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L.A.-area movie ranch hits upon a sequel after fire

Singing Springs was burned to the ground in the Station fire, so now it is being used for scenes of devastation.

December 19, 2009|By Jean Merl
  • A film crew checks out Singing Springs, which has been used for movie shoots and music videos but now works for filmmakers shooting devastation scenes.
A film crew checks out Singing Springs, which has been used for movie shoots… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

Like so many others in the path of the Station fire, the owners of Singing Springs lost everything when flames chewed through a quarter of the Angeles National Forest late last summer. Or so they thought.

As the fire swept across the family retreat-turned-movie-ranch Aug. 30, it wiped out all 11 buildings on the 16 1/2 -acre site along Angeles Forest Highway, destroying props, tools, keepsakes and furnishings. It leveled a barn that doubled as the gatekeeper's home, burned down the cabins, scorched the meadow, killed scores of trees and clogged with ash the streams and a swimming hole where trout had hidden. It took out electrical, water and telephone lines.

A few days after the fire, a disheartened Barbara Webb, one of six siblings who had inherited the property their father bought in 1947, started the painful process of notifying filmmakers and music video producers that the forest they were planning as a backdrop no longer existed.

"Got anything with a post-Apocalypse scene?" Webb said she half-jokingly, half-hopefully asked some of the producers who had booked Singing Springs.

To her surprise, one of them, The Asylum, had such a film on the drawing boards "and came up right away" to shoot "Meteor Apocalypse," scheduled for a February release.

So Webb, 72, and her siblings are -- to some degree, at least -- back in business.

A generator-powered motor home at the top of the driveway serves as temporary quarters for Webb and her boyfriend, Oscar Spear, 73, when they come from their Topanga Canyon home to work on the property or oversee movie shoots. It also becomes a location office and dressing room when productions are underway.

One filmmaker remarked to Webb that it would cost a bundle to create a set of such devastation.

One recent afternoon, Webb and Spear were helping a student film crew from Loyola Marymount University set up for two nights of shooting.

The production, the third at Singing Springs since the fire, is a period piece called "Leyenda." Set during the Mexican-American War, the film takes a well-known folk figure, La Llorona (Crying Woman), said to have drowned her children and herself and makes her a Mexican officer in the war who loses her life fighting for her country.

"The devastation made this a perfect background for the film, dark and mysterious," said director Kelly Weaver, who is making the movie for her master's degree.

P.K. Ziainia, a writer and director who worked on the film, said Singing Springs' story reflected a common movie theme: "It's tragedy and triumph all around."

That was the case even before the fire.

Webb's childhood is full of memories of family vacations at the retreat. One of her biggest thrills was being allowed to run the cash register at the roadside store, gas station and post office that her father, Lawrence Young, operated there. Young offered a right-of-way to the utility company to bring electricity to Singing Springs and its neighbors.

But by the time Young died in late 1987, Singing Springs had fallen on hard times after two floods swept away the swimming pool and damaged other structures. The few tenants weren't paying rent, and there was no way to cover the property taxes three years ago when Webb, who was managing the property, called a family meeting. The siblings reluctantly decided they had to sell.

Filmmaker Yossi Sasson, looking for a location for a horror movie, saw the "For Sale" sign. He peered into the tree-studded landscape punctuated with rustic cabins and winding trails and proposed renting the site for 10 days to shoot his film "Dead and Gone."

"That paid for the property taxes and brush clearance," Webb said.

And a new family business was launched. Spear started a website to advertise the property, and Webb estimates that 30 to 40 films and music videos have been shot there. They include "The Yesterday Pool," a movie starring Mickey Rooney, and a music video, "Chances," by Five for Fighting, the last project before the fire.

Whether Singing Springs will rebound fully is in question, family members say. The property was not insured. Reconstruction costs would include the expense of a new driveway that the owners say was damaged when someone came onto the property without permission to remove burned trees.

Spear, a retired science teacher who had put a lot of work into the place, said he still is trying to come to terms with the fact that no fire crews showed up to help as the Station fire burned it.

The gatekeeper stayed until the blaze reached Singing Springs, risking his life to retrieve a few items, including a computer containing family archives and photos. "There were no firefighters here," Spear said, his voice breaking. "Absolutely nobody came."

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