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Ventura County Perspective | PERSPECTIVE ON LOCAL HISTORY

Meanwhile, Back at Corriganville

The Former Movie Ranch and Theme Park Is the Subject of a County Museum Publication

April 18, 1999|WILLIAM J. EHRHEART

Corriganville, in hollow of the Simi Hills, rides back from reel history this month with publication of an article detailing the glory days of its namesake Hollywood stuntman and the Wild West fantasy world he created.

"The World's Most Famous Movie Ranch: The Story of Ray 'Crash' Corrigan and Corriganville," by William J. Ehrheart, is being issued by the Ventura County Museum of History & Art to mark the 50th anniversary of the ranch opening its gates to the public. The article, in a double issue of the Ventura County Historical Society Quarterly, is edited by Charles Johnson.

Corriganville was the site for 750 movies and 2,750 TV show episodes before fires destroyed its buildings in the 1970s. Now called Corriganville Park, the property is a nature preserve and hiking destination.

As part of its celebration, the museum will have a Western-style barbecue, open to the public, from noon to 5 p.m. May 8 (for price and other information: 653-0323). Groups working to preserve the Corriganville site and spirit will attend, as will Ehrheart, who will sign copies of the quarterly.

A letter carrier for 30 years, Ehrheart earned a bachelor's degree from Cal State Fullerton in 1990, a year after he retired. In 1994, he was awarded a master's degree in public history / historic preservation from Cal State Dominguez Hills. He has written about Southern California movie ranches and is an advocate for their designation as historic sites. Following are excerpts from the museum-published article and from other research by Ehrheart:\f7

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May 1999 commemorates the 50th anniversary of the public's first view beyond the wagon wheel gates of the Ray Corrigan Movie Ranch in eastern Simi Valley, a tilted landscape of weathered rock accentuated by huge boulders fringed by groves of coastal and California live oaks and surrounded by artesian springs and long-traveled byways. A historic Southern California landscape? A Hollywood dreamscape? Both. History, legend and fantasy all came together at the Ray Corrigan Move Ranch, known to the public as Corriganville.

One of approximately 40 movie ranches in Southern California that regularly provided scenery and sets for Hollywood's classic movies and television productions, Corriganville was the only movie ranch that allowed the public to view its operations. Popular Western movie hero Ray "Crash" Corrigan provided scheduled Western entertainment that drew large crowds. Corriganville became as well known as Knott's Berry Farm, attracting visitors from across the nation and even from overseas.

The founder and namesake of Corriganville was born Ray (not Raymond) Benard in a cottage on the grounds of the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. in Milwaukee, Wis., on Feb. 14, 1902. Here his father, Bernard A. Benard, served as caretaker. "Bernie," his wife Ida and Ray eventually moved west to Denver, Colo..

Ray Corrigan arrived in Hollywood from Denver in 1922, looking not for work in one of the film studios but rather for Bernarr Macfadden, the naturist, who ran the Hollywood Gym and who printed publications on health and bodybuilding. Ray had a noticeable double curvature of the spine that detracted from his appearance, causing a loss of height and hampering his mobility. After a year's course from Macfadden, Ray had the physique of a front-cover Adonis.

Now a capable body-builder in his own right, Ray worked for Macfadden as a director-trainer and was later invited to work at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios' gymnasium, improving the appearance of valuable movie stars and starlets like Ruth Chatterton, Joan Blondell, Joan Crawford and Dolores del Rio. . . . It was her husband, MGM's art director, Cedric Gibbons, who gave Ray a two-year contract as a stuntman.

At the beginning of his career as a movie stunt specialist at MGM, he kept the name Ray Benard. During this same time, jungle adventure moves were gaining popularity. "King Kong" (1933) whet the public appetite for movies in this vein. Consequently, from 1934 until 1954, part of Ray's Hollywood heritage was to portray gorillas in adventure, comedy and horror movies. Ray spent his free time in early 1934 studying the mannerisms of larger primates at the San Diego Zoo. Shortly thereafter, Ray Benard / Corrigan was encased in the hot and stifling interior of one of his five expensive, handmade gorilla suits, aping his way through classic Hollywood features. (His name was missing from the cast of characters in these features. It would have detracted, he believed, from his role as a Western hero.) In two films, "Come On, Cowboys" (Republic, May 1937) and "Three Texas Steers" (Republic, May 1939), Ray appeared as both ape and hero. Corrigan "monkeyed around" all through the 1940s and 1950s, playing a hairy opponent to the likes of Boris Karloff and the Three Stooges.

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