Our Visit to the Joel and Frances McCrea Ranch

It’s become tradition. Every year we visit historic classic movie-related sites when we venture into Los Angeles prior to the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. It’s a rare occasion, however, when we are invited for a private tour of a landmark that was once the home of movie legends. That’s exactly what happened in April of this year.

“Aurora, you ride up with Wyatt” one of my friends suggested as she sat in the Grieve SUV. I think it was Laura Grieve’s voice I heard. Laura, along with her husband Doug, is responsible for our visit to the Joel and Frances McCrea Ranch on that beautiful April morning. Man, oh man I couldn’t believe my luck as I climbed into Wyatt’s truck. The Wyatt I refer to is Wyatt McCrea, grandson of Joel McCrea and Frances Dee and I was about to ride up the hill from the ranch’s Visitor Center to the family home. Imagine that!

As we wound up toward the house Wyatt pointed to trees planted by Joel and Frances and several markers that pay tribute (still) to one of classic Hollywood’s most successful unions. The rich family life the couple forged for their three sons is evidenced throughout the property. I was transported to another time and place as the house came into view at the end of the narrow road. As were my friends no doubt.

Frances and Joel at the ranch

Married on October 20, 1933 (the same year Joel McCrea purchased the ranch) Joel and Frances enjoyed a 57-year marriage that successfully balanced Hollywood glamour with life on a working ranch. The Joel and Frances McCrea Ranch is now home to a Visitor Center, which houses a small gift shop, a museum and a screening room where we were treated to an introductory video. Then we toured the property with Wyatt and Docent, Betsy Metzgar both of whom shared stories about the McCreas’ life on the idyllic retreat. You can take a look at a short interview I did with Betsy here.

We navigated through a few of the small buildings on the property and all the while the stories charmed – one after another – as we stood exactly where they took place. For instance, it’s not difficult to imagine Joel McCrea talking to neighbors as he reclined in front of the small Bunk House that sits near the main road. This is where the couple spent a lot of their time in later years, rather than in the main house, which sits up on a hill. I can’t put into words how heartwarming the Bunk House is, by the way, with the best part being seeing the walls near the telephone filled from top to bottom with telephone numbers. Frances had a habit of using the walls as a telephone book both in the main house and in the Bunk House, something I found infinitely endearing. But I can go on and on about the many instances that fed our attraction to these people well beyond what we know of them on screen. The McCrea Ranch is an official historical landmark, but for us it’s even more that.

I imagine all classic film fans and history buffs can appreciate how special it was to enter a place so rich with the history and memories that mean so much to us. The Joel McCrea Ranch is located in Thousand Oaks, CA, about 45 minutes from Los Angeles I believe. It’s thanks to Betsy that we got the opportunity to visit and interview Wyatt, who is keeping the McCrea legacy alive not only by spearheading the Foundation, but also by acting as the voice of this unique piece of Hollywood history. You’ll get a great sense of that by our interview with Wyatt, which follows. I’ve no doubt you’ll enjoy the story of Joel’s and Frances’ wedding, the couple’s life together as well as many movie anecdotes:

The video features Laura Grieve who blogs at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings and @LaurasMiscMovie on Twitter, Annmarie Gatti, co-host of Classic Movies and More plus the force behind Classic Movie Hub and @ClassicMovieHub, and me. Not shown are Doug Grieve, who serves as planner extraordinaire for all of our Los Angeles classic movie-related expeditions, and Kellee Pratt who blogs at Outspoken and Freckled and @IrishJayHawk66. Both Doug and Kellee helped with cameras during the interview and general awesomeness aside. Logistics didn’t allow all of us to take part in the interview, but the day would not have been as memorable without everyone’s company.

Annmarie, me, Doug, Kellee and Laura at the entrance to the ranch where the historical site plaque is.

Following is a gallery of the pictures I took during our visit to the ranch. I put them in order (more or less) starting with our meeting that morning to our arrival at the ranch to our interview with Wyatt on the porch. This post and the interview are shared to honor Joel and Frances McCrea on what would have been their anniversary. I’ll never forget the time spent at their ranch and thank Wyatt, Betsy and my classic movie-loving pals for making it such a special day. The fact that we sat on that porch where the McCreas enjoyed leisure time and where they entertained famous friends still resonates.

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I imagine that if I lived within driving distance of the Ranch I’d attend the movie screening held there regularly. I strongly suggest you make plans to visit. The schedule of events can be found at the Joel and Frances McCrea Ranch Foundation. You can also make a donation to help preserve this magical place, which no doubt deserves to be supported. If the fact that it is an important piece of Hollywood history in its own right doesn’t move you, then do it for the rich film legacy Joel McCrea and Frances Dee left behind, a list of memorable movies far too long to make note of here.

I’ll leave you with images of the couple in the four films they made together. Frances and Joel met and fell in love during the making of John Cromwell’s The Silver Cord (1933) and ended their on-screen collaboration (much too early for this fan) with Alfred E. Green’s Four Face West (1948).


16 thoughts

  1. This is awesome! Thank you so much for sharing the interview and your photos. You are so lucky. Thank you for letting us get an insight into the private Joel McCrea, and seeing his home. I can tell how much this visit meant to you, it comes through strongly in your writing.

  2. Too funny – you are not a gal from the west it would seem – you titled the one slide as a photo of the McCrea ‘logo’ – that’s their old registered brand that would have been on the branding irons to mark the cattle with.

  3. Aurora, your invitation to experience this homage to an era of America’s Hollywood Glamour years is a testament to the great job that you do in keeping those memories alive for all of us who know its rich history. Your documenting your visit also serves as an introduction to those that are not aware of its importance–and who will be inspired to learn more of this by-gone era and follow in your footsteps. Continue to do what you do.

  4. Just a note. For Old Time Radio listeners and those that want more–Tales of the Texas Rangers was and still is a crime/detective/almost western that is superbly written and done. Joel is the crime solving cowboy that really sets a high bar. So pull the shades and enjoy the best of those days of radio.

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