Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Visit to the McCrea Ranch

Sixteen months ago I had the pleasure of attending the Grand Opening of the Joel McCrea Ranch in Thousand Oaks, California.

Background on the history of the ranch owned by Joel McCrea and his wife Frances Dee can be found in my post on that wonderful day. The ranch, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is a fascinating intersection of California film and ranching history. My original post includes several photos of the ranch's Visitor Center.

Today I returned to the ranch as the guest of one of the volunteer docents, a lovely person who has become a friend thanks to meeting via this blog. What made this visit extra-special was the opportunity to visit areas of the ranch which are not yet available for public tours.

I found it very moving to see where the family lived and gain new insights into their personalities and lifestyle. The more I learn, the more Joel and Frances impress me. They were not simply highly accomplished film stars, but smart, kind people who had priorities which were quite different than one might expect from successful movie actors. They loved making movies, but their biggest love was working on their ranch, where they had a herd of cattle and grew oats and barley.

The front of the McCreas' ranch-style home:

The McCreas moved into the ranch very soon after their 1933 wedding and lived there for the duration of their 57-year marriage; Frances continued to live there for many years after Joel's death. I think some people would be surprised to learn just how simply the McCrea family lived. Their home, designed by John Byers, is sprawling, but many of the rooms are relatively small. Heat came from old-fashioned stoves placed throughout the house. The first few years they lived at the ranch they didn't even have a telephone!

The McCreas' chief interests are reflected throughout their home: family, the ranch, pets, books, music, and U.S. history. There are books in most of the rooms; the porch and a small sitting room which catches the afternoon sun must have been wonderful places to sprawl with a book. They had a television for a brief time but then Frances decided to get rid of it. Joel had a little TV in an office on the property where he could watch football!

Closer views of the front porch:

The living room window, above, looks out on a garden landscaped by Frances. There's a simple pool which was filled in the summertime, with a small cabana next to it; we were told Gary Cooper helped inaugurate use of the pool when it was first built. To the left is a treehouse built by Joel for his son Peter, who was much younger than his brothers:

The McCrea children, Jody, David, and Peter, led a happy, outdoorsy life. Their parents kept the boys' photos out of fan magazines to give them privacy and a normal childhood. They attended the local schools, rode horses, and worked on the ranch. Joel loved the beach and often took the family there; consequently, when Jody grew up and was in the "Beach" movies, he was the only one in the cast who actually knew how to surf!

The rear approach to the house from the drive,with an entrance to a mud room at the top of the stairs.  The kitchen is in the center, looking out over the windowboxes of flowers.  The boys' bedroom is further left, over the garage.  To the right is the maids' quarters.  A pair of sisters traded weeks working on duty with the family for many years. (The ranch foreman was with the family for over four decades!)

This little bunkhouse, seen below, is now over 120 years old. It served for years as Joel's office and the place where he would meet reporters. It's located near a main road, and Joel liked to sit out front and wave over passing neighbors to stop by for a visit.

After Joel's passing, Frances at some point moved from the more remote ranch house into the bunkhouse, which was easier for her to navigate in her later years. This tiny cottage, with a living room, kitchen, bedroom, and bath, would probably fit into the living room of my house. Her choice is yet another reflection of the simple lifestyle which was the McCreas' preference.

This sign hangs on the bunkhouse porch:

Joel's 1947 pickup truck is still parked near the bunkhouse, and it still runs!

The ranch must have been a wonderful respite from the filmmaking business not only for the McCreas but for their friends who came to visit. Alfred Hitchcock was a huge fan of the butter made in a milkhouse on the ranch premises! I also learned that the McCreas cared for Robert Taylor's horse when he served in WWII. He and Joel both graduated from Pomona College; Joel was a handful of years older.

The ranch is run by the Conejo Recreation and Park District which schedules periodic events. It's hoped that eventually the ranch will be open to the public on set days of the week.

There is much work to be done restoring buildings and making them safe for the general public, as well as countless other projects to preserve the ranch history and provide additional programs.

Classic film fans interested in supporting this endeavor can make tax-deductible donations at the Joel and Frances McCrea Ranch Foundation website.


Blogger Vienna said...

Wonderful, Laura. Thank you so much for this article and the lovely photos. I hope the ranch may indeed be open to the public one day.

1:19 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

Thanks so much for sharing your visit. What a treat to see the real life behind such favourite performers. There's a reason we're fans.

No phone? Now, that's living!

9:17 AM  
Blogger DKoren said...

Lovely post, and I really enjoyed seeing these pictures and reading your descriptions of the buildings and grounds. Love it.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm so glad you have all enjoyed it!

Re the phone -- until they had one installed, if you needed to reach them urgently you sent them a telegram! Frances had a habit of jotting phone numbers right on the wall around the phone in both the ranch kitchen and the bunkhouse, and they're all still there today.

Joel also had a cute saying along the lines that his ranch was "close enough for me to get to Hollywood, and far enough Hollywood can't get to me."

Best wishes,

12:02 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Why would their be a need for donations. Didn't McCrea-Dee leave a significant estate...?

12:45 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I don't know what all the financial aspects are, Barrylane -- much of their estate was tied up in land and much of that was donated to local charities and groups, such as the YMCA, Girls and Boys Clubs, Cal Lutheran University, and an Open Space Conservation Agency. The land where the ranch sits, as I mentioned, is now part of the Conejo Recreation and Park District.

I'm not privy to more financial information than that, other than knowing what has been and needs to be done: the ranch house was brought up to earthquake code and a visitor's center was built, the foreman's house needs extensive safety work, volunteer docents are being trained, and there is a desire to provide interpretive programs and activities for schoolchildren and the general public. Step by step work is being accomplished as the funds become available.

Best wishes,

12:56 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

This was just fascinating to read. Thanks for sharing in such detail. I look forward to visting that ranch sometime. I love both Joel McCrea and Frances Dee from their movies--and unlike many movie actors it's nice to learn something about them because they plainly didn't care about the Hollywood life and are one highly attractive couple who appear to have made marriage to each other work from beginning to end.

1:29 PM  
Blogger James Corry said...

I've said this before (I don't know if I've said it here on your blog Laura....but I certainly have to all my friends!)and I'll say it again; why Joel McCrea didn't play Jack Driscoll in "King Kong" is a mystery to me. He was RKO's top young star in 1932-33 and "Kong" was being shot concurrently with "The Most Dangerous Game" (in which Joel DID star)using the same sets, same director, same producer, same composer, and practically the same cast (Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Noble Johnson)but why McCrea didn't star in it is a mystery to me......Bruce Cabot was good, but he was no Joel McCrea.


6:06 PM  
Blogger Cliff Aliperti said...

Fantastic pics, Laura, thanks for taking us along on the tour!

2:43 PM  
Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

Oh wow! What a fantastic post Laura. Thanks for sharing pictures and some information about the Ranch. Would love to visit there some day.

12:49 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

So glad to know you all enjoyed it, I really appreciate you taking the time to stop by and vicariously share in a special day. :)

Best wishes,

1:44 PM  

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