When Hollywood came to the Cowell Ranch

December 01, 2019


Several years ago the Friends hosted a lecture by historian Randall Brown on early-day motion pictures shot on the Cowell property in Santa Cruz. He told about Diamond in the Rough and The Danites, both filmed in 1911 by the Selig Polyscope Company. As far as anyone knows, these were the first fictional stories filmed in Santa Cruz County. Unfortunately, neither movie has survived.

Technically, these were not “Hollywood” films. William Selig was the first to set up a motion picture studio in southern California, but it was in the Edendale section of Los Angeles (now Echo Park) rather than in Hollywood. Only a few years later, the motion picture business shifted to Hollywood, soon making the town name synonymous with “the movies.”

Recently, the Capitola Historical Museum received a collection of photographs and other memorabilia relating to movie-making in Santa Cruz. Because the collection included scenic views of the Cowell Ranch—some depicting what is now the Cowell Lime Works Historic District—the Museum shared it with The Friends. A selection of these photographs is published here for the first time.

On at least two occasions, the Cowell Ranch came close to being immortalized in a Hollywood picture. But first, here is some background:

From 1915 to 1926, Santa Cruz was especially popular with movie companies. The peak years were 1916 and 1917. Seventeen movies made in Santa Cruz County were released in each of those years, based on a list compiled by Ann Young titled "On Location in Santa Cruz County" (available on the Santa Cruz Public Library website). A dozen movies were made here in the 1930s and half dozen more in the 1940s.

Two people played an especially important role in attracting film companies to Santa Cruz: Bob Jones and John Mowry. Jones was proprietor of the St. George Hotel and Mowry operated the Santa Cruz Cab Company (later changed to Yellow Cab Company). Needless to say, they had a financial stake in this enterprise. The crews and actors needed hotel rooms and transportation.

Mowry’s first involvement with movie makers seems to have been in June of 1925, when he assisted members of a Fox film company scout out potential shooting locations. He quickly realized the benefits of film-making to his taxi business. In the fall of that year, he provided cab service for two more film productions: The Dixie Merchant and The Johnstown Flood, both released the following year.

Eventually, Mowry began devoting a substantial amount of time promoting Santa Cruz and other northern California locales to movie companies. An article in the San Francisco Call-Bulletin of June 19, 1948, called him Hollywood’s “Nature Boy.” He was of “vast importance to the industry as chief salesman of northern California’s scenic spots.”

Mowry developed a close working relationship with movie location managers, who would contact him with requests. These could be very specific, as in this letter to him, dated August 29, 1933, from R. C. Moore of the Fox Film Corporation Studio:

In one of our pictures, which is about ready to go into production, we have a fishing scene along a creek or small river supposed to be in Ohio. This stream of water should not be over twelve or fifteen feet wide and not running too swiftly, so as to have rapids which will cause too much sound, as a great deal of dialogue takes place in these scenes. The trees along the banks should be willows, cottonwoods, sycamores or any other type of an eastern tree. Also, do not want to show any mountains in the background.

He asked Mowry to wire him collect and also to send pictures.

It was with these kinds of requests in mind, that Mowry assembled a large portfolio of Santa Cruz County scenes, including many of the picturesque Cowell Ranch. Mowry regularly corresponded not only with Fox, but also with RKO, Universal, MGM, Paramount, and Frank Lloyd Pictures.

The Cowell Reservoir, now the site of the UCSC Arboretum, was nearly the site of a major scene in Maid of Salem. This movie was filmed for Paramount in September of 1936 on the Colt Ranch off Empire Grade and starred Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray.

According to the Sentinel of September 15, “Unit Manager John Burch will have a conference with S. H. Cowell again this morning in regard to using the Cowell tract near the reservoir for staging the big mob scene at ‘Gallows Hill’ . . . If this scene is staged here, approx- imately 1,000 extras, many of whom have already been signed up, will be used.”

Cowell, however, refused to grant permission for the filming. The newspaper did not say why, but the thought of a thousand people on his ranch (potentially with gates left open, cattle escaping, etc.) was probably not all that appealing. Had the scene been shot here, about $10,000 in additional money would have been left in the area, claimed the paper. Instead, the mob scene was shot in Hollywood the following week.

Movie production here all but ceased in the 1950s, due to a labor dispute between hotel and restaurant owners and the local culinary and bartenders union. The dispute began in 1950 and continued for more than half the decade, putting Santa Cruz on a union blacklist and keeping Hollywood film producers and many conventions from coming to Santa Cruz.

In June of 1955 movie location scouts for Allied Artists, Inc., informed the Chamber of Commerce of their strong desire to film the movie Friendly Persuasion on the Cowell Ranch. The story took place during the Civil War and was to star Gary Cooper. Allied Artists was also interested in building a location studio that could be rented to other movie companies. How the movie people came to know about Santa Cruz is not certain. Mowry had died a year earlier, but likely his photos were still circulating around Tinseltown. With renewed incentive, the chamber launched a major effort to help settle the dispute.

In July famed producer/director William Wyler toured the Cowell Ranch by land and from the air. According to Ralph Ring, manager-secretary of the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce, the director was ecstatic over what he saw of Santa Cruz. “Wyler said that in all his picture making experience he has never seen a more naturally wonderful area than ours,” according to Ring.

By late July, however, the dispute had still not been settled and time was running out on the movie deal. Wyler warned that he simply could not bring unionized movie personal to Santa Cruz under the current circumstances. By the start of August, labor/ management negotiations remained at an impasse, thus ending the Cowell Ranch’s possibility as the locale for the Wyler movie. It was, instead, filmed in the San Fernando Valley.