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For years, this was how the West was done

Special to The Times

It’s an old Southern California story: Tear down a piece of history, replace it with a slice of suburbia. But in this case, the bulldozed site is not a real place but a part of the collective cinematic imagination: Warner Bros.’ legendary outdoor set, Laramie Street, where the likes of Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott, James Garner, Clint Walker and, more recently, Jeff Bridges and Bruce Campbell played cowboys, lawmen, outlaws and cavalry riding their horses, firing their six-shooters and romancing saloon gals and schoolmarms.

The site was bulldozed in mid-May, a victim of changing times in the movie industry. “We did a survey that told us the street had nine shooting days in [the last] five years,” said Gary Credle, the lot’s executive vice president of administration and studio operations. The studio’s most popular exterior set, Midwestern Street, logs 125 shooting days a year.

“We hated to lose Laramie Street because there’s a lot of history and nostalgia there,” Credle said. “But it was sitting there fallow. What we’re short of is production office space.” The new suburban street set, incorporating some production offices, should be in place by early next year.

“Laramie Street was just like home to me,” says James Garner, who became a household name starring in Warner Bros. TV’s “Maverick” for ABC from 1957-60. “I thought it was a tremendous set. I don’t think you could walk three feet in any direction on Laramie Street or ‘the jungle’ [the adjacent, tree-lined road and pond] that I haven’t done a scene on.”

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The death or dearth of westerns, combined with the need for production office space, are the reasons the set was demolished, Credle said.

Office exteriors will look like houses in a contemporary suburban neighborhood. “We’ll have 11 New England-type homes, two stories each, with lawns and heavily landscaped on a curved street,” Credle said. “Everybody’s looking for new kinds of residential streets.”

Slated for completion in February, “this will be a great set, and at the same time the offices can service four to five productions,” Credle said.

To anyone taking the popular studio tour or driving along Forest Lawn Drive, which borders the lot’s southern perimeter, it’s obvious the facades are gone. (Distinct images of Laramie Street remain on the Warner Bros. Studio Facilities’ Web site.)

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“The studio had a lunch time barbecue [on May 13] on the western street for all the employees as a sort of farewell, and tore it down over the following weekend,” says Ron Ibaven, inspector with Warner Bros.’ fire department.

“I’ve been here since the ‘70s and fought the 1981 and ’83 fires that destroyed some of the sets that we rebuilt at considerable costs. I’m very sad to see them go, but I understand the reasoning,” Ibaven said. In the rare instance when a western does shoot today, he noted, it’s usually on location.

A case in point is “Open Range,” which opens Friday. Star Kevin Costner directed the film in Alberta, Canada, after commissioning the construction of a western town.

Laramie Street’s oft-filmed, mid-street saloon’s swinging doors were saved for the Warner Bros.’ archive and museum, Ibaven said.

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Mounds of freshly bulldozed earth on the southeastern portion of the back lot are all that remain of the set that included the saloon, “Cattlemen’s Bank,” blacksmith shop, general store, cantina, church and dozens of other boardwalk-fronted facades. Some, like the saloon, had functioning and dressed interiors.

There were actually two parallel streets running north and south with a perpendicular street on the southern end and the bank and open space on the northern end. (The bank temporarily was transformed into a school for the blind on NBC’s “Little House on the Prairie” in the late 1970s, when the character of Mary lost her vision.)

Twenty years after “Maverick,” Garner reprised the role in NBC’s “Bret Maverick” (1981-82). It also was shot on Laramie Street, which now included a brand-new saloon, the Red Ox, following the fire.

According to film historian Marc Wanamaker, one of the earliest pictures filmed on the lot’s first western street was “Lone Star Ranger” in 1930. In 1933, director Mervyn LeRoy used the street for “The World Changes.” Paramount leased the street as one of three studio town sites utilized in Joel McCrea’s 1937 western “Wells Fargo.”

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Over the years and into the 1970s, there were additional streets, a western-style Mexican village set and a fort extending west from Laramie Street’s location, and even a railroad track on the southernmost part. Additionally, Warner maintained a location ranch in present-day Calabasas with a massive western town.

Laramie Street saw almost nonstop use in the mid-'50s to early ‘60s, when Warner Bros. TV was shooting ABC series like “Lawman,” “Sugarfoot,” “Bronco,” “Colt .45,” “Cheyenne,” “The Dakotas” and “Maverick.”

Garner recalls, “We’d have three [filming] companies within a hundred yards of each other. The dolly grips on ‘Maverick’ and ‘Cheyenne’ would literally be back to back.” Referring to the versatility of the streets’ design and “Maverick’s” creative, budget-conscious staff, “We’d make it look like a different town in the same show.”

The ABC comedy “F Troop” was an occupant in the mid-'60s, then the long-running “Bonanza” moved there, over the hill from Paramount in Hollywood, in 1970 for its final three seasons. “Nichols,” another Garner western; “Kung Fu,” starring David Carradine; “The Cowboys” with Jim Davis; and “The Quest” starring Kurt Russell and Tim Matheson followed in the early and mid-'70s, then another Maverick incarnation, “Young Maverick,” starring Charles Frank in 1979.

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“ ‘The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.’ [1993-94] was the last thing that regularly shot there,” Credle says of the Fox series that starred Bruce Campbell and Kelly Rutherford.

While all the major studios once had western streets, Universal’s is the sole survivor. Economic hardship coupled with increasing development was the culprit in many cases, as RKO lost its version in the mid-'50s, 20th Century Fox in the mid-'60s, MGM in the early ‘70s, Disney, Paramount and Republic (later CBS Studio Center) in the ‘80s and Columbia (now labeled Warner Bros. Ranch Facilities) more than 10 years ago.

With the transition to new buildings and sets, Ibaven says, “Warner Bros. is having a contest for its employees to name the new street.”

Like Garner, “Brisco’s” Rutherford (Dixie Cousins), who’s starring in ABC’s fall series “Threat Matrix,” cherishes her memories.

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“It was exciting getting the call sheet saying ‘location, Laramie Street’ [for the next day’s shooting]. I had the most fun there. We used to always walk around or ride our horses around those streets, so rich with history.

“You always did feel you were in another world.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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On the street where they lived

A sampling of movies shot on Warner Bros. Laramie Street set.

Errol Flynn westerns (1939-50)

“Calamity Jane” (1953) with Doris Day

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“Shootout at Medicine Bend” (1957) with Randolph Scott and newcomer James Garner

“The Left-Handed Gun” (1958) starring Paul Newman

“Cheyenne Autumn” (1964), director John Ford’s final western, with James Stewart

“The Great Race” (1965) with Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood and Jack Lemmon

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“A Big Hand for the Little Lady” (1966) starring Henry Fonda and Joanne Woodward

“The Good Guys and the Bad Guys” (1969) starring Robert Mitchum and George Kennedy

“The Great Bank Robbery” (1969) with Clint Walker and Kim Novak

“Skin Game” (1971), another Garner oater

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“Blazing Saddles” (1974), Mel Brooks’ western sendup, with Gene Wilder, Cleavon Little and Madeline Kahn

“Hearts of the West” (1975) starring Jeff Bridges

“From Noon Till Three” (1976) starring Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland

“Another Man, Another Chance” (1977) with James Caan

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“Wild Bill” (1995) with Jeff Bridges


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