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Wandering the West

by Larry Warren, Record columnist

With 30,000 Sundancers passing through town, and films projected on most flat surfaces (remember the guy who screened his film against a snow bank one year?), its hard not to think about the movies this week. I heard a story on the radio the other day that said the three top states appearing in theatrical movies are California, first, New York second and Utah third.

It’s no wonder. Filmmakers with a clever eye can turn downtown Salt Lake into New York City, and Salt Lake alleys into teeming Chinese cities. They can go to the Bonneville Salt Flats for sci-fi, horror and space films. The mountains appear in everything from road scenes in the iconic ’60s "Easy Rider" to Sundance founder Robert Redford’s "Jeremiah Johnson," a mountain-man epic filmed literally in his own backyard at Sundance Resort.

Speaking of Mr. Redford, how about his breakthrough role as the Sundance Kid in what is still my all-time favorite movie, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"? It’s Utah made. Go to the ghost town of Grafton near Zion Park and you’ll find the ranch buildings that were central to the tale.

Remember Harvey Logan challenging Butch (Paul Newman) to a knife fight for leadership of the Hole in the Wall Gang? Butch says he won’t fight until the rules are set.

"Rules?" Logan asks incredulously. "In a knife fight? No rules!" Butch immediately kicks Logan hard in the groin. Fight over. Butch rules. The corral still stands. Stand in Grafton, close your eyes, and you can see Newman riding the bicycle while B.J. Thomas sings, "Raindrops keep falling on my head" as lovely Katherine Ross smiles down through the window.

The mother of an old friend who grew up nearby was an extra in that corral scene, and their family motel hosted movie people over the years. He played piano as a lad and remembers well the night in 1962 Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, along with Marilyn Monroe, gathered around the family piano and sang while he accompanied them. The Rat Pack was in town to film "Sergeants Three."

Some river-running buddies remember when they pulled into the classic San Juan Inn in Mexican Hat to find Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd shooting pool. They were in the neighborhood to shoot "Back to the Future II" in Monument Valley.

Many southern Utah old timers have their own fond stories of those good old days, when John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Maureen O’Hara and Ronald Reagan camped in places like Kanab, Moab, and Monument Valley for weeks at a time while filming such movie classics as "Stagecoach" (Monument Valley) and "Rio Grande" (Moab), and TV classics like "The Lone Ranger" and "Gunsmoke" (Kanab).

Utah’s days as a movie location didn’t end when westerns faded. Look at the opening sequence of "Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade" and you’ll see Double Arch inside Arches National Park. Watch the gasoline tanker blow up in "Thelma and Louise" and you might recognize the 1950s ghost town of Cisco, north of Moab along the Colorado River. And when the gal pals gun it over the rim of the Grand Canyon, they’re actually at Dead Horse Point in Canyonlands.

On websites for movie hot spots like Moab and Kanab you can find maps of movie locations and match them up with some of your favorite films. In Kanab you can stand on the rock the Lone Ranger stood on in his show’s opening sequence. In Moab you can recreate Indiana Jones’s escape in Arches.

Utah has such incredible scenery, and such a wild, wide variety of it that filmmakers can turn the place into anywhere on the planet (or another planet see "2001 A Space Odyssey.") You can Google to find movies shot in Utah. I found 185 feature films and too many TV shows to count.

Back in the ’70s and ’80s the TV networks shot a lot of cheap TV movies of the week and, in those days, Utah was front and center because of all our "only in Utah" weird crimes. A lot of us in Utah TV news back then snagged parts in those, usually playing TV news reporters asking stupid, breathless questions. The best role I ever snagged was "man in blue coat" in "Incident at Marion." What? You don’t remember that?

Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.

THE VITALS:

Websites: http://www.film.utah.gov ; http://www.discovermoab.com/movie ; http://www.frontiermovietown.com

Insider tip: Stay at Parry Lodge in Kanab. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places. Maybe you’ll get John Wayne’s room.


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