Alabama Hills, Movie Road. Mt Whitney in background. A Don Graham photo.
By Pete Vanlaw
For any of you who frequently drive Highway 395 to reach the ski slopes at Mammoth Mountain, or the fishing at June Lake, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the little town of Lone Pine, where you probably slowed down to avoid the speed trap, but didn’t stop; deciding to go on and get a bite to eat in Independence, Big Pine, or maybe Bishop.
Unfortunately you’ve been missing one of the great monuments to the motion picture business, the location for hundreds of movies dating back to the 1920’s. Films like GUNGA DIN, BAD DAY at BLACK ROCK, and TREMORS, were all shot in the Alabama Hills.
John Wayne was also well known in Lone Pine, since he’d been in so many Western’s that were filmed there throughout his career.
But it wasn’t until he was near the end of that career when I had the rare opportunity to work with him. He’d been hired as the spokesman for Great Western Savings, a large savings and loan institution that was a fixture in California at the time.
I was producing the current series of TV commercials in which he was featured. But I also had the great pleasure of working with the renowned cameraman, Conrad Hall, who was going to both shoot and direct them.
The first leg of our adventure was to be in the Alabama Hills, where we were to stage the first two of a four commercial package starring John Wayne, the Duke himself.
Connie and I were slated to drive up to Lone Pine and meet Cliff Einstein, the creative director at Daily & Assoc., the ad agency for Great Western. The plan was for the three of us to go out to the Alabama Hills and pick the spots where we wanted to shoot. Wayne was going to come up the following day to meet us and go over the final details prior to filming two days later.
Connie picked me up at my house in Studio City, in his vintage Cadillac convertible, and off we went, headed for Lone Pine, where we were to meet Cliff at the Dow Villa, the one decent hotel in town; where he and Wayne would be staying. But, a scientific convention was also in town, which relegated Connie and me to the Best Western, back up the road.
When we got there we were greeted by a breathless Cliff Einstein, who told us that the Duke had already arrived the day before. He’d flown in on a plane owned by Roy Disney, arriving at the tiny Lone Pine Airport with his Secretary and the client from Great Western.
The Duke had chosen to come early because he wanted to select his own locations, while showing his two guests some of the historical sites were he had filmed so many of his movies.
But to get out to those rocky trails, Wayne needed a vehicle, preferably a truck with four-wheel drive. So, he went to his long time friend, the owner of the local Chevy dealership, who let him borrow one that would allow the three of them to go off-road and see whatever they wanted in that rugged terrain.
No one knows how many sites they looked at. But at the last one the fates prevailed, when the Duke got the truck stuck in the sand and couldn’t get out. Even though the pickup had four wheel drive, Wayne didn’t understand that it wouldn’t happen automatically with this model. Instead you had to get out of the truck and turn the front wheel hubs to complete the change from two wheel drive to four.
So, there they were, John Wayne and his guests stuck in the sand… and it was getting dark.
Left with no other choice, the three of them proceeded to hike out of the Alabama Hills, along Movie Road to Whitney Portal, the main highway that leads from Lone Pine to the foot of Mt. Whitney.
There were no cell phones back then to get help. So, once they reached the highway, the only thing they could do was hitchhike back to town.
We don’t know how long it took them to get a ride, but we do know that they were finally picked up by a driver for Sears & Roebuck, who somehow got the three of them into his delivery van.
Here we can only speculate what that Sears driver must have told his wife that night, once he got back home….!