Celebrating Hollywood on the rocks

September 27, 1993|By John M. Glionna | John M. Glionna,Los Angeles Times

Like some modern-day cave man, Jason Lems adjusts his sunglasses and motions toward Hollywood's Vasquez Rocks -- twisted, angry stone formations that have been the Santa Clarita Valley's loneliest landmarks for 20 million years.

"There," says the 21-year-old park ranger, pointing toward a half-finished structure the color of cartoon orange. "That's Fred's house. Barney's going to live right next door."

He's talking, of course, about Fred Flintstone and his pint-sized pal, Barney Rubble. Workers hurriedly laid the huge slabs of prehistoric slate that serve as roofs in the community of Bedrock, where Fred and Barney live.

But it's 1993. This is a movie set -- a modern Stone Age fantasy. Those funky homes are actually made of sculpted foam. And that big brontosaur bone? Pure plaster of Paris, man.

Just as it has for generations, Hollywood once again has come calling on the Vasquez Rocks -- the clutch of oddball cliffs that has served as the backdrop for thousands of films, TV shows, photo shoots and commercials.

In all, more than 200 projects are shot at the rocks each year -- ranking them as the most commercially photographed boulders on Earth.

Over the years, the Vasquez Rocks have starred as the lunar surface and planets in galaxies far, far away. They've played the Old West, the snow-capped Swiss Alps, the Sahara Desert, scenic Mexico, the Grand Canyon, the Big Sky badlands and that sad, soulless outpost known as the Middle of Nowhere.

They're the Southern California version of Australia's Ayers Rock. The Hollywood Outback. The Back of Beyond.

Since the first silent film was shot here in 1905, the rocks have played opposite some lofty company. John Wayne once filmed here, as did Errol Flynn, Buck Rogers, Natalie Wood, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart.

So did the Lone Ranger. Cisco and Pancho. Spock and Capt. Kirk. Little Joe and Victoria Barkley. The Village People. Raquel Welch. Bill and Ted even had their Bogus Adventure here.

For rocks, their film credits read like a page from TV Guide: "The Charge of the Light Brigade," "Gunga Din," "Star Trek," "Battlestar Galactica," "Rich Man, Poor Man." The Cartwrights once galloped around the Vasquez Rocks in the old "Bonanza" television series. So did the boys from "The Big Valley."

Angela Lansbury has taped episodes of "Murder, She Wrote." The Marine Corps shot its medieval chessboard commercial here as well. And Taco Bell has returned time and again to make "Run for the Border" ads.

So has the Energizer battery bunny. As well as Hanes underwear. Playboy and Muscle magazines. MasterCard. Wrigley's gum. Michael Jackson shot part of his "Black or White" video here.

And now, Steven Spielberg is taking his turn. He started shooting "The Flintstones," starring John Goodman as fat Freddy, this spring. Filmmakers say the prehistoric pallor of the formations makes them a perfect setting for the town of Bedrock.

"It's this terrifically stark, exciting visual landscape that just naturally lends itself to become Fred's street, the cul-de-sac of the Flintstones," says William Sandell, production designer for the film.

"Because the movie takes place in a world full of upheaval, one that isn't smooth. It's in flux. The terrain is yellowy, bubbling volcanoes, an unsettled Earth. And without uttering a word, the Vasquez Rocks say that perfectly."

Rocks, of course, don't talk. But out at Vasquez Rocks County Park, there's a staff of rangers who do their talking for them. The rangers make sure that none of the Hollywood film crews damage the 745-acre park's timeless, fragile landscape.

Despite the exclusive atmosphere of most movie shoots, they also see that the filming does not interfere with the public's use of the park, located near Agua Dulce, just off the Antelope Valley Freeway, about 40 miles north of Los Angeles.

More than 5,000 people visit the rocks each month. Some merely picnic and take in the view. Others explore the network of paths that intertwine the formations. Or they rappel off the craggy stone faces that erupt out of the ground at absurd angles.

Others go berserk -- running up and down the rocks, acting like screaming lunatics marooned on a faraway planet in some episode of the "Twilight Zone," with a deadpan Rod Serling smoking a cigarette nearby.

Still, the rocks pose their dangers. Rattlesnakes thrive in the park. And last summer, a teen-age girl died after tumbling from the largest cliff.

"But whatever they do, the public has first option -- after all, this is their park," says ranger Sandy Dininger. "We can't let producers start pushing people around."

The Vasquez Rocks have nonetheless proven to be a filmmaker's bargain basement. The location is close enough to Hollywood that movie companies don't have to pay actors and crews out-of-town rates for shoots there.

Production rates charged by the county for use of the rocks are also extremely low -- $400 daily for filming and $100 for each preparatory day, a bargain compared to similar natural sites in Arizona or Northern California.

"We still get complaints that our rates are too high," says Frank Hovore, natural areas administrator for the Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Department, which collects $30,000 annually from such commercial uses.


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