A Year After Wildfires, Can a Hollywood Western Set Rise From the Ashes?

National Park Service -Paramount Ranch inset of Church- Publicity-H 2018
National Park Service/Flickr

Destroyed in November's Woolsey blaze, Paramount Ranch's iconic Western town — used over the decades in films and TV series from 'The Love Bug' to 'Westworld' — hopes to rebuild for a "more usable" future.

For three decades, Randy Haberkamp took advantage of starry nights at Paramount Ranch to screen classic silent films. "Silents Under the Stars" averaged two screenings a summer and was a respite for film buffs to watch old films beneath the stark beauty of a mountain sky.

And then came the Woolsey Fire. The inferno swept across those mountains in November, ravaging some 1.2 million acres, destroying dozens of homes and film ranches — including much of Paramount Ranch, a part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. The ranch's Western Town, which had served since the 1930s as the backdrop to hundreds of films and TV shows, from 1938's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to CBS' 1990s drama Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, was burned to the ground.

"It's not the Western Town anymore, and it looks kind of sad now," says Luis Jimenez, 27, a National Park Service ranger who has worked in the area for six years. Fences have been erected to keep people from wandering into damaged areas, which are filled with shards of twisted and burned metal, and rangers have plans to bring in a special crew to remove the remaining toxic debris. "It's not a safe environment," says Jimenez.

Still, not everything was destroyed. The Western Town's church, constructed for HBO's Westworld, is still standing, and people continue to use the chapel. The train depot also was spared. And while blueprints haven't been drawn up, there are plans to construct a new and improved Western Town — with electricity and plumbing built into the buildings, which were formerly just shells.

"It won't be an exact carbon copy of what we had before," says Jimenez, who has knowledge of the plans, adding that the new town may be "more usable and bigger." A portion of $78 million in federal disaster relief funds will be used to help finance reconstruction, along with other measures, including roughly $300,000 from individual donors, the Malibu Foundation and the National Park Foundation.

"The sense of history you felt when working there was so inspiring," says Freddy Waff, the production designer on Bone Tomahawk, which used the Western Town for a 20-day shoot in the fall of 2014. He remembers the day Jane Seymour, who played Dr. Quinn and lived nearby, came to the set to visit Kurt Russell during filming: "Most people have to go to work at a high-rise or a store, but at Paramount we were out there working just miles from the ocean, in the middle of this beautiful landscape." Drunk History co-creator Derek Waters remembers taking his girlfriend to the ranch for a visit about six months before Woolsey hit. He wanted to show her the place where he had shot so many memorable scenes alongside Kirsten Dunst, Johnny Knoxville and Ryan Phillippe. "It was so nice that the public could come by and see where you're shooting without it being a mob," he says. "It broke my heart when that fire happened."

Jimenez notes that interest in the location remains. "There have been big producers that have come to the park, even after the fire," he says. This year, as summer began and a new fire season was underway, Haberkamp wondered whether his "Silents Under the Stars" screenings might have a future. "The ranch didn't know what to say," he recalls.

But in July, he and 200 hearty film buffs perched themselves in front of Western Town's train station, where Haberkamp had set up a mobile screen, to watch The Kid Brother, the 1927 coming-of-age story starring Harold Lloyd. Lloyd's granddaughter, Suzanne, was in the audience. Says Haberkamp, "It was nice to hear all the laughter."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.