Pioneertown goes from film set to funky desert settlement

It’s been 70 years since Pioneertown was built as a set for cowboy films. Today, the funky desert settlement has new life, attracting a wild mix of bikers, rock stars, hippies and urban creatives. Now, the question is: Will it become a Western version of Williamsburg, Brooklyn?

Pioneertown goes from film set to funky desert settlement

Photography: Zach Anderson

Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace has to be one of the odder music venues that Sir Paul McCartney has played. A boxy wood-and-adobe saloon on the edge of California’s vast Mojave Desert, it looks like the kind of place where a scowling outlaw might walk in, causing the piano to fall silent. Farther along the dusty road, there’s a small wooden chapel, an even smaller jail and a road sign reading: “Hoof ’N’ Foot Only.” It’s like being on the set of a cowboy movie—which is fitting, as this is exactly what Pioneertown used to be.

A two-hour drive east of Los Angeles, Pioneertown was built in the 1940s by actors Roy Rogers, Dick Curtis and Russell Hayden, primarily as a backdrop for scores of film and TV Westerns, but also as a temporary community for those who starred in them. Movie icons like John Wayne, Gene Autry, Barbara Stanwyck and Gail Davis would spend months at a time filming here, immersing themselves in a setting that had little in the way of Hollywood glitz.

“From what I understand,” says Robyn Celia, co-owner of Pappy & Harriet’s, “it really was the Wild West.” With the decline of the Western genre in the 1960s, however, the filmmakers moved out, the tumbleweeds rolled in and Pioneertown became genuinely wild. By the early 1970s, the tavern that Celia would eventually take over—then called The Cantina—was a hangout for biker gangs and other undesirables. “They had full reign of this whole place,” she says. “Apparently, it was scary back then.”

 

Today, Pioneertown is anything but. Roy Rogers and his colleagues couldn’t have known it at the time, but by building a settlement of fully functional Western-style buildings rather than a clutter of facades, they had set the stage for a permanent community of artists, mystics, bikers and people who simply like living and working in what must rank as one of the weirdest towns in America—and for much lower rents than they’d pay elsewhere.

“People from San Francisco, New York and L.A. are picking up and just moving here,” says Glen Steigelman, who quit his desk job in Los Angeles six years ago to turn a 1946 Richfield service station into a coffee shop named The Station with spouse Steve Halterman. “The desert isn’t the easiest place to live,” Steigelman says. But, says Halterman, “it’s an opportunity for people to buy something that they can afford.”

Sarah Tabbush saddles up to her vintage shop, Pioneertown General Store, which is housed in a former barn



Far from being something to grumble about, the relative hardship of life out here is often described with a sense of pride (in today’s world, after all, struggling to find a Wi-Fi signal is the mark of a true pioneer). L.A. transplant Sarah Tabbush, who runs the eclectically stocked General Store, believes the town’s remoteness and ruggedness are a key part of its magic.

“Our lives are not normal. You have to be willing to deal with extreme heat and extreme cold, dusty roads and animals,” Tabbush says. “But there’s something about the landscape; everything melts away. Sometimes, we have barbecues and stay up all night, not talking, just staring at the stars. It’s really special.”

Along with Pappy & Harriet’s, Tabbush’s General Store serves as a social center for the community. Locals often lounge on a sofa in the store, shooting the breeze and looking on as visiting shoppers wander in and out. “People want to take away a little bit of the desert,” says Tabbush, whose inventory includes everything from bandanas and water canteens to healing balm, tarot cards and other items made by local artisans. “We have so many people doing amazing things here,” she says.

The fact that there is even a place here is thanks to intrepid early residents like Harriet and Claude “Pappy” Allen, the husband-and-wife team who, in 1982, inherited the rowdy cantina from Harriet’s parents and renamed it after themselves. “When they took it over, they had a sit-down with the bikers and said, ‘Hey, it’s going to be a family place now,’” says Celia, the bar’s current owner. Pappy passed away in 1994, and Harriet later retired. Celia and Linda Krantz bought it in 2003 and moved across the country from New York City to run it.

“In the beginning, we had a hundred bikers walking in with the same jacket on and we were like, ‘Uh-oh,’” Celia recalls. “I knew Harriet’s mom, and she always said to me, ‘If you get nervous, just shut the bar down.’” The pair stood their ground and started booking musicians who’d heard about this crazy roadhouse in the desert. Robert Plant, the Arctic Monkeys and Lorde have all performed on the bar’s tiny stage. Last year, McCartney played a surprise gig here. “Bands feel like they’re on vacation from their tour,” Celia says of the venue’s appeal. “They’re under the stars, in the desert. Creative people can actually breathe out here.”

Another draw is Pappy & Harriet’s addictive barbecue, whose devotees include Josh Homme, frontman for Queens of the Stone Age. Homme plays at a recording studio in nearby Joshua Tree, which has cut tracks for musicians like Dave Grohl and PJ Harvey. But it’s Pioneertown’s rustic saloon, decorated with deer heads and old license plates, that embodies the area’s peculiar demographic mash-up—highlighted by a recent concert from electroclash artist Peaches. At the unconventional gig, Steigelman appreciated watching bikers grooving alongside glam rockers. “It was so amazing,” he says. “Everyone just got along with everyone.”

 

Linda Krantz and Robyn Celia, owners of Pappy & Harriet's, take a break at their bar

As Pioneertown’s popularity grows, residents have started to list their homes on Airbnb. Krantz and Celia rent out a small house on Mane Street. Once a hair and makeup studio for Western movies, it’s now fitted with vintage furniture, an acoustic guitar and beers in the fridge. A couple of years ago, Portland, Oregon, native Matt French and his brother invested in the fabled Pioneertown Motel. The rooms, with their cowhide rugs and desert-scene wall hangings, once accommodated ’40s and ’50s film idols. “We fell in love with this place,” says French. “There’s a folklore and mystery to it.”

There is, of course, a real possibility that increasing exposure to the outside world will diminish the tight-knit and oddly diverse culture that makes Pioneertown such a special place. Celia recalls her first night at Pappy’s as being like the cantina scene from Star Wars: “It was all the aliens under one roof.” Today, locals rub elbows with people who look like they’re from Williamsburg, Brooklyn—which, for some, has been an unnerving development.

“Everybody was kind of weirded out by the hipsters,” says Celia of the recent influx. “But what better movement can you ask for? They’re all really nice and creative. They want to bring back old barbershops and have meat that doesn’t have any hormones in it. What’s the problem?”

Tabbush is unfazed by the notion that Pioneertown might lose its authenticity or charm. For her, the surrounding landscape, unforgiving and immutable, will maintain the status quo. And those who simply refuse to fit in? She says, “The desert really kicks you out if you’re not meant to be here.”

Matt French, owner of the Pioneertown Motel


 

Hot Spots Around Pioneertown

Sky Village Market Place

Open every weekend, this market is the place to pick up local art and weird desert trinkets and meet some of the creative locals.

skyvillageswapmeet.com

 

The Station

Set to be one of the coolest hangout spots in the Mojave Desert, the café located in a retro gas station is opening in early 2018.

thestationjoshuatree.com

 

La Copine

The chefs at this excellent desert restaurant started with brunch from a food cart. Now, their commitment to locally sourced, organic produce drives their permanent Yucca Valley kitchen.

lacopinekitchen.com

 

Integratron

Book a sound bath at this acoustically unique building, created by a UFOlogist to communicate with alien life-forms, and based on plans supposedly provided by visitors from Venus.

integratron.com

 

Location, Location, Location

A look at the movies shot in Pioneertown

The Valiant Hombre (1948)

One of the first films shot in town, this flick featured the Cisco Kid and his trusty sidekick, Pancho, who go on an adventure after following a stray dog, then discover gold in the desert.
 

The Gay Amigo (1949)

Mistakenly identified as Mexican bandits, the Cisco Kid and Pancho pose as criminals so they can catch real bad guys—a bunch of robbers who target stagecoaches.


The Cowboy and the Indians (1949)

This classic black-and-white picture stars Gene Autry, who helps a Native American tribe that’s being blackmailed by an evil trading-post owner named Smiley.


Barbed Wire (1952)

The town stands in for Texas in this other Autry film, which involves blocked cattle trails and a landowner scheming to drive up property prices.