Digging up a piece of Hollywood history

Strong winds scour the dunes, which hide a curious history. Nails and fragments of concrete are scattered everywhere. Steel cables, carved pieces of wood and slabs of painted plaster poke out of the ground, ghosts rising from the grave.

In 1923, Cecil B. DeMille came to the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes on California's Central Coast and built a movie set that still captures the imagination -- a colossal Egyptian dreamscape for the silent movie version of "The Ten Commandments."

Under the direction of French artist Paul Iribe, a founder of the Art Deco movement, 1,600 craftsmen built a temple 800 feet wide and 120 feet tall flanked by four 40-ton statues of the Pharaoh Ramses II. Twenty-one giant plaster sphinxes lined a path to the temple's gates. A tent city sprung up to house some of the 2,500 actors and 3,000 animals used to tell the story of Moses leading the Israelites to the Promised Land.

"Your skin will be cooked raw. You will miss the comforts of home. You will be asked to endure perhaps the most unpleasant location in cinema history," DeMille told his army of actors. "I expect of you your supreme efforts."

When he was done, the set proved too expensive to haul away, but too valuable to leave intact for rival filmmakers to poach. DeMille had it bulldozed into a 300-foot-long trench and covered with sand.

Peter Brosnan was a 30-year-old New York University film school graduate when he first heard the story in 1982. Over beers one night, a former college roommate laid out the fantastic tale of DeMille's lost city.

"I thought my friend was nuts," Brosnan said.

Then his friend showed him DeMille's autobiography, in which the director seemed amused at the prospect that his city would be unearthed someday.

"If 1,000 years from now archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe," DeMille wrote, "I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization . . . extended all the way to the Pacific coast of North America."

Captivated, Brosnan embarked on a journey that has yet to end -- a quest to find DeMille's set, exhume it and produce a documentary about this unusual piece of Hollywood history.

The project would take him from film industry archives to the living rooms of aging ranchers who worked as extras on "Ten Commandments." He filmed their stories: How the "Hollywood boys" got thrown from unbroken horses; how a local 10-year-old with no acting experience played the pharaoh's son and was schooled by DeMille to put some mustard into his whipping of Moses; how the director ferried 240 elderly Jews from Los Angeles to witness the Exodus reenacted. The recent immigrants broke out into an impromptu dirge that stunned the crew.

Brosnan also collected stories from locals about the dozens of films shot outside Guadalupe from the silent era to the 1940s -- a time when the dunes were Hollywood's backlot for desert movies and ranch hands had fleeting encounters with Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich.

Clarence Minetti, 92, is among the few still around with a connection to those days. He appeared in "The Last Outpost," a 1935 film starring Cary Grant. The dunes were colonial Iraq.

"We were British soldiers or something," Minetti said. "Paid $5 a day for me and my horse."

Minetti pointed Brosnan to one dune out of the hundreds that flow across miles of the spectacular nature preserve. It didn't shift in the wind. In fact, it never moved. One foggy morning in June 1983, Brosnan and two friends climbed Minetti's dune with brooms and a movie camera. Hours later they hit pay dirt: dozens of pieces of statuary, including a 6-foot-wide bas-relief of a horse head.

Brosnan and archaeologist John Parker developed a plan for the excavation. DeMille's estate offered encouragement. A Smithsonian Institution curator expressed interest in displaying pieces of the set. Charlton Heston, who played Moses in DeMille's far more famous 1956 remake, sent his best wishes.

"We were ecstatic," Brosnan said. "We were young, idealistic and thought: What a wonderful movie this is going to make! We thought certainly we could get some money from Hollywood and we'd be finished with this project in a year or two."

But in Hollywood, green lights are as ephemeral as a starlet's blown kisses. Despite years of effort, Brosnan could raise only a portion of the $175,000 needed for a full-blown archaeological dig.

Yet his passion for DeMille's lost city never waned. Now, after 27 years, Brosnan believes he's close to obtaining a grant that will allow him to use inexpensive editing software to fulfill part of his project -- a film showcasing his oral histories on Guadalupe's days as a stand-in for exotic locales.

"I didn't realize when I started this project that it was going to become an epic of its own," he said.

Brosnan's intimations of a breakthrough are welcome news in Guadalupe, a struggling farming town that has largely neglected its film heritage.

"For years people around here knew DeMille's set was out there in the dunes, but the attitude was, 'Yeah, big deal,' " said Shirley Boydstun, 81, a member of the Guadalupe Historical Society. "If it wasn't for Peter, this history would have been totally gone."

Guadalupe is the Zelig of the Central Coast -- a speck on California Highway 1 that has had more than its share of brushes with history. Portola's expedition passed through in the 1700s. Father Junipero Serra brought the first cattle. Lt. Col. John Fremont and his troops camped in town in the mid-1800s and accidentally torched its oldest adobe.

Guadalupe's Hollywood golden era ended in the mid-1940s when studios traded the wilds of Santa Barbara County for location shooting in the Sahara and Middle East. In later decades, Guadalupe earned a new reputation as a town where gambling, prostitution, drug dealing and corruption thrived until federal authorities cracked down in the 1980s.

"Guadalupe has always been the whipping boy of Santa Barbara County," said John Perry, 71, who like other old-timers is protective about his hometown's rich but conflicted history. "You never hear any of the good things about it."

Perry is Guadalupe's unofficial historian and his NAPA Auto Parts store is often mistaken for an antique shop. It's crammed with local artifacts: the dome light from the city's first police car, a 1949 Chevy; a wooden staff used by Valentino in "The Sheik," filmed here in 1921.

Locals know Perry collects stuff, so things just show up on his doorstep. That's how he came into possession of the plaster blob sitting in a glass case -- a sphinx claw from "The Ten Commandments."

"I should put a sign on it," Perry said. "When people come in and ask me where the lost city is, I tell them, 'I don't know. Maybe that's why they call it the lost city.' "

It's said there's a home in town built entirely with lumber scavenged from DeMille's set -- although no one, it seems, can tell you where it is. For years, two rescued sphinx statues guarded the entrance to a local golf course, where they slowly disintegrated.

Brosnan has brought overdue attention to Guadalupe's Hollywood era. His discovery of the buried set in 1983 made headlines worldwide. A few years later, a grant from Bank of America, which helped bankroll DeMille's movie, allowed for radar to be used to pinpoint large forms, including the giant statues of Ramses II. The 75th anniversary of "The Ten Commandments" in 1998 brought more headlines -- but not enough money.

Brosnan found himself wandering in a wilderness of creative indifference.

Today, he is 57 and the shoulder-length hair of his youth is close-cropped and gray. Brosnan had moderate success writing screenplays, but eventually shelved his Hollywood dreams for a master's degree in clinical psychology and a job as a Los Angeles County social worker handling child abuse cases.

"I got tired of suing people to get paid," he said. "I was writing films I wasn't happy with. Men with big guns. I saw folks in their 40s and 50s who were still hustling around town, trying for their big break. They were sad characters, and I didn't want to end up like them."

But the boxes of filmed interviews from Guadalupe stored in his garage nagged at him. He stitched together a rough cut of his documentary and published a booklet on Guadalupe's film history.

"Thirty years later, I still think it's a great idea for a documentary film," he said. "The people of Guadalupe have been wonderful to us. I'd like to see this benefit them."

A steady trickle of film buffs find their way to the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, where chunks of DeMille's set are on display, including a bas-relief of a pharaoh's head reassembled by Brosnan's team.

The center recently put out a news release announcing that Brosnan's documentary would be released this summer. This made Brosnan nervous, since he is still talking to Paramount about getting permission to use clips from "The Ten Commandments."

Nevertheless, there are grand ideas floating through Guadalupe. Maybe the movie can premiere at the restored Royal Theater. Maybe the Dunes Center can sell DVDs to support its environmental work. Maybe this will revive the idea of hosting a classic film festival. And who knows: Maybe it can reignite interest in excavating DeMille's lost city.

"There's so much material out there," Brosnan said. "It might be a good place for a university to train archaeologists."

Perseverance Moses himself could appreciate.

mike.anton@latimes.com

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