In 2000, The L.A. Times published a first-person account written by former census bureau trainee Virginia Leaper, who recalled a sunny California Day during the Spring of ’70, where she’d been assigned (on the last day of training) to survey the infamous Spahn Movie Ranch, where the Manson Family had allegedly plotted the ritualistic murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others. Charles Manson was already in custody and awaiting trial, but a handful of his followers still resided at the ranch with its then 81-year-old owner, George Spahn. As Ms. Leaper tells it, these zealots knew the government had Manson locked down, yet still believed he’d return to them any day, cleared of all charges.

Leaper had heard the rumors regarding the old blind man and the “hippie” commune on his ranch. According to local legend, the young women that still counted Manson as their savior kept Spahn satiated with visceral pleasures (i.e. food and sex), to the point that the geriatric groundskeeper turned his cloudy eyes away from the nefarious happenings on this dusty home front. However, on the afternoon this hapless census employee turned off Santa Susana Pass Road onto the dirt trail that led to Spahn’s ranch, she found Manson’s harem suspiciously eyeing her after she entered its elderly owner’s home. While Leaper asked Spahn a series of questions (all contained in a “three-pound” binder), the dirty faces in the room multiplied, closing in and making her quite uncomfortable.

One question in particular brought the rather routine inquiry to a spooky halt:

“You have a ranch hand who lives here, don’t you, Mr. Spahn? Is his name Shea?”

Something caused me to look up. The eyes of perhaps 10 people were all focused on me.

I had a sudden flash of what I represented to these people. Not the war-protesting, civil-rights-advocating liberal I believed myself to be, but a personification of the Enemy. I was someone of the generation from which they had cut all ties, a member of the Establishment and a person conducting a government survey who might just be a police spy. I thought of the Manson Family’s epithet, PIG, written in blood at one of the murder sites, and I regretted my decision not to take a police escort.

After what seemed like a very long pause, Spahn answered, simply, that Shea wasn’t there anymore. I hastily got Spahn’s signature and, with trembling hands, put my materials in my satchel and turned to go.

Imagine living with that story for the rest of your life, knowing that a simple survey assignment could’ve led to you becoming a victim to America’s most famous mass murder cult. Even after the Spahn Movie Ranch burned down in September of ’70 (courtesy of a wild brush fire), and was subsequently sold off to a land developer, an eerie mystique still hung over the expanse. What used to be home to numerous TV Western productions (the long-running Bonanza being one of them) now became a haunted locale, readymade for lurid, exploitive recreations. “Family” pictures The Other Side of Madness (’71), Manson (’73), and Manson Family Movies (’84) all either used documentary footage or performed re-enactments on those old stunt stages, trying to capture whatever creepy aura remained in the wake of these ill-famed psychopaths.

Now, Quentin Tarantino is constructing arguably the greatest tribute to the Spahn Ranch with the upcoming Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (’19). On top of casting Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie (as Roman Polanski’s doomed, pregnant bride), Burt Reynolds has been cast as Spahn, hoping to add one more notch to his already storied belt via the old coot who housed Manson and his unwashed mob on those sprawling 494 acres. It’s a casting coup that’s both a dream come true for avowed mustache enthusiast Tarantino, that also inextricably links Once Upon a Time In Hollywood to the Ranch’s blood and acid tinged history. To wit, in a career full of homages to cinema’s past, QT is creating a flesh and blood link to the New Hollywood brink in which his newest piece of pulp fiction is set.

William S. Hart and Duel In the Sun (’46)

William S. Hart was born into show business. The son of successful Broadway performer William Surrey Hart, his father was also one of the first big screen Western icons, and became a massive box office draw during the ‘20s, earning the nickname “Two-Gun Bill” in silent thrillers such as Wild Bill Hickock (’23) and Singer Jim McKee (’24). Hart Sr. even went on to write his own Western novels after retiring and handing the acting reins over to Old West titans such as Tom Mix, including the ‘29 autobiography My Life – East and West. He was viewed by many critics as a beacon of virtue, representing justice and the American Way with a gun belt strapped to his hip.

The establishment of Hart’s ranch stretches back to The Homestead Act of 1862, which provided that any American adult citizen who’d never borne arms against the U.S. government could claim 160 acres of surveyed property west of the Mississippi. In 1897, James Williams staked his claim to a stretch of California dirt that would later become a piece of the Spahn Movie Ranch. It wasn’t until movie production companies moved into Southern California that William S. Hart – obsessed with keeping his father’s legacy alive – purchased the Williams stretch, with the intention of constructing a stable for stunt horses.

A shelter soon became a full-blown sound stage, as numerous filmmakers were attracted to the desolate landscape. Westerns were obviously still en vogue during the ‘40s (what with legends like Howard Hawks and John Ford churning out their innumerable classics), and David O. Selznick utilized Hart’s newly established dustbowl arena to produce his genre staple Duel In the Sun (’46), starring the one and only Gregory Peck. Two years later, Hart sold the ranch, which passed through several investors until a dairy farmer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania came along and transmuted it into a television mainstay.

George Spahn and The Lone Ranger (‘49 – ‘57) 

George Spahn purchased the ranch in 1953. The Lone Ranger had already been filming episodes there for about a year, and Spahn decided to continue renting pieces of the property out for the production to use as a small screen vista. Bonanza came next in 1959; another half-hour Western serial that found Spahn’s scorched earth to be the perfect backdrop for the Cartwright Family’s numerous adventures. Spahn was already 70 years old, so it was all easy money for him, as the codger relaxed in his ranch home and collected occupancy checks.

Family friendly TV series weren’t the only programming that was being recorded at the Spahn Movie Ranch, as a few pieces of drive-in fare and sexploitation set up shop. Fledgling schlock artist Vic Savage (Street-Fighter [‘59]) lensed “best worst movie” contender The Creeping Terror (’64) there, before wizard of gore Herschell Gordon Lewis helmed his fleshy softcore cowboy romp, Linda and Abilene (’69). Something Weird Video staple The Sadistic Hypnotist (’69) also soaked up the locale’s perverse atmosphere, as a semi-conscious car crash victim is whipped and raped by wicked Wanda (Katharine Shubeck) and her clan of S&M hungry followers.

But it was Al Adamson’s biker throw down Satan’s Sadists (’69) that actually filmed on the Ranch after this rather unsettling collection of free love weirdos had moved onto Spahn’s land. Many of the actors involved (including star Regina Carrol) were alarmed by the shambling, unkempt zombies who called the desert home, and showed up to watch them film each day. Others even wore guns while patrolling the production’s perimeter, harassing female performers and crew before Adamson had them thrown off set. Chaos had arrived at Chatswood, California, as one of the most heinous crimes in American history was about to take place, and Satan’s Sadists was the last major motion picture to call the Spahn Movie Ranch its base of operations before that fateful fire in Fall ‘70.

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