SEARCH: Archeological Dig for Lost Movie Set : Solving Buried Riddle of a Hollywood Sphinx : Search for Lost Set From DeMille's 'Ten Commandments'

Times Staff Writer

On the restless, shifting, rolling beaches west of here, there's a sand hill of much mystique.

It's called the dune that never moves.

Sixty years ago, the whole town knew why wind and seasons were unable to resculpt the lounging landmark. Then interest dwindled and new generations were left to guess and invent their own reasons for the tenpenny nails and framing lumber and plaster chunks poking from surface sand.

Long Memories But now . . . reporters and researchers are telephoning the Far Western Tavern (circa 1912) in search of Guadalupe's elders . . . Clarence Minetti, Ernest Righetti, Joe Gray, anyone with long memories of this Latino-Italian-Swiss-Filipino-Chinese colony 170 miles north of Los Angeles.

Photographers are visiting. Strangers have hit the beaches to poke through sand and against solids. And international archeologists say they are ready to dig into the dune that never moves . . . the long, tall barrow where a legend, Cecil B. DeMille, built and then buried a 1923 masterpiece, the massive Pharaonic city that was his set for "The Ten Commandments."

Today, the sandy surface shows not-so-ancient Egypt as a deep layer of junk. Six decades of wind, rain, salt, sun, horses, boondockers and dune buggies have trashed once identifiable shapes into shards. That red plaster over there could be a piece from the walls of DeMille's City of Karnak, four millenniums and 10,000 miles removed from traces of the original. The blotch of fiberboard might be from a dummy pyramid.

Yet beneath this litter, enthuses a three-man team that represents the birth of Hollywood-Egyptology as a serious science, there should be artifacts of literally epic proportions.

More than a dozen concrete Sphinxes (four tons apiece) are believed to be awaiting recovery from the sand . . . and that is exactly how man rediscovered their aging parent, the 4,500-year-old Great Sphinx of Giza.

Four statues of Ramses the Magnificent (magnificence indeed at 35 feet and 39 tons and copied from originals at Abu Simbel) that once flanked the gates of the faked city . . . A 70-foot-high bas-relief of two archers, their chariots and horses . . . Generic pyramids and outbuildings, pillars, pediments, plinths and whatever else historic studio stills show of walls and gates formed from 500,000 feet of lumber, 25,000 pounds of nails and 75 miles of bracing wire (so that winds wouldn't blow this plaster sail north) await exhumation.

Sandy Horses So much pie in the sand? Not quite. Eighteen months ago, Peter Brosnan of Hollywood, the 32-year-old creator and captain of this exploration, made a preliminary dig into the dunes. His whisk broom cleared a sandy shroud from the huge head of a plaster horse.

No doubt about it. Still photos confirmed it. The head, quite intact, was from one of those two bas-relief chariot horses raised on the walls of DeMilleville.

"That particularly bitter winter of 1982 uncovered much," recalled Brosnan, a maker of some well-accepted documentaries. He's antsy to add to those credits with a PBS film about DeMille and the Lost City dig. "Large pieces of plaster, lots of pieces of statuary sticking out of the sand, an awful lot of wood and concrete . . . enough that we could work out the lines of the set, confirm it was 800 feet wide, where the walls had been, the gates and bits and pieces of black plaster from what we suspect were the bottom halves of the Ramses statues.

"That and the horse's head were the giveaways. The (bases of the) Ramses statues were where they always had been. The horse's head was exactly where it would have been if the gates (walls) had been chopped off and collapsed backward . . . on top of everything that had been dismantled and piled there . . . including, we believe from certain things we've found sticking in the sand, the 14 Sphinxes."

In terms of intrinsic worth, Brosnan's scraps of plaster and lumber wouldn't make the bargain bin at Builder's Emporium. What redeeming social value could there be in an august archeological excavation of a Hollywood reproduction of how Egypt probably never looked? To say nothing of the project's odd attachment of venerability to something much younger than the Bradbury Building.

Even DeMille saw the whimsy inherent to any salvage operation.

As his autobiography noted: "If 1,000 years from now archeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of the Guadalupe, I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization, far from being confined to the Valley of the Nile, extended all the way to the Pacific coast of North America.

"The Sphinxes they will find were buried there when we had finished with them and dismantled our huge set of the gates of Pharaoh's city."

Peter Brosnan (no relation to actor Pierce Brosnan, but with a name and a Beachwood Drive address close enough to receive some of Remington Steele's mail) acknowledges the fun and nonsense of his expedition. He's also quick to argue its importance. For too long, he says, the movie industry has been a hybrid, a combination art form, craft and business pulling in all three directions. With the dust never settling and little history stored by formal organization.

20th Century Art But now there is recognition of film as the great art form of the 20th Century. Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of pioneer Hollywood, its location, restoration and preservation. Now, insists Brosnan, we must accept that "in 'Ten Commandments,' they were breaking new ground every step of the way. The special effects, the parting of the Red Sea, the pillar of fire and the first use of Technicolor . . . technically and logistically it was a landmark movie."

It also was the era, explained Brosnan, of the big set.

Nottingham Castle in California for Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood. A coliseum in the Malibu mountains for Ramon Navarro as the first Ben Hur. Yet none has survived.

DeMille's City of Jerusalem for "The King of Kings" (1927) had a second starring role as the City of Atlanta. But frankly, my dears, Selznick didn't give a damn and the set was torched for scenes in "Gone With the Wind."

"This is the only one (set) that remains in any size, shape or form and if we can save only a piece of it, we'll have saved a large portion of film-making history," Brosnan explained. "You see, there's a time when things are simply worthless, obsolete junk. Then comes the time when they become artifacts. Like airplanes, cars and Little Orphan Annie Decoder Rings.

"So what is all over Guadalupe Dunes has passed from local junk to international artifacts of great cultural and social significance. And recovering them, learning what has been forgotten and discovering what we never knew, is what archeology is all about."

That also is what Brian Fagan is all about. British born, Cambridge educated, an Africanist and professor of anthropology at UC Santa Barbara, Fagan is spokesman-cum-comptroller for the expedition. "This will be a scientific exploration by highly trained personnel," he said, "not a case of simply digging up stuff like potatoes. And if we're serious about documenting movie history, then let's do it properly."

Fagan has questions to be answered by the dig. "How did they build a movie set in 1923? How was it constructed? What materials were used? We're after the richness and the detail, the stuff of what real history is made, the things you'd never learn from reports and photographs." Fagan also has answers for those who might doubt the purpose of an excavation into the relatively shallow past. "People tend to forget that archeology is still finding out about what people do today. For example, there's a man in Tucson who studies modern garbage to see how people discard things."

Larry Wilcoxon is a research archeologist at UCSB and another scientist apparently spread-eagled between extremes.

His career specialty is AD 1000 and Chumash Indians, not AD 1923 and greasepaint Egyptians. Yet, he said, archeology is discovery, which is education, and excavating recent history is no less important than digging into the distant past.

Wilcoxon is planning the dig in three phases.

"One . . . will be a magnetometer study to determine the extent of the foundations and wall features. Two . . . the actual excavation by personnel from the UCSB Anthropology Department (also the Santa Maria Valley Archaeological Society) and at the same time we'll be running a laboratory staffed by conservators, people with expertise in cleaning, processing and reconstructing plaster and cement. Three . . . the scientific write-up."

And if there's sufficient time, money and interest, Wilcoxon added, there could be a second dig. It would be further inland and at a spot just out of camera range of the set. Here, recall production records, newspaper stories and long retired movie workers, was Camp DeMille, a tent city that for 12 weeks of filming housed, fed and entertained a cast of 3,000--plus 5,000 animals.

But before any of this, producer Brosnan must obey the First Commandment of film making: Thou Shalt Have Funding.

He estimates $50,000, or more, for the dig. Then $300,000, or less, to make his movie about the search for how DeMille made a movie. If Camp DeMille is included in the plans and the documentary . . . well, $500,000, more or less, should cover everything.

'Just Crazy Enough' Two years ago, however, Brosnan's wants for financing weren't quite so ambitious. He'd have settled for whatever it took to replace possessions and permanence lost in a condominium fire . . . between documentaries and with a hungry cat to feed.

So Brosnan was bunking with a buddy, Bruce Cardoza, a classmate from NYU's film school, and drinking beer and discussing films and saying what he'd like to do while talking about what DeMille had done.

Cardoza said that of course Brosnan knew about the set that DeMille had buried in Guadalupe Dunes.

Brosnan said that of course he didn't.

"But the idea of locating it, maybe even recovering it, was just crazy enough, exciting enough, intriguing enough that I started tracking it down," Brosnan said.

There was the DeMille autobiography that led Brosnan to Paramount and wisps of clues from old records and one very much older employee. Libraries in Guadalupe and nearby Santa Maria. Historical societies. Mayors and county supervisors. The Cecil B. DeMille Trust, estate, survivors and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc because its fences touched the southern border of the dunes . . . and the Far Western Tavern to find Guadalupe rancher Joe Gray, who for 40 years had run cattle through the dunes.

Brosnan was given the precise location of the set--two acres amid 600 acres of oil-bearing dunes currently owned by Clarence Minetti and an eight-man syndicate. Rancher Gray led him to the site for a preliminary examination, an exploratory scratch and quick discovery of the horse's head. Curiosity about permits needed to undertake such an archeological expedition sent Brosnan to UCSB.

And Wilcoxon--who knew of the set from his Chumash digs in the dunes--was eager to involve the school in this obvious change of archeological pace and times.

In the process, Brosnan has become no man to challenge should "The Ten Commandments" be elevated to Trivial Pursuit.

How large and how long the set construction? It stood 10 stories and took 1,000 workers a month to build.

What was a typical day in the dunes? Lunch for crew and cast would mean 7,500 sandwiches, 2,500 apples and oranges and 400 gallons of coffee.

Why did DeMille bury the set?

"We don't know," Brosnan replied. "We have located cowboys who played chariot drivers, ranchers who supplied the animals, relatives of production executives . . . but nobody who helped dismantle the set or anyone who might know why."

There are, however, theories. With costs already way over budget, DeMille might have decided that leaving the set was cheaper than hauling it back to Hollywood. Then there's the romantic guess.

"DeMille certainly had a sense of history and that reference to archeology in his autobiography suggests that he wanted the set preserved for recovery sometime in the future."

The excavation, admitted Brosnan, will be fun. The research, he said, has been even funnier.

At one point, believing that the site might be under a portion of what is now Vandenberg AFB, Brosnan was in touch with public information officers at the facility.

A sergeant called later with a firm answer to Brosnan's queries.

"Sir!" he barked. "I have thoroughly researched the situation, sir! There is no Egyptian city buried at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Sir!"

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