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Photos: Exploring The Music, Movies And Motorcycles Of Pioneertown

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First built as a film set for Westerns in 1946, Pioneertown has evolved over the years to become a colorful desert escape for music fans, artists and adventurers seeking a desert refuge.

Nestled in the hills of the Morongo Basin, roughly 125 miles east of downtown L.A., Pioneertown feels a world—and time—away from the city. The tiny, unincorporated community offers plenty of rustic charm and history, but remains very much a vibrant, living legend for locals and visitors. Perhaps best known to music fans for Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace, a venerable institution that regularly hosts big name musicians and local acts, the high desert town also has a thriving arts community, nearby hiking and climbing options, and more. And should a weary traveler need a place to bunk, the recently renovated Pioneertown Motel is a stylish, yet still laid-back place to unplug. You can even catch Western reenactments, thanks to the Mane Street Stampede shows and shop for locally-made crafts within the buildings of the old film set.

Pioneertown first took shape in 1946, when a group of Hollywood investors and actors set out to build a film set to shoot Westerns. Initially conceived by actor Dick Curtis, investors also included Gene Autry, Russell Hayden, Budd Abbot, gossip columnist Louella Parsons, Roy Rogers and members of his cowboy singing group, the Sons of the Pioneers, from which the name of the town came.

Intricately designed to resemble a late 19th century frontier town, Pioneertown not only featured detailed facades of saloons, banks and jails, the set also included interiors the off-duty casts and crew could use. There was everything from an ice cream parlor to a bowling alley, as well as the Pioneertown Motel for living quarters. Through the 1940s and 1950s dozens of movies and TV shows were filmed in Pioneertown, including The Cisco Kid, The Gene Autry Show and Judge Roy Bean. But as the age of Westerns began to wane, so did the popularity of Pioneertown as a filming location. In the 1960s, an ambitious project called "The Golden Empire" sought to turn the area into a destination with hotels, golf courses and restaurants, but thankfully the developer ran out of money and couldn't find enough water in the desert.

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Harriet and Pappy (Photo courtesy of Pappy & Harriet's)
In 1972, local Frances Aleba purchased several buildings along Pioneertown's Mane Street, including a set used in several films as a cantina. The "Cantina" became famous for its Mexican food, cold beer and frequent visits from large groups of bikers on their two-wheeled steeds. Then in 1982, the building was passed on to Aleba's daughter Harriet and her husband, Claude "Pappy" Allen, who reopened the joint as "Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace." While motorcycles still parked outside, the couple focused on more of a family-friendly outfit, offering Tex-Mex barbecue and live music. After Pappy passed away in 1994, Harriet continued to run the place, but eventually sold it to a friend and while the music continued, some felt that a bit of the magic began to fade. In 2003, Robyn Celia and Linda Krantz, who regularly visited the bar from New York, decided to buy the place on credit card loans with the hope of restoring the legendary venue to its former grandeur. "I think people feel free out here," Celia tells LAist when asked what continually draws fans to Pioneertown and Pappy & Harriets. "Plus there isn't any cell service, so people are present and actually focused on the music. Artists have said they feel like they are on vacation from their tour."

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Bikers at the Cantina, Pappy & Harriet's predecessor (Photo courtesy of Pappy & Harriet's)
In the years since, Pappy & Harriet's has only grown in popularity with everyone from headliners to up-and-coming artists playing both the small, unadorned stage inside the charming saloon, as well as the outdoor one. The venue also offers a level-playing field for musicians at all levels to perform in a laid-back, welcoming setting. There's even an open-mic night most Monday nights, where aspiring performers can make their mark.

The growing popularity of Pappy & Harriet's over the past decade is also credited with helping to spur the recent resurgence of Pioneertown, helping to bring more people out to the desert community. And while some locals might prefer to keep this desert refuge a secret, Celia explains that the community has still managed to maintain the casual charm that has long attracted people to the area, and the town and the bar have managed a symbiotic relationship. "There are more visitors to the desert in general, which has brought more people to Pappy & Harriet's, but the vibe is the same," she says. "I still see the look on first-timers faces and that makes me happy."

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Just down the road from Pappy & Harriet's, you'll find the Pioneertown Motel, a single story inn with seventeen rooms, which was recently bought and renovated by brothers Matt and Mike French. Originally from Portland, the duo bought the motel in December 2014 after visiting their parents in nearby Palm Springs.

"I guess you could say that we were captivated with the high desert and the sense of possibility in the same way as the original founders were, Mike tells LAist. "This place is truly unlike anywhere else we've ever been and the rich and somewhat mysterious history here is really exciting. The town was dreamt up by Hollywood's biggest stars and the opportunity to restore their historic motel was beyond exciting."

The brothers worked to restore and update the buildings without altering the rustic allure they've long been known for, and recently reopened the doors. Inside each room you'll find desert-inspired decor and designs, well-worn furniture, stone floors and weathered wood, as well as the options of king, queen and twin beds. Apart from Wi-fi, you'll find little in the way of modern distractions. Mike explains their aims in restoring the historic motel:

The main inspiration was to restore the property to its original character. The structure itself has a pitched roof and is made of thick old railroad ties that sit on a red concrete slab. The materials and texture of the building itself make the rooms feel more like cozy little cabins than motel rooms. A tremendous amount of the work was removing clutter and addressing deferred maintenance. Beyond that, the vision was to design the rooms to feel comfortable, timeless, and an aesthetic fit for the desert. We were not trying to reinvent the wheel here. The motel has never had TVs or phones and we wanted to keep it that way. Pioneertown is as much about what's not there as what is.

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Inside a room at the Pioneertown Motel (Photo by Annie Lesser/LAist)
The rooms are each named for the cowboy stars that founded Pioneertown, as well as some real-life Western legends like Annie Oakley. Mike explains that each room is rich in history from when they were used by Roy Rogers and the gang, and they're happy to share the tales. "The favorite story amongst guests is the tale of room #9," Mike says. "This room is known as 'Club #9' as it serves as Gene Autry's personal poker room during filming."

The Pioneertown Motel recently hosted a Sundown Speakeasy, where visitors and locals from the community were invited to enjoy booze, local food from nearby favorites like Pie For The People, crafts from local artists, music and more. The event was also designed to coincide with shows at Pappy & Harriet's from big acts like Miike Snow. The French brothers say the gathering as a great opportunity to connect with the rest of Pioneertown, and they hope to offer more events in the near future. "Opening our property to the community is incredibly important," Mike explains. "The Sundown Speakeasy was a huge success in that we were able to participate and engage our community in a genuine fashion."

With the reopening of the motel, the brothers hope to preserve and enhance the magnetism of Pioneertown that has drawn countless visitors over the years. They aim to be a part of the community that includes Pappy and Harriet's, as well as locals and tourists. Mike explains:

The identity of Pioneertown is what attracted us in the first place. The beauty of the high desert, an old Hollywood movie set, and the iconic Pappy and Harriet's; the history and character are incredibly rich. Hotels can often be a cornerstone and cultural anchor of a place and at one point, that's what the Motel was for Pioneertown. With the revival of the Motel, we aim restore its identity and become a beacon for anybody that wants to experience the authenticity and magic of the high desert.

Pappy and Harriet's is located at 53688 Pioneertown Rd, Pioneertown, (760) 365-5956; and The Pioneertown Motel is located at 5240 Curtis Rd, Pioneertown, (760) 365-7001.