Photography by Myles Pritchard
At one end of Pioneertown’s dusty Mane St – past the sheriff’s office, the bank, the bathhouse and the old Pioneer Bowl bowling alley – you’ll find the Likker Barn, which is home to the Pioneertown General Store. But good luck if you want to buy a pack of smokes, a lottery ticket or indeed a beer. If you’re in the market for a vintage denim jacket or a “chill vibes” herbal tincture, though, you might just be in luck.
Pioneertown is both an old Wild West film set and a real desert town, just over two hour’s drive east of Los Angeles and up a winding, four-mile road from the workaday town of Yucca Valley. But while the cowboys were once A-list Hollywood actors, today’s cowboys tend to be Los Angeles creative types in Wrangler cut-offs and ponchos – many of whom are setting up lives and businesses among the hay bales, wooden carts and other Old West ephemera.
“I never realised that there would be so much creativity in the desert,” says Sarah Tabbush, the Pioneertown General Store’s owner, dressed in her uniform of vintage cowboy boots, hat and denim shirt. After three years in town, she opened the store this year, finally giving up her LA career doing marketing for Tom’s shoes, with a mission “to showcase all the makers and creators out here”.
I never realised that there would be so much creativity in the desert.
Across the road is the Pioneertown Motel, whose lobby shed – surrounded by artfully curated cacti – has become the most Instagrammed spot in town. The motel’s owners, brothers Mike and Matt French, bought the kitsch old motel in 2014, ditching jobs in events and hospitality respectively, and moving from New York to give the 19 rooms a desert-chic makeover (“We had to get rid of a lot of doilies,” notes Mike).
The brothers host DJ sets and cook-outs in the desert, and recently bought up three houses and an Airstream on Mane St for everything from yoga classes to sound healing sessions and salon dinners.
Pioneertown started with a very different kind of creativity, founded in 1946 by a group of A-list Hollywood cowboys including Roy Rogers, Russell Hayden and Gene Autry – who bought up a 32,000-acre tract of land, judging that the area could stand in for Texas or Arizona as well as California.
Naming the town after The Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers’ singing troupe, Pioneertown was different to other film sets in that there was life, and real homes, behind the facades. While filming shows like The Cisco Kid and and Judge Roy Bean, Autry and pals would host poker nights at the town’s motel, while Rogers bought property on Mane St.
But this curious little place wasn’t always destined to become a hipster mecca. As the appeal of Westerns faded in the 1960s, there were plans to turn Pioneertown into a “real” holiday destination, with ritzy hotels and golf courses. As the plans failed to materialise, decay set in.
“It was pretty awful here for a while,” recalls Gay Smith, an indomitable former schoolteacher who moved to Pioneertown in 1966 with her late husband, and who now hosts staged Wild West shootouts on a set she built on her land. “You’d have bikers fighting and running around with no clothes on. By the mid-70s, the town was falling into disrepair.”
You’d have bikers fighting and running around with no clothes on. By the mid-70s, the town was falling into disrepair.
But a turning point came in 1982, when the local biker bar was taken over by Harriet Aleba, who opened Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace with her husband Claude “Pappy” Allen, who would sing while she cooked homely Tex-Mex.
As Pappy started bringing live bands, the saloon went from biker burrito bar to family-friendly live music institution. It was already a famous spot by the time Aleba sold her beloved bar to Robyn Celia and Linda Krantz, a gay couple from New York, in 2003 – but Celia and Krantz upped the volume even further, hosting festivals in the back yard and drawing acts like the Arctic Monkeys, the Dandy Warhols and Paul McCartney, who played an impromptu gig here last year.
“When Paul McCartney played, we thought that might have been when Pioneertown peaked,” says “Big Dave” Johnson, the legendary security guard at Pappy and Harriet’s, who we meet on a Monday night, with the bar packed for open mic night. “But, you know, it keeps getting better.”
Dave, suitably, is also a glass-blower and fronts his own tribute band, Hammer of Ozz. His imposing stature (matched by his voluminous beard) seems largely wasted on the “security lap” we observe, as an alt-folk band from Yucca Valley plays on the stage. Instead of throwing people out, Dave spends the lap giving out high-fives and bear hugs as locals call out his name. All appears well in Pioneertown.