Update, July 8, 2023: According to the Desert Sun newspaper, “San Bernardino county staff are preparing a proposal to rezone Pioneertown’s Mane Street as Rural Desert Commercial land this fall, replacing a Special Development designation that has helped limit commercial activity — in some cases even the reopening of longstanding businesses — for decades. The new zoning could, in theory, leave Mane Street more open to anything from new mom-and-pop businesses to night clubs and chain stores… Robin Celia and Linda Krantz sold Pappy and Harriet’s in 2021, leaving its future trajectory somewhat uncertain…” Say it ain’t so, Dollar General.
About 35 miles north of Palm Springs, and 20 road miles west of the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, there’s a hidden gem waiting for the Mojave Desert adventurer. It’s called Pioneertown, and it’s well worth your time. Now, we’re not talking ’bout your usual town, fit for city folk. Once you’re on the outskirts of Pioneertown, you are about to enter a time gone by, where cowboys used to roam the streets, and frequent rowdy saloons.
Okay, well, maybe not real cowboys of days gone by, riding the range and all. This is more familiar indeed. In fact, Pioneertown was made for the likes of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. The cowboys of movies and TV. In fact, it’s a movie set that came about after actor Dick Curtis started the place in 1946 as an 1880s themed live-in Old West motion pictures set with property sold in parcels to encourage settlers. Some people still live here yet.
Along with Dick Curtis, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Russell Hayden and even Bud Abbott (of Abbott and Costello fame) were some of the original Hollywood investors. Each invested $500 dollars in the 32,000 acre real-life adventure.
There were other investors as well, and a corporation was formed to handle the office work involved in making a town come to life. Meanwhile, the singing cowboys were busy making movies for a public hungry for positive entertainment after World War II.
Gene Autry filmed every episode of his show at the six lane Pioneer Bowling Alley built in 1947. The bowling alley is still here. If you put your face to the plate glass window in front, you can see the lanes. If you let your mind wander, you might hear laughter from inside.
Roy Rogers himself rolled out the first ball in 1949. Eventually, Roy moved to Apple Valley to be closer to the places he loved, and started the Roy Rogers Double R Bar Ranch in nearby Oro Grande. The ranch is still in business. Wanna know more? Find our sister article and YouTube video in the links at the end of this story.
The first buildings established in town were real businesses. They included White’s Grocery, the Townhouse Motel, the Red Dog Saloon, the Golden Stallion Restaurant, Maggie’s Feed Barn, Nell’s Ice Cream Palace, Pioneertown Likker, the Klip ‘N’ Kurl Beauty Shop, Pioneer Bowl, Trigger Bill’s Shooting Gallery and the Pioneertown Gazette, for starters. The first business to open its doors was the land office. Starting price? $900 dollars a parcel.
More than 40 movies and episodic television shows were filmed in Pioneertown in the 1940s and 50s, including, The Cisco Kid. Mostly likely every kid in the 50s whose parents owned a TV set heard the iconic phrase, “Hey Cisco.” “Hey Pancho,” at the end of each episode. By the way, the actor, Leo Carrillo, played the part of Pancho. You might have heard of him. He gave a stretch of beach to the State of California. Yep, you guessed it, we also wrote a story about Leo.
While location movie shoots in today’s Pioneertown are rare, you can still see mock gunfights on Mane Street during weekends. Don’t forget to visit all the shops too.
Most houses, built for the actors and film crews, are now private residences but have retained the flavor of the Old West.
One can pet a goat, feed a chicken, buy goat milk soap, browse books, find unique handmade pottery and even corral their horse in a pen at Pioneertown.
In July 2006, parts of Pioneertown were burned in the Sawtooth Complex Fire, which also burned into Yucca Valley and Morongo Valley.
Among the buildings saved was Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a longtime roadhouse-style club and landmark built within the town’s original and only gas station.
Update September, 2023: Local resident, Gay Smith, recently shared with us, “Pappy and Harriet’s was originally the gas station for Pioneertown. It was vacant for years and when Benton Lefton started the Golden Empire (selling vacant land around Pioneertown in the early 60’s) he converted it to his Land Office. We bought one of our parcels from him there. It wasn’t until the 70’s that Francis and John bought the building and converted it to the Cantina. My husband, John Smith, and his friend, Bill Bragdon, stated the original Bravados and did shows on Sundays. That is why today, when we redid the Pioneertown Wild West Theater, our reenactment group took the name Bravados. I am trying to keep the flavor of the old town intact. My husband and I bought the 5 acres across from Pappy’s in 1969 from Russ Hayden. It is known as The Desert Willow Ranch.”
Aleba’s daughter Harriet and her husband, Claude “Pappy” Allen, bought The Cantina in 1982 and renamed it Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace.
Some said Pappy was human plutonium because after sitting by his side you felt radiated with creative energy. When country crooner, contractor and occasional actor Pappy Allen died at age 77 in 1994, hundreds of mourners of every walk of life from around the world attended his memorial. He is survived by his wife, Harriet, daughters Cheryl and Carla, a son, Jack, and numerous grandchildren. Singer Victoria Williams recorded a song “Happy to Have Known Pappy,” on her album release, Loose.
A local airplane pilot, Jay Hauk, owned Pappy and Harriet’s for a short stint before it was bought in 2013 by its present owners, vivacious New Yorkers Robyn Celia and Linda Krantz. From the outside, the property still looks rustic and unassuming. That’s part of Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace’s charm.
Over the years, the desert locale has become more inviting to young adults and big-city adventurers looking for a quirky getaway with Southwest ambience. The legendary bar has become an indie rock favorite with a vibe that can’t be matched. We must mention that Pappy and Harriet’s serves up juicy burgers, pulled pork sandwiches, salads, appetizers, and ice cold drafts at a reasonable price. Some of our favorites are their loaded potato skins and Santa Maria BBQ.
On October 13, 2016, Paul McCartney of The Beatles and Wings fame surprised everyone with an impromptu concert for 300 lucky fans who bought tickets at the door. Yep! That guy.
Other musical geniuses like Sean Lennon, Eric Burdon, Kenny Loggins, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, Leon Russell, Bonnie Raitt, and Lucinda Williams have also entertained enthralled audiences at Pappy and Harriet’s.
Many music videos have been shot in tiny Pioneertown. In 2016, Cyndi Lauper filmed her country music video called Funnel of Love in Pioneertown for her album, Detour.
In 2018, Rick Springfield featured Pioneertown in his music video titled In the Land of the Blind. The growing list of elective music videos is quite impressive, ranging from country, rock ‘n roll to gangsta rap with everything in-between to suit just about anyone’s musical tastes. Once you’ve been to Pioneertown, it’s fun to spot familiar locales in videos.
In recent years the town has been experiencing something of a renaissance—artists, entrepreneurs, and just regular folks looking to escape city stress are finding their way to Pi-town, as it’s called by the locals.
As of 2019, Pioneertown has a population of about 420. The town may be small, but it certainly isn’t sleepy. Originally offered at $90 dollars an acre in 1947, properties continue to skyrocket due to the popularity of Airbnb’s in the area.
The popular Pioneertown Motel has 17 rustic rooms available for overnight stays within easy walking distance to Pappy and Harriet’s on Mane Street. Each room features a different Western theme.
As Pioneertown is still considered a working movie set, commercial production and professional photography are allowed by permit only.
There’s a unique vibe here that attracts visitors from around the globe. You may discover lots of things in Pioneertown but cellphone service is not one of them. So bring a little patience and share your photos to IG later. We know it’s hard to stay off the internet for a couple of hours but you can do it. We believe in you.
Mane Street is open year ’round, 365 days a year, and is free. Be prepared to stroll on the wide dirt road, as no vehicles are allowed to drive past the posted signs on each end of Pioneertown to ensure the safety of pedestrians and the occasional mounted cowboy, alike.
The Mane Street Stampede performs shows free of charge on the 2nd and 4th Saturday of each month October thru June at 2:30 pm. The proceeds from any donations received are given to local children’s charities.
Don’t miss a hike in the Pioneertown Mountains Preserve just down the road and around the bend which protects 25,500 acres of desert wilderness under the auspices of the Wildlands Conservancy, located at 51010 Pipes Canyon Road. 760- 369-7105.