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Home on the Range:

Living in the Land of the Western L.A. at Large

August 10, 2000|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Heading down Topanga Canyon Boulevard off the Ronald Reagan Freeway, Steve Latshaw knows he's almost home when he spots the mobile home park on his right. That's where the old western town set used to be, he invariably finds himself thinking.

Turning onto Santa Susana Pass Road, Latshaw envisions a pack of Harleys roaring down the curving two-lane country road as they did in countless '60s biker movies. Hanging another right up Redmesa Drive, there's a rocky cliff on his left--the spot where an Indian war party watched a wagon train travel up the canyon in 1941's "They Died With Their Boots On" starring Errol Flynn, Latshaw thinks to himself.

A bit farther up the hill, just before entering his condominium complex, Latshaw sees the most famous rock formation in TV history: the very same boulder Clayton Moore races up to before rearing up Silver in the opening credits of "The Lone Ranger." Looking at it, you can almost hear the adrenaline-pumping "William Tell Overture" swelling in the background. Latshaw does. "I go through the same thoughts every single day," he says. "It's like a dream world."

Each year, thousands of tourists come to Los Angeles in hopes of encountering a piece of movie history. But Latshaw and his fellow residents at the California West condominiums in Chatsworth live smack-dab in the middle of it.

The 290-unit condo complex is on part of the old Iverson movie location ranch where, beginning in 1912, scenes from more than 2,000 movies and television shows were filmed.

Corriganville, another popular movie location ranch in nearby Simi Valley, is now a regional park with hiking trails. Homes recently were built on what once was the parking lot that served visitors after actor-owner Ray "Crash" Corrigan opened the ranch to the public on weekends in 1949.

But there's nothing quite like California West, a sprawling complex of two-story units. Where else is it possible to take out your garbage and see, only a few yards away, a boulder archway through which William S. Hart, Gene Autry, Lash LaRue, "Wild Bill" Elliott and countless other movie cowboys rode? Or walk your dog through the "cave" used in Disney's "Zorro" TV series of the late '50s?

Or sit on your front porch and see, only 60 feet away, the very spot where a youthfully thin John Wayne stopped the Lordsburg-bound stage in "Stagecoach" and Alan Ladd was later stopped by a Japanese patrol in "China"?

Potato farmer Joe Iverson sold off portions of his original 2,000-acre ranch over the years for construction of the 118 freeway in the late '60s and for residential developments. The so-called Upper Iverson on the north side of the freeway, which featured an expansive flat area that was ideal for movie chase scenes, is now a gated community with multimillion-dollar mansions. And about 800 acres of the old ranch--those boasting the most unique rock formations--were donated to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy in the 1970s. The California West complex went up in the late '80s.

"I am literally living in the middle of one of the busiest [former] film locations in the world," said Latshaw, "and it's a very strange feeling to look out and see this stuff. The Lone Ranger rock and 'chase road' are directly in front of my front door."

Not everyone at California West is as movie savvy as Latshaw, 40, a screenwriter who has been in love with the movies in general and B-westerns and serials in particular since he was a kid in Decatur, Ill., in the early '70s.

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In fact, not everyone who moves into California West is even aware that they're living on hallowed movie ground. "It took about two months before we found out through a friend of mine," said Megan Gorney, 27, who has lived in California West for two years. "I find it intriguing that all this history is still right here where I live."

Quite literally, in her case: Her condo unit is on the very spot where the eponymous stagecoach in the John Ford classic arrives at the burned-out relay station just before the film's famous Indian chase sequence.

Gorney, an elementary schoolteacher, wasn't aware of that until Latshaw showed her a behind-the-scenes publicity photo he had discovered in an old Life magazine. He pinpointed the location by matching the boulders in the picture with those just beyond the guest parking spaces next to Gorney's unit.

Gorney is no western movie fan, but her father is. He's coming out soon for a visit from Pennsylvania and, she said, "he's going to love it."

Latshaw, his wife, Pat--she's accounting manager for back-lot billing at Sony Pictures--and their 14-year-old son, Ryan, moved to California West from Burbank two years ago.

The former low-budget Florida filmmaker assumed the rocky landscape he had seen in so many movies and movie books as a boy in Decatur would provide inspiration for his screenwriting. Instead, he often finds himself leaving his desk and roaming around the rocks.

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