Pioneertown relives a West that never was
04/14/2013 12:00 AM
06/18/2013 3:11 PM
PIONEERTOWN – Daytime drags on Mane Street in this lonesome Old West town. Time elongates and lassos your ambition, rustles it down in the dusty street and leaves you spent and enervated in the post-meridian quiet.
Not much to do, Grampz says, except to roll another cigarette and sit on the porch between his two "best friends," an Indian mannequin named Tonto and a cowboy dummy named Joe, while his very much alive and frisky Labrador, Jessie May, whiles away the afternoon gnawing on a wooden board.
This was Thursday, right? Yeah, a Thursday. Few tourists on this day. But wait until the weekend, Grampz says, then people will come and he can regale everyone within earshot about the Pioneertown of yore.
Tourists will stroll past the buildings – not facades, mind you, real buildings – that Hollywood heavyweights Roy Rogers and Gene Autry had built in 1946 to shoot cowboy flicks. And yet, interspersed with boarded-up faux movie sets such as the generic "jail," the "Jack Cass Saloon," and the "bank," are a few actual retail businesses – a pottery shop, a saddlery, a motel, a post office – that live for the tourist trade.
So don't go calling Pioneertown a fake, or a ghost town, says Grampz (real name: Rick Russell), who's lived here 20 years. Yes, on weekends from April to October, they stage re-enactments of Old West shootouts, but that's the only overt showbiz gesture to lure folks making the 20-mile trek northeast from Palm Springs or the 14 miles west from Joshua Tree.
"People still live the life here," Grampz said. "It's a real town. We have horses. We work. I'm the one everybody meets here. I tell people about the town. I love to talk to people, if it's not nap time."
Sleepy town wakes up
Nighttime in Pioneertown, conversely, could not be more different. It rocks. And rolls. And, near night's end, staggers. Pickup trucks and Beemers, as well as rows of Harleys, fill the parking lot and line the roads. Music and laughter echo off the nearby granite boulders, wisps of smoke from the mesquite grill waft down Mane Street.
Leave it to a place that once was all artifice to provide the authentic.
In this case, it's a true boot-kickin', standup-bass thumpin', beer-swillin', tequila-shootin' roadhouse, a sprawling joint that attracts the likes of Americana artists Lucinda Williams and Joe Ely, rockers Third Eye Blind and Franz Ferdinand, and hipsters such as Rufus Wainright and Beth Orton to its indoor and outdoor stages.
Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace may not be the only reason to come to this two-pumps-of-the-brake-pedal town – cineasts will want to see where Barbara Stanwyck vamped in 1953's "Jeopardy" or where the "Cisco Kid" flicks were shot – but nothing brings in crowds and keeps the town propped up like this highly unlikely music venue.
As John Jeffries of Chaparrosa Outfitters, the saddlery on Mane Street, says, "The girls who run Pappy's have really, really helped the town. They've become sort of famous."
"The girls" are Robyn Celia and Linda Krantz, who since 2003 have transformed what began life as a "cantina" film set, later became a real biker bar and then morphed into a barbecue and country music bar and a hopping music venue of some renown.
And, as if to carry on Pioneertown's tradition of having outsiders be agents of change, Celia and Krantz are New Yorkers who escaped the grim post-9/11 Manhattan and lit out for a new life in the West. They had been coming to Pioneertown once a year for a vacation for years, "like, on New Year's Eve, when we'd have a great time, then stumble back to the motel," Celia said. "It was so much fun to get out of the city."
The two had long loved the vibe at Pappy & Harriet's – warm and inviting, utterly guileless – but then Claude "Pappy" Allen died, and Harriet eventually sold the place to a family friend, who, in turn, sold to an outsider. The last time Celia came out to visit, she noticed a difference. Pappy & Harriet's had lost its mojo and was struggling.
"So, we bought the place, literally on credit cards," Celia said, laughing. "We were so naive. Knew nothing about the restaurant business. I mean, I had been in rock bands in New York and was a waitress, but "
They had a third partner in 2003, a man Celia called only "Marco." He had envisioned Pappy & Harriet's as a uber-edgy punk club in the desert, something to lure fans and bands from L.A.
"Linda and I came in one day, and Marco had taken all the photos off the wall, Pappy's 'Wall of Shame,' they call it," Celia said, referring to framed photos of musicians ranging from Bonnie Raitt to Robert Plant, "and he put up punk rock posters. I'm like, 'No, dude, you don't understand. This is Pioneertown. You can't change this place. Keep it the same. That's what's so cool about it.'
"So Linda got her screw gun, put all the photos back. We get a letter in the mail the next day saying (Marco) was leaving and suing us, to get his money back and time spent. So we got another loan, paid him off."
Celia used her wiles and smarts and selling skills to persuade promoters to send acts to a place in the middle of the desert. Lucinda Williams played the first concert on Nov. 15, 2003.
"I didn't know what I was doing," Celia said. "We sold 600 tickets. I was chain-smoking cigs, was anorexic, didn't even eat for a week, you know what I mean? I also didn't know it got cold out here. In my mind, it's the desert; it's November, and I'm shocked it's freezing. We're renting heaters so Lucinda would be warm, and she ended up playing three hours outdoors. She kept saying to the crowd, 'This better remain my best-kept secret.' "
Little chance of that. Influential Los Angeles radio station KCRW started plugging Pappy & Harriet's shows and, suddenly, it became "a thing." Third Eye Blind recently did a Tuesday night show, Les Claypool of Primus did a Saturday night outdoor gig, and Vampire Weekend put in an appearance, as have veterans such as Leon Russell, Dave Alvin and Led Zeppelin's Plant (in his bluegrass incarnation).
"It was totally word-of-mouth," Celia said. "For the bigger acts, it's a chance to be themselves. No pressure here. People feel safe. There's artistic freedom. It's not like the House of Blues, where there's all these rules."
On the particular Thursday night, the place was packed for an up-and-coming act called Leftover Cuties, a "jazz-pop" quartet from Los Angeles that features horns, accordion, keyboards, stand-up bass, drums and a ukulele-toting lead singer with a sultry voice. One of the group's songs was chosen as the theme for the Showtime series "The Big C" and others have been used in commercials for Samsung and Hyundai.
Celia wasn't worried that the band's eclecticism would keep the regulars (skewing older and more into twangy music) away.
She figured right. By showtime, both rooms of the restaurant, the bar, the billiards room and the dance floor in front of the stage were packed. A smartly dressed couple in their 30s bellied up to the bar next to a man with a long white beard and bandana. They were gazed upon beatifically by the granite bust of a smiling Pappy, the eternal shot glass of whiskey in front of him.
"This is an everything venue," Celia said. "That's what's so great about it. And that's what I saw when I first came here, so many different people under this crazy roof who wouldn't necessarily get along in the real world, know what I mean?"
Even the hard-core country fans were whooping and clapping after the Leftover Cuties' hook-catchy opening number. It helped that lead singer Shirli McAllen told the crowd, "We've been wanting to play here for a long, long time. We're honored."
By the end of the first set, a conga line had formed, and the band didn't miss a beat when a little girl decided to join them on stage.
Pappy's is kind of a musical demilitarized zone, where strict genres are put aside, and people just groove to whatever's playing that particular night. The regulars are up for just about anything, Celia said. They even embraced the "Godfather of Goth," Peter Murphy of Bauhaus.
"When he first played here, it was crazy," she said. "He usually gets lifted down in a coffin or something at his shows. And there were all these older goth guys here. I was like, 'Where am I?' But this makes such sense here, even though it makes no sense at all."
The same could be said for Pioneertown by day. It survives, if not thrives, as an Old West town that never was, except in the minds and deep pockets of Hollywood moguls.
Sure, the pace picks up on the weekends when the tourists come. But several of the business people, including Jeffries and Scott Samuels at the Pioneertown Motel, wish things were a little more lively.
There's talk that the owner of the old soundstage across the road from Grampz's house will be getting a refurbishing to attract new movie and TV ventures. Some, too, are planning a modest museum touting the movies and TV shows shot here.
A look at the future
But Pioneertown doesn't want to live solely in the past. Jeffries, the saddlemaker, said there were close to 20 "projects" (TV commercials, music videos, documentaries) partially shot on Mane Street last year.
Foreign tourists seem especially enamored of the town. Amara Alban, who owns the pottery store with her husband, Thomas, keeps a world map with pins marking the locales of visitors. Who knew Pioneertown was so big in Africa?
Canadian tourists Harold and Ann Rink from Vancouver said they liked seeing sites used for movies they saw as kids.
"The guy down the street here was telling us that, when they were shooting movies, Roy Rogers would gallop his horse down the street with a guy chasing him, then turn around and gallop back with the same guy chasing him," Harold Rink said. "Saved time and money."
The Rinks obviously had run into Grampz flapping his gums on the porch. Grampz may be loving life in Pioneertown as it is, but he's not without his ambitions, either.
"I'm negotiating to do a reality show here," he said. "Based on the Old West. Hell, we've got the buildings, the horses and the streets. Why not?"
Directions from Sacramento: Take Highway 99 to Highway 58 east in Bakersfield to Highway 395 in Boron. Go south on 395, turn left on Air Base Road, then right onto the National Trailways Road, continue to Highway 18 for 23 miles. Continue on Old Woman Springs Road (Highway 247) for 41 miles, then turn left on Buena Vista Drive, then a right on Yucca Mesa Drive. Turn right at Twentynine Palms Highway (Highway 62), then right on Pioneertown Road. Go 4.5 miles to the town.
DINING AND ENTERTAINMENT
Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace: 53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown; (760) 365-5956, www.pappyandharriets. com. Hours: Thursday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Monday, 5 p.m.-2 a.m.; closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
Pioneertown Motel: 5040 Curtis Road, Pioneertown; (760) 365-7001, www.pioneertown-motel.com. Note: Also RV and dry camping facilities. Plus, a 17-horse corral.
MazAmar Art Pottery: 53626 Mane St., Pioneertown. (760) 228-0290. facebook.com/MazAmar.
Chaparrosa Outfitters Saddle Works: 5085 Mane St., Pioneertown; (760) 365-5606.
WILD WEST SHOWS
Mane Street Stampede: Every Saturday from April to Oct. 26, 2:30 p.m. (760) 831-5928; www.manestreetstampede.com
Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.
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