken out. And we could use some real help. . . ."

On to Piru, Hollywood, on to Piru.

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