Hidden film set is a piece of Americana

By now, many locals have heard the legend of the larger-than-life movie set that Cecil B. DeMille built (and subsequently abandoned) in 1923 to film one of the first epic films ever created. There are many fascinating aspects of the DeMille movie set story, including what occurred during the post-filming years and how it brings the Central Coast community together. 

DeMille contracted with several major icons in the art world who descended on the Santa Maria Valley to create the movie set. Paul Iribe (later known as the “Father of the Art Deco Movement”) designed the set, which built Egyptian-inspired features for the 1920s palate. Edward Curtis, known for his anthropological photographs of Native Americans and portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, completed camerawork on the set. The movie set that Iribe designed and Curtis filmed was abandoned in mid-1923 after production.

One of the quirky parts of this story is that sphinxes from the film were subsequently transported to somewhat random locations. Two sphinxes graced the entrance to the Santa Maria Golf Course and disappeared for reasons we can only guess. Other sphinxes decorated private properties and served as grandiose lawn ornaments.

People came from distant places to pose with the mystery sphinxes that remained in the dunes. Photos that locals have shared with the Dunes Center show individuals and families posing with the faux Egyptian statuary throughout the 1930s. The sphinx currently on display at the Dunes Center has “May 1930” carved into the side of it, which tells us that it was exposed for at least seven years after filming.

It appears that the sphinxes (and the movie set) disappeared sometime during the 1930s because evidence of their existence vanishes until the 1980s, at which point the story takes another turn. An NYU film school graduate, Peter Brosnan, and his colleagues began their search for “The Lost City of Cecile B. DeMille,” which they found thanks to information from longtime locals. Once the group visited the site, Brosnan decided that the movie set would make great material for a documentary film. Little did he know that he was boarding a 30-year emotional rollercoaster ride that would have its ups and downs due to issues such as lack of funding, permitting, and a race against time.

When Brosnan began his quest to excavate and rehabilitate the statuary from the site where The Ten Commandments was filmed in 1923, his goal was to preserve a piece of cinematic history. During the 30-year process, however, he brought together a community.

His documentary film recently premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and featured oral histories that he collected from Santa Maria Valley area figures such as Clarence Minetti, Ernest Righetti, and Attilio DeGasparis. These individuals’ stories will forever be documented as a byproduct of the movie set excavation.

My favorite aspect of the archaeological project is that I get to meet amazing and generous people. Brosnan was able to conduct his excavation in 2012 thanks to “a nice lady in Texas” who financed the project. When the Dunes Center continued the excavation work in 2014, I had the pleasure of working with people who rallied around the project in order to see it through. The county of Santa Barbara contributed $80,000 from the Coastal Resource Enhancement Fund (CREF)—established to help mitigate significant impacts of offshore oil and gas development to coastal aesthetics, coastal recreation, coastal tourism, and environmentally sensitive coastal resources contributed by offshore oil operators.

The county enabled the Dunes Center to begin a fundraising campaign that brought together many generous individuals, including Dunes Center members, volunteers, and even a friend of my family. Thanks to the contribution from the family friend, the sphinx on display at the Dunes Center is named “Nora” in honor of my late grandmother.  This is fitting given that the last conversation I had with my grandmother before she passed away was related to The Ten Commandments project. She inquired, “Have you found anything new in the dunes recently?” I responded with, “Not yet, but I’m writing a proposal to the county to see if I can get more funding to conduct more archaeological work.” Grandma was also the person who first told me about the project when I was a teenager. She saved an article for me from the front page of the Santa Maria Times when news broke about the local archaeological site because she thought I would be interested in it. 

The movie set is extremely important on so many different levels. Where some may view the site simply as an old movie set that was left behind, I see a significant piece of Americana that represents opportunities ranging from educational programming to economic improvement through heritage tourism. People like to visit things that they can’t see or experience in their own hometown. The project brings people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds together that typically wouldn’t interact with each other. College students get firsthand museum experience while cataloging the artifacts. The objects that DeMille left behind expose global audiences to positive public relations about the community of Guadalupe.

The artifacts are great for local elementary school children as well. By the time a child in Guadalupe completes elementary school, he or she has visited the Dunes Center to learn about assets in the community. These experiences are important because they empower community residents with the knowledge that their heritage is important and teach lessons in civics to children at a young age. Visiting the Dunes Center also exposes children to the existence of a career field that they would otherwise be unfamiliar with. Sometimes these visits result in humorous and impactful stories. During a recent field trip, one mystery child left an unexpected treasure in the form of a video produced with an iPad available for visitor use. The student created a video about the secret of the sphinx excavated from the site where Cecil B. DeMille filmed The Ten Commandments in 1923 (which can be seen on our new YouTube channel). Magic moments like this are made possible because of this unique and special project and our supporters.

There are still many questions to be answered at the site where the first epic film was produced. We still don’t know exactly where the WWI-style tent city that housed thousands of people during the project was located, so archaeologists are conducting research by airplane to search for clues. We don’t know much about the demographic of people who worked on the set. Oral histories tell us that most of Guadalupe’s residents worked on the film in some capacity, but a large portion of the town’s population was of Japanese or Filipino origin at the time. The idea of people of Asian descent building a faux Egyptian city at a beach for a movie seems uniquely Californian. An unparalleled undertaking could have only happened on the Central Coast thanks to the convergence of thousands of years of natural forces to form our local sand dunes combined with the region’s proximity to the early blossoming film industry in Hollywood.

The immediate project that the Dunes Center hopes to conduct is an excavation that will reunite the “Nora” sphinx with her other half. We currently have a proposal pending with the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors for CREF monies that would provide for that excavation. The proposal, which will be discussed at a hearing on March 1, seeks to excavate more of the sphinx currently on display for preservation, exhibition, and public awareness. If the pieces that we excavate are in stable condition, tentative plans include excavating and restoring the remaining portion of the sphinx, sending it on the road to other museums where it will promote our local coastline, and reuniting her with her other half. The unification of the pieces will take place when the Dunes Center moves into a new museum located in the building that will be known as the Clarence and Rosalie Minetti Building, a legacy of two altruistic individuals who profoundly impacted our community.

The Dunes Center is only as successful as our supporters allow us to be. The budget for the sphinx excavation is $130,000. The Dunes Center is hoping that the Board of Supervisors will once again fund the project through CREF. If the Dunes Center receives an award, we will need to make up the difference between what the organization is awarded and the amount needed. Please consider writing a letter of support for the project before the supervisors’ hearing on March 1.

Lastly, please visit the Dunes Center. We’d love to have you!

Doug Jenzen is the executive director of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center in Guadalupe, sits on the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission for the 5th District, and is on the board of directors of the San Luis Obispo County Archaeological Society.

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