Big Scene Change Planned for Famed Old Movie Ranch

Times Staff Writer

The stomping grounds of Marshal Matt Dillon, Laura Ingalls and about 1,000 head of cattle are up for sale.

Big Sky Movie Ranch in Simi Valley, which has masqueraded as Kansas for "Gunsmoke" and Minnesota for "Little House on the Prairie" among other places, will be auctioned in four parcels totaling 6,711 acres.

An additional 2,700 acres will be developed by the ranch's owner, Watt Enterprises of Santa Monica, as a retirement community, golf course, equestrian center, mobile home park and other residential units.

But any development of Big Sky, one of Southern California's last large movie ranches, is expected to take years, and movie making could well continue for at least five to 10 years at the discretion of the new owners, the company said. Beyond the movie sets, Big Sky's rolling hills, dotted only with oak trees and brush, are also leased for farming and ranching.

"We've been developing real estate for 40 years" throughout the Southland, said Ray Watt, who founded the parent company, Watt Industries, and built it into one of the nation's largest real estate developers.

"We could show you some pictures of Palos Verdes and Pacific Palisades, and they were all barren. In our opinion, this is just an extension of the same growth and offers the same quality of life as Palos Verdes and Pacific Palisades," he said. "There's just no more land available in those areas and that's why we're out there" in the Simi Valley.

The 10,000-acre ranch has a colorful history as a working cattle ranch and farm that was owned for more than four decades by the late oil tycoon J. Paul Getty.

The five-times-married Getty "honeymooned there once" in a cabin amid the ranch's rustic and sometimes rugged terrain, said Phyllis Haviman, 68, who farmed part of the land under a sublease with her 71-year-old husband, Carroll, from 1954 until last year.

Getty "was very nice, very simple, and, I think, shy," she said.

Her parents, Theodore and Lydia Beesemeyer, had raised wheat and barley there since 1930, shortly before Getty bought the ranch from Pacific Western Oil Co., which had purchased it in the 1920s, Haviman said. Before that, it was called the Patterson Ranch.

Watt Enterprises, which includes other, unnamed investors, bought the ranch from the Getty estate, as it was called, in 1981 and renamed it Big Sky Ranch.

"I was raised there and I loved it," Haviman said. "The first time I saw it my father said he was going to show me the most beautiful place in the world, and it was," she said, adding that most of the land's original lush groves of oak and black walnut trees have been cut down.

In its later years, the ranch became something of a television star. Besides "Gunsmoke" and "Little House on the Prairie," the ranch was used to film "Rawhide" and "Father Murphy," among other TV series. It also appeared in the film "The Miracle Worker" and served as the Drogheda estate in "The Thorn Birds" miniseries.

"We have a movie coming in here about once a month," said Glen Gessford, president of Big Sky Development Co. The firm is renovating the movie sets in preparation for a public viewing day on May 2. The event will also be a fund raiser for the YMCA, Gessford said.

The ranch will be broken into four parcels ranging from about 500 acres to nearly 3,000 acres and will be auctioned June 13. The auction, handled by Larry Latham Auctioneers of California, will be at the Westlake Inn.

Watt said he has met with interested investors from Hong Kong, Europe, Canada and Australia about the property. "We have had a number of people make inquiries," he said.

The sale is expected to bring in at least $30 million, and "we actually think it will bring a lot more than that," said Nathan A. Wolfstein IV, vice president of sales and marketing for Larry Latham Auctioneers.

Housing Planned

Watt said the other investors have asked that he not reveal what they paid for the land in 1981. The ranch, which was the largest piece of land and the biggest price paid in the company's history, cost less than $30 million, "but not a whole lot less," Watt said with a laugh.

Watt Enterprises' proposed development for the 2,700-acre parcel it will retain will include nearly 2,000 residential units in three valleys on the property, which stretches between Tapo Canyon Road and Erringer Drive in Simi Valley. The hills in between, about 80% of the property, will be untouched and will hide much of the construction, Gessford said.

The housing will range from mobile homes and smaller homes in the retirement community to large estate lots, he said. Ground will be broken in a year to 18 months, but the development will take five to 10 years to complete, he said.

Watt estimated that housing sales could total $350 million during the next decade. Other developers are planning a regional shopping center and a Hyatt hotel near the proposed Watt development, Gessford said.

"There's a lot of history associated with what went on at this particular movie ranch," Wolfstein said.

Other area movie ranches had long since disappeared, Wolfstein said. The 20th Century Fox back lot became Century City and Warner Ranch is now the Warner Center commercial-residential complex. Among others, the Paramount movie ranch is a state park, much of the Laird International (formerly Selznick Studios, RKO and Desilu) lot is a business park and the Lasky ranch is now a cemetery, he said.

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