Haunted Hollywoodland, Part II: Sunset Ranch

November 22, 2009 § 9 Comments

Sunset Ranch and the Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

Sunset Ranch occupies a hilly space at the north end of Beachwood Drive, where the Canyon meets Griffith Park. Although many people know it as a riding spot, few realize the ranch predates Hollywoodland, the 1923 housing development that abuts it. Before the property was developed by a real estate consortium headed by Harry Chandler, all of Hollywoodland was ranchland.

Unsurprisingly, horses were a big part of early Hollywoodland’s appeal. Residents of the new neighborhood were to have the best of both worlds: a peaceful country life and easy access to urban jobs and amusements. A radio ad outlined a typical day for Hollywoodland homeowners:

Listen–the horses are stamping in their stalls-the sea breeze kisses the hilltops-while the birds weave melodies of happiness on the open trail. Your day in Hollywoodland-in-California begins with a song, and for a brief hour you canter on the wings of the morning–a shower-breakfast-and away for a day at the office, to return at eventide to the calmness of the hills, and there below you, watch a myriad of millions of lights twinkling in the distance.

Residents also enjoyed a clubhouse and tennis courts near the north end of Beachwood Drive, where some sixties-era houses now stand. A jitney running from Beachwood Drive to the trolley stop at Franklin and Argyle ferried residents back and forth, a necessity in the days of one-car families. Though the clubhouse faded away during the Depression, limited car service from the Village bus stop to houses up the hill continued into the 1950’s.

Subsequent decades brought new construction, more residents and through traffic as Canyon Lake Drive connected Beachwood Canyon to Toluca Lake. Through it all, only Sunset Ranch remained unchanged, offering trail rides, boarding, horses for movies and itself as a shooting location.

Its most famous recent appearance was in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” The scene in which the Cowboy delivers an ultimatum to the young movie director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is both surreal and frightening, as Adam drives his Porsche up a darkened Beachwood Drive, parks and enters a paddock lit by a single flickering bulb.

In 2006, I spent part of an afternoon shooting interviews and B-roll at the Ranch for my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign.” While the Ranch is not as scary in daylight as it was in “Mulholland Dr.,” it is believed to be haunted. I had already heard stories of a “weird, dark energy” from someone who spent a lot of time there as a child, but I didn’t have time to investigate because we were on a tight schedule. (I’d paid a $500 fee to shoot for two hours.)

My first inkling that it wasn’t going to be an easy afternoon was when my previously booked interviewee, a Ranch employee, got a serious case of cold feet and tried to back out. Somehow I persuaded her to go through with the interview and eventually coaxed an amusing story from her, about some clients on the dinner ride who, after too many margaritas, had a hard time staying on their horses. An employee overheard this and reported back to the manager, who sent an emissary to inform me that I couldn’t use the story and moreover that he would have to see a rough cut to “approve” the interview. 

The manager soon appeared to give me the bum’s rush, claiming we would have to leave because another production company was coming to scout. I didn’t understand why that would be a conflict– location scouting and shooting occur there constantly–yet I sensed there was no point in arguing. We did another quick interview and left early, but not before I sent word that I would not be using the first interview. (The only interesting thing in it was the offending story and besides, I don’t let outsiders see rough cuts.)

Much later, I interviewed a former Sunset Ranch riding instructor who told me of spending the night in one of the rooms over the barn and hearing a man being hanged, along with choking sounds and the vibration of the rope. This was consistent with the Romeo-and-Juliet story I’d heard about a 16-year-old Mexican boy who worked at the ranch in the 1920’s. He fell in love with a Hollywoodland homeowner’s daughter and she with him, but it was an impossible situation given their class and ethnic differences, as well as the mores of the day. Despondent that he could never be with his true love, the boy hanged himself in the breezeway between the stalls.

Then there’s the strange, wafting scent of gardenias each autumn. Riders and ranch employees report smelling gardenias on the trails in mid-September, near the anniversary of Peg Entwistle’s suicide off the Hollywoodland Sign. No gardenias grow in the area, but Peg wore gardenia perfume.

On December 26th, 2007– a night when 90 mile-an-hour winds uprooted a stand of 70-year-old Torrey pines on Woodhaven Dr., just above the village–the Ranch was involved in a freak riding accident. The circumstances were  these: an engaged couple had booked a private dinner ride for that night. It was a birthday gift from the man to his fiancee,  a romantic night ride for the two of them, led by a guide.  Though the woman an inexperienced rider, the guide inexplicably put her on a new, skittish horse; despite high winds, they set out for Toluca Lake. When the guide moved to the front along the narrow passage between Mt. Lee and Mt. Hollywood, the horse bolted, set off by the winds. The woman fell off ; despite her headgear (all riders at Sunset Ranch are required to wear helmets) she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and never regained consciousness.

Her grief-stricken fiance returned every night for two weeks to mourn at the place where she died. Although her parents filed a huge lawsuit against the ranch, accounts of the accident and the eventual settlement were somehow kept out of the news.

Sunset Ranch is understandably sensitive about its image, but the management’s efforts to censor bad news–and even a little story about dinner riders and margaritas–makes one wonder whether transparency might a better tactic. After all, secrecy can only underscore the impression that the Ranch is  mysterious, haunted and possessed of a “weird, dark energy.”

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