Kanab Western moviemaking day; its stint as the No. 1 Hollywood branch location

Composite image. Background image shows the Parry Lodge in Kanab, Utah, June 10, 2016, with inset photo of a scene from Universal Studio's musical "Can't Help Singing" partly filmed near Kanab, Utah, 1943-1944 | Background photo by Reuben Wadsworth; inset photo courtesy of Utah State Historical Society, St. George News

FEATURE In the 1940s, it became known as “Utah’s Hollywood” because of its rising stock as a filming location for films of the Western genre, which was the most popular sort of film. At the time, most said the sweeping landscapes looked fantastic in Technicolor.

However, in the 1930s, Kanab was the town in the U.S. farthest away from a railroad for its size and had a population of less than 1,300 residents — not a place that seemed destined for movie setting stardom.

Kanab’s fame as a place most Americans would see on the silver screen or on the TV in their living room can largely be attributed to a set of three brothers – the Parrys – who gave movie studios the whole package — a full-service arrangement that included location scouting, lodging, transportation, catering and livestock as well as carriages and covered wagons, James D’Arc wrote in his book, “When Hollywood Came to Town: A History of Moviemaking in Utah.”

It wasn’t just the Parry brothers — Chauncey, Whit and Gronway — doing all the work, though. Nearly the entire town chipped in, serving as extras, wranglers, drivers and laborers. Townspeople even hosted movie stars and crew members when the town’s few motels had no vacancy.

The Parry Lodge essentially became the headquarters for major studios filming in the area. The Lodge started as a small, three-bedroom house owned by Justin Johnson. Chauncey Parry purchased the home in 1928 then a parcel of land directly north of the home in 1938, on which he built additional rooms, D’Arc wrote. He started expanding the home in March 1931, constructing what he called “summer cabins” just north and west of the central building and opened for its first tourist season in June 1931, at which time only two movies had been filmed in the Kanab area, “Deadwood Coach” and “The Big Trail.”

The Parry Lodge, which played host to many Hollywood stars over the years thanks to the efforts of the Parry brothers, Kanab, Utah, June 10, 2016 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Business wasn’t brisk at first, but Chauncey Parry made frequent trips to Hollywood with pictures of Kanab and the surrounding area in hand to meet with location scouts and studio executives to convince them to make their movies in Southern Utah. By 1938 the Parry brothers had started “to perfect their integrated system of negotiating with studios for locations (Chauncey), transportation and vintage wagons (Gronway), and food and lodging (Whit),” D’Arc explained.

A colorful local rancher, Merle “Cowhide” Adams, began working closely with the Parrys in the 1930s, handling the wrangling of livestock and horses for films, starting with “The Dude Ranger” in 1934 and continuing into the early 1970s.

“Cowhide’s infectious personality also got him onscreen parts in a number of films, some of them with dialogue,” D’Arc remarked. “Whether teaching young Roddy McDowall how to rope for the ‘Flicka’ pictures or working with Fred MacMurray on ‘Smoky,’ Cowhide Adams was a favorite of Hollywood movie crews and executives alike.”

Another local who was good with stock served as an extra in numerous films over the years and made many of the arrangements with the studios was Fay Hamblin, a grandson of early pioneer leader Jacob Hamblin.

The Parrys even invested some of their own money in the first movie filmed completely in the Kanab area, “Feud on the Range,” in 1939, which was followed by three other low-budget movies, one of which, “The Mormon Conquest,” was based on the settlement of Kane County. It had a short life, however, as it’s premier in Kanab on July 11 and 12, 1939, appear to be the only showings of the film, and all copies of it have been lost.

Also in the late 1930s, a group of 14 prominent Kanab residents became investors in the newly incorporated Security National Pictures, which constructed a 40 by 60 foot covered stage with an adjacent Western street in 1939, D’Arc noted. They called it “Utah’s Hollywood,” which was added to the masthead of the “Kane County Standard” newspaper beginning with the Sept. 1, 1939, issue.

The first major studio to do a movie in Kanab was MGM, who filmed “The Bad Man of Brimstone” there in 1938 and followed that up a few years later with “Billy the Kid.”

This historic photo shows Dean Jagger, star of the movie “Brigham Young,” walking with Mable Sanborn, Brigham Young’s daughter, Kanab, Utah, 1940 | Photo courtesy of Utah State Historical Society, St. George News

One movie filmed in the area with a lot of fanfare — a huge premier in Salt Lake City with the stars of the show speaking to sold out theaters — was “Brigham Young” in 1940 with Dean Jagger in the title role. Even Heber J. Grant, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the time, called the movie a “friendmaker,” D’Arc wrote.

Several other big movies were filmed in the area soon after, including “Western Union,” based on Zane Grey’s final novel, “Can’t Stop Singing,” a Western musical, and “Arabian Nights,” in which the area served as a stand-in for the Middle East, with the Coral Pink Sand Dunes as one of the “stars” of the show. Production of the movie required the construction of a road to the dunes, which was fully supported by the state of Utah’s newly formed Department of Publicity and Industrial Development.

The two staple backdrops for filming in the area, where numerous set pieces went up and down over the years, were Angel Canyon, also known as Kanab Movie Ranch (north of town and now home to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary) and Johnson Canyon, located northeast of town.

A 1945 “Saturday Evening Post” article titled “The Town that Learned to Act” by Florabel Muir called Kanab “Hollywood’s main factory branch.”

“It’s facilities, elaborate and constantly expanding, are available to all studios,” Muir touted in her article. “The region has more than 1,500 experienced film players on call including the neighboring Paiute and Navajo Indians.”

Some Kanabites even “donned a breechcloth and brown makeup” to play attacking Indians in some of the movies shot in the area, D’Arc wrote.

According to Muir, Kanab’s actors had the advantage of not having to pay Screen Actors Guild dues, since the guild’s authority did not reach farther than 300 miles from Hollywood.

Muir said that Kanab’s adult population were 100 percent movie actors, albeit actors who had never seen the actual Hollywood and never cared if they did.

“Everybody else in the world, it seems, wants to take a gander at the film lots and the stars,” Muir wrote. “Kanab can take ‘em or leave ‘em, and it does both with the utmost nonchalance.”

And by the same token, Muir noted, seeing big Hollywood stars didn’t excite Kanab residents of the time, either.

“A flock of screen stars strolling down Kanab’s dusty main street excites no more curiosity than a stray sheep dog chasing its tail,” she wrote.

In addition to her commentary on Kanab’s populace of the time, Muir gushed over how its nearby scenery appeared on film.

“The color camera translates to the screen paintings of breath-taking loveliness,” she wrote. “If you’re a movie fan, you’ve visited this grandiose fairyland by proxy many times.”

This historic photo shows preparations for a horse scene of Universal Studio’s musical “Can’t Help Singing” partly filmed near Kanab, Utah, 1943-1944 | Photo courtesy of Utah State Historical Society, St. George News

Despite all the superlatives of its surrounding red rock spectacle, however, there were several cases in which movie crews painted Southern Utah’s red sandstone so the colors would show up better on camera.

Muir, like D’Arc, was clear, however, that Kanab’s fame as a movie-making mecca did not come by chance, but by the hard work of the Parry brothers, who with their package deals gave any studio filming in Kanab a major bang for their buck.

According to Muir, once a film company arrived in Kanab, their worries were virtually over.

The Parrys would provide accommodations and food service at Parry Lodge as well as transportation for the actors, cameras, technicians and “all the impedimenta of a movie troupe,” Muir noted.

Kanab even had its own casting office, housed in an old gas station, where any type of actor, “from an Indian chief to a bathing beauty,” could be provided at a moment’s notice, she wrote.

For their efforts in facilitating moviemaking, the Parry Brothers made approximately $30,000 in 1944, according to Muir’s story, which doesn’t sound like much, but would be about $433,000 in today’s dollars.

Into the 1950s and 1960s, Kanab remained a staple for Western moviemaking, including hits such as “Buffalo Bill” starring Joel McCrea; “Pony Express” starring Charlton Heston; and “Sergeants 3” starring “Rat Pack” members Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.

In the 1950s, Westerns were as popular as ever.

“For most of the 1950s, Westerns accounted for between 18 to 34 percent of feature films, and, by the end of the decade, there were 48 Western series showing up each week on television,” D’Arc wrote.

During these two decades, several Western TV series were filmed in the Kanab area, including “Death Valley Days,” “Have Gun-Will Travel,” “Daniel Boone,” “How the West Was Won” and, most notably, “Gunsmoke,” whose home base was the Johnson Canyon set.

This 2010 file photo shows one the of the original buildings at the “Gunsmoke” set in Johnson Canyon near Kanab, Utah, Aug. 27, 2010 | Photo by Cami Cox Jim, St. George News

However, all movies filmed in the Kanab area were not Westerns. One grand departure was “The Girl in Black Stockings,” a movie whose plot was much like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” but predated it. The film was primarily shot at Parry Lodge itself and a few other locations around Kanab. Another was “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” chronicling the life of Jesus Christ and filmed largely in Glen Canyon before it was inundated by Lake Powell.

By the last half of the 1970s, however, the Western genre was on its way out, which signaled the end of major moviemaking in Kanab. The last major Western films shot in the area were “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” which starred Clint Eastwood, in 1976, and Walt Disney’s Western spoof, “The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again,” in 1978, starring comedians Don Knotts and Tim Conway.

D’Arc wrote that the filming of Disney’s satirical Western proved a symbol of the demise of the Western and Kanab’s place as a significant filming location for the genre, as a movie fort built in 1953 was severely damaged during production and never repaired.

“More than a half-century of moviemaking and movie promoting had come to an end,” D’Arc explained. “In its stead remains the old movie town in Johnson Canyon: a weathered, crumbling ghost, a fading witness to a time when Buffalo Bill Cody, Kit Carson, Wild Bill Hickok, the Lone Ranger, the Western Union company, George Custer, Matt Dillon, Paladin, Daniel Boone, Black Bart, Calamity Jane, Smoky, our ‘friend’ Flicka – and a camel or two – occupied the same expanse of real estate.”

Visiting Kanab — The legacy today

Even though Kanab’s golden age of moviemaking is over (there have been parts of a few films shot in the area since the late 1970s), the legacy of that golden age lives on. Parry Lodge is still going strong and boasts a large gallery of portraits of movie stars who once stayed there during its heyday.

L-R: Professional film stuntmen Buck Montgomery and Amos Carver perform at the 15th annual Western Legends Roundup, Kanab, Utah, Aug. 23, 2013 | Photo
courtesy of Cathy Williams, St. George News

Businesses on Kanab’s main drag sell many different wares as remembrances of its former glory, and one in particular, Denny’s Wigwam, plays up the Western-film backlot motif with everything from a horse-drawn carriage ideal for a photo opp to wisecracks emanating from a mannequin in an outhouse.

The Little Hollywood Museum boasts set pieces actually used in “Outlaw Josey Wales” which were formerly located in Angel Canyon near Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. Made to look like adobe, the set pieces are actually made of fiberglass. The museum offers visitors the chance to don Western props for pictures with an honest-to-goodness Western movie backdrop.

The museum also includes a restaurant serving Chuckwagon meals, a photography studio and a gift shop.

Some of the sets in Johnson Canyon are still standing but are on private land and very dilapidated after years of neglect.

In addition to the physical reminders of the Western moviemaking legacy is the annual Western Legends Heritage and Music Festival Kanab hosts every August that features a variety of events with actors who once starred in Western films as well as a parade with longhorn cattle, a wagon train, historic movie bus tours and a barbecue contest, among others.

Photo gallery follows below.

About the series “Days”

“Days” is a series of stories about people, places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.

“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.

To keep up on Wadsworth’s adventures, “like” his author Facebook page or follow his Instagram account.

Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.

Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series

Click on photo to enlarge it, then use your left-right arrow keys to cycle through the gallery.

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