Sam McManis

Discoveries: DeMille’s ‘lost city’ a feature of Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center

All right, Mr. DeMille, the Sphinx is ready for her close-up.

Has been for years now. Sure, she’s had a little work done – OK, a lot, more than just a lid-lift, chin tuck – but you’ve got to admit she looks fabulous. Not a day over 91.

Take a gander at that perfect, pert nose, those full lips that even Angelina would envy, the strong chin and steely right eye, that impassive facial expression that only adds to the allure as you try to answer the mythological riddle that brought men throughout the ages to their knees.

All that’s missing is … well, the rest of her.

The lion’s body, that is.

The massive head of one of the last remaining buried Sphinxes that adorned Cecil B. DeMille’s epic silent-movie set for the 1923 “The Ten Commandments,” which the auteur buried deep in the sand dunes along with all other artifacts from his manufactured “City of the Pharaohs” after the shooting wrapped, today sits encased in Lucite in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center on the Central Coast. Discovered about seven decades after DeMille buried the set rather than dismantle it, this bodiless head found in a sand bar waits patiently for the excavation of its lower half.

What’s the holdup? It takes a lot of money to do an archaeological dig, and the Dunes Center has doggedly pursued grants and donations and is this close to raising the $180,000 needed to get the job done. But, according to executive director Doug Jenzen, they also want to be very, very careful exhuming this time, lest the body suffer the same sad fate as the Sphinx head and crumble like an undercooked scone.

A few years back, when the head was retrieved, the Middle Eastern archaeologist unearthing the plaster-of-Paris mold was meticulous in her care, handling each feature still attached and recognizable with extreme delicacy, since the ravages of time and the harsh wind and rain had done much to rob the Sphinx of her girlish looks. Jenzen was among the helpers told to put their hands underneath the head – not lift it; no, no, just hold it steady – while the archaeologist wielded her tools of the trade.

Even now, Jenzen cringes when retelling what happened next.

“Here we were, a bunch of us trying to support it while the archaeologist went to work with the brush,” he said, pausing for emphasis, “and it was just horrifying. Horrifying to watch it crumble right in our hands. There was nothing we could do. Fragments. Just fragments, everywhere.”

So they did what movie people do all the time – took their star attraction’s face to Burbank to get some work done. By the time the Sphinx returned to her place of honor in the Dunes Center, she was intact, all right, but with about as many “original” parts as Cher. The left eye, the smooth forehead, those killer cheekbones – all fabricated on some SoCal operating table – and, not to be catty, but she looks a bit like Bruce Jenner.

Still, visitors here get an idea of just how massive this star, one of 21 Sphinxes that line the path to the “City of the Pharaoh,” was back in the day.

A gentleman is not supposed to tell, but for the record, the Sphinx measured 35 feet tall and tipped the scales at 5 tons.

That, of course, is including the lower, lion, half, which is still partially buried at a GPS-marked, but publicly undisclosed, site in a part of the dunes off limits to off-road vehicle lovers who flock to this area for revving recreational exploits.

“In a way, it’s good we didn’t excavate it back then when we got the head,” Jenzen said. “We know more about how fragile it is now. What we’re going to try to do next time is come up with some kind of support system. We’ve done experiments inserting insulation (behind the plaster of Paris) to support it. And instead of driving all the pieces down to Burbank for restoration – because apparently some fractured on the car ride down – the restorer’s coming here.

“We don’t have the whole body. As of 2012, a whole back haunch is intact but everything else is kind of in fragments,” Jenzen said. “But that’s OK, because it has to get through those doors (to the Center’s main exhibit room. We think we can do it. We’ve taken existing pieces and created a ratio to guess how big it’s gonna be. The conservative guess is 8 feet long, because it’s also missing its two front paws. Just the torso alone is eight to 12 feet (high) and six feet wide.”

The Sphinx is one of the last remaining of the 21 that is recognizable and available to be reconstructed. The others, which DeMille’s people believed they buried deep enough in the dunes never to be found, have either decomposed or were surreptitiously swiped decades ago by locals who were in on DeMille’s secret and wanted a souvenir from those halcyon days when stars of the silent screen graced the streets of Guadalupe.

“The Sphinxes kind of found themselves in odd places,” he said. “We have a photo of two of them at the gates of the Santa Maria Country Club in the 1930s. We have pictures from someone’s old family photos of a Sphinx they used as a lawn ornament.”

Those are long gone now, alas. But the Dunes Center does display artifacts unearthed from the set: a lion’s paw or two from the Sphinxes; china and cutlery the actors and directors used for meals; the medicinal bottles of “cough syrup” people swigged (note: these were Prohibition times); photos from the “tent city” DeMille commissioned to house the crew during the two-month shoot, with a hospital and cafeteria and a pen for the hordes of animals used for the exodus scene. At its peak, 3,500 actors were fed by 125 cooks who made 7,5000 sandwiches a day and tossed 20,000 pounds of hay a day to the livestock.

Now you know why the name DeMille is synonymous with wretched excess.

Jenzen says townsfolk cottoned to the Hollywood glitz. For a while there, Guadaulpe went from sleepy farming town to Hollywood Babylon North.

“Everybody here still loves this story,” he said, “because everybody in town was hired to work on the movie. If you come from an old family in town, you’re probably a descendent of either an extra onscreen or had DeMille rent their farm animals for the exodus scene. Everybody’s connected with it, and it’s not the only movie that’s been shot here.”

True, that. Between 1921 and 2006, 19 movies have used Guadalupe’s dunes and shore, from the Rudolph Valentino vehicle “The Sheik” in 1921 to the Johnny Depp vehicle “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” in 2006. Whereas DeMille paid the state $100 to rent the Dunes for two months of shooting, it cost Jerry Bruckheimer $36,000 to get access for a five-day shoot.

They didn’t leave any of the set behind, except maybe the used shot glasses that Depp swigged off-camera at the Far West Tavern on the main drag. Some day, those may be preserved in amber as well.

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