Discovering the “Ghosts” of Paramount Ranch
Let’s get this out of the way- the popular new ‘Ghosts’ of Paramount Ranch tour, a free hour-long tour offered by the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, is not particularly spooky. In fact, the scariest thing I encountered the evening I went was when Park Ranger Scott Sharaga, who spearheaded the event, asked the rambunctious crowd if they had ever had a ghostly encounter. A middle-aged man, who self-identified as a paranormal investigator, raised his hand and began to recount all the ghosts he had discovered during his investigations. He had even caught the elusive, internet-created Slender Man on camera! A little boy standing next to me tugged at his mother’s hand, his eyes wide with fright.
“Mom, Slender Man isn’t real, is he?”
“I don’t know, honey,” his mom replied.
And thus, a child’s nightmare was born!
While the tour was short on ghostly tales, it did offer a fascinating glimpse of the history of the lovely 326-acre Paramount Ranch. Famed for its “Western Town” set and hiking trails, the ranch is nestled in the mountains of Agoura Hills, just off the 101.
The ranch’s Hollywood history formally began in 1927, when Paramount Studios bought 2600 acres of the old Rancho Las Virgenes. “Ghost Towns of Filmdom to Rise Near Calabasas!” The Los Angeles Times proclaimed, as Paramount moved its old outdoor sets, hundreds of livestock, and resident ranch-hands and cowboys from their old ranch in North Hollywood to their new digs. By 1929, a reporter visiting for the New York Times marveled:
On its vast acreage are assembled many other things never seen before on a Western ranch. Swiss villages adjoin tropical hunting camps and hobnob with frontier trading posts. Trenches and barbed wire entanglements scar part of its brown earth. A Western village slumbers peacefully under the warm sun, and minarets of oriental palaces reach up for the blue of the sky… Main buildings, aside from those erected as film sets, are the ranch house, a big bunkhouse, shops for the electrical carpentering and painting equipment.
Over the next two and a half decades, dozens of classic movies were partially filmed at the ranch. These included The Virginian, starring Gary Cooper; Sign of the Cross, with Claudette Colbert; Blonde Venus, starring Marlene Dietrich; Klondike Annie, Nothing Sacred, Ball of Fire, The Island of Lost Souls, Bwana Devil, and countless Westerns.
Paramount sold the ranch in the 1950s, during the final decline of the old studio system. This allowed the evolution of the ranch’s most infamous period. In 1956, a two-mile race track was erected on the property, the outlines of which can still be seen today. Thousands of people attended its inaugural races, and the track became known for its hairpin turns and lack of safety precautions. These dangerous conditions culminated in one deadly weekend in 1957. According to Sharaga:
The final weekend had three serious crashes- two of them fatal. The first fatality happened on a Saturday when a driver lost control of his car going into turn 1 after the long straightaway. This, of course, shocked everyone that was there that weekend, but they decided to keep the races going. The next day, a driver was killed while exiting turn 3. His car fishtailed and instead of going under the straightaway bridge, slammed into the side of it and was ejected from his car. One racer recalled hearing the scraping sound of metal, and seeing a helmet rolling around afterward; it affected him for the rest of his life. Shortly thereafter, the track's insurance was canceled and it was closed to racing forever.
Over the next twenty years, the ranch went through several owners. A 300-odd acre parcel was still used for filmmaking, and the closed track was utilized for movies, including The Love Bug, Spinout, and the Devil’s Hairpin. Appropriately, the remaining Western Town was repurposed into the infamous Spahn Ranch for a TV movie about the Manson family. By 1979, ranch manager Dee Cooper explained that he had transformed the Western set into a ghost town. “I get more use out of it that way,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “The studios have Western streets, but they don’t have ghost towns.”
Sharaga was sure to take us to a clump of tall oaks called the “Witches’ Wood,” so called because of the witches and warlocks who populated the area during the residency of the annual Renaissance Pleasure Faire from 1965 to 1988. “The spirits that you would have encountered here in those days weren't the ghostly kind, if you know what I mean,” Sharaga joked.
The National Parks Service purchased the ranch in 1980. It was opened as a public park but also continues to be used for filming, notably serving as homebase for the creepily popular Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman from 1993-98.
After exploring Western Town at night- an inherently atmospheric experience- we wrapped up the night at a small country church built specifically for HBO’s Westworld, under a beautiful blanket of stars. There had been no ghost sightings or true ghost stories (although the crowd did gasp once at the neighing of a horse). Sharaga ended the night giving us an astronomy lesson, which scared me a bit, but only because I hate space.
Sharaga admits that the tour’s name is misleading. “Originally, the tour was in the morning and didn't really have an eerie theme to it,” he explains. “We launched it earlier this summer and had zero people attend (two weeks in a row!)” After rebranding it and moving it to the evening, attendance has boomed- the last ‘ghost’ tour drew 288 people. The ranch plans to continue leading these evening tours and will be holding a Halloween Scare-amount Ranch event the night of Oct 27th. They’ll supply the old Wild West atmosphere and fascinating Hollywood history, but you’ll have to supply the ghosts.
I will be talking murder, mayhem and mystery in the three-part documentary Horror at the Cecil Hotel, which premiers Oct.16th on Investigation Discovery at 10pm EST. If it's your bag, I do hope you'll watch- and check me out sounding VERY serious in the commercial below!
I am so excited about this! In THIS, my first history for LAist, the story of Hazel Glab- the scheming, murderous flapper who captivated inter-war Los Angeles. UPDATE: since THIS tool shutdown LAist, I have republished the story below.
Hazel Glab: The Murderous Media Darling of 1930s L.AIn the fall of 1965, Hazel Belford Glab Stoddard, a tiny, well-dressed woman with graying hair and a defiant attitude, entered a Los Angeles Courthouse- a space she was intimately familiar with. “The clack of high spikes on her smart two-tone shoes sent echoes vibrating along corridors,” a reporter for the Los Angeles Times wrote. Hazel was there because of a feud with a former friend, who she claimed had taken papers which were precious to her. When asked what they were, Hazel explained they were writings she hoped to include in “a book about the people in my life.” This proposed tell-all was one many 20th century Angelinos would have loved to read.
According to census records, Hazel was born in the Oklahoma territory in 1894 to Sue and John Belford. She claimed to have been mentored by the cowboys and train robbers of the Old West and would live her life in many ways as a modern-day, murderous cowgirl. By 1910 she was orphaned, and living in Kansas with her extended family. “Beautiful, child-like,” and blonde, Hazel dreamed of being an actress. In 1912, she had a small role in the Thomas Ince film The Deserter. According to Hollywood historian Mary Mallory, she married a salesman and then a taxi driver. Both marriages were short-lived.
By the early 1920s, Hazel had landed in Chicago. In appearance a good-time, glamorous flapper, Hazel was, in reality, a hard-edged bootlegger, cavorting in the dangerous underworld of prohibition. Like many 20th century desperados, Hazel flitted from one city to the next, dancing professionally for a time with Phillip Ainsworth, the former husband of tragic screen-goddess Barbara La Marr. In 1925, in Chicago, she met John I. Glab, a supposedly upstanding and very married druggist, who owned a pharmacy across from the Cook County Hospital. The two began an on-again, off-again affair, even as Hazel carried on with a Los Angeles Police officer named William R. McIntire. Hazel moved to Los Angeles and lived for a time with both McIntire and Glab, who had also decamped to L.A.
Hazel quickly began to get in trouble with the law. In 1925, she was accused (but not convicted) of orchestrating the hold-up of a friend. In 1927, during a raucous party, she shot McIntire during a fight over her relationship with Glab. McIntire received a flesh wound to the neck and lost his job with the LAPD, but he refused to press charges.
This show of loyalty was not rewarded. For in early 1928, Hazel married the wealthy and newly single Glab in Reno, Nevada. The couple bought a large, Spanish style home at 12744 Ventura Blvd. Hazel was now lady of a fine estate, situated high on a hill, with a servants’ cottage and lush grounds. According to the Los Angeles Times, she “entertained lavishly for many in the motion picture colony,” and shopped prodigiously.
But Hazel’s happy high-life would be shockingly short lived. On the foggy evening of June 18, 1928, Hazel went to visit McIntire at his apartment for a “few drinks and to chat.” She then shopped at a Japanese market with her teenage niece, Ethyl Kaser, who was visiting from Oklahoma City. When they returned, Hazel did not park her sedan in the garage. Instead, she parked 70-feet away from the couple’s driveway on a small side street.
A little after 9 pm, a shot rang out in the quiet upscale neighborhood. A man’s voice began to cry for help. A neighbor named Mrs. Goodrich ran to her window. “As soon as I reached my window I heard a door in the sedan slammed and saw a woman running along the wire fence,” Mrs. Goodrich told police. “She turned into the Glab gate and a second later I heard a house door slammed shut.”
Neighbors and the Glabs’ servants rushed to the sedan. There they found John I. Glab, sprawled half in and half out of the car, a bullet in his chest. He died while being rushed to the Van Nuys Hospital murmuring the name Martha- the wife he had left for Hazel.
The police, immediately suspicious, brought Hazel and Ethyl in for questioning. Hysterical but resolute, Hazel declared that she had sent her husband out to buy cigarettes, and that neither she nor her niece had heard the shot. Questioned all night, Ethyl backed up most of Hazel’s tale, but claimed they had heard the commotion outside:
We were sitting at the table near the end of the living-room divan playing pinochle when the shot was fired. “What is that?” I said to Aunt Hazel…and jumped up to run to the window at the rear of the living room. “Sit down, don’t run up there and make a target of yourself,” she told me, so I returned to my place at the table.
Hazel blamed her husband for his death, claiming that he was a bootlegger. “I believe my husband was slain by Chicago gunmen,” she told the LAPD, “whose enmity he incurred while he was engaged in illicit liquor traffic in that city.”
However, those who knew the Glabs believed otherwise. Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, the Glabs’ live-in help, asserted that the 5-month old marriage was already disintegrating. Mrs. Wilson claimed to have heard Hazel shout “I’ll kill you” during one particularly vicious argument. “Monday morning he came out into the yard and told me that ‘she’ was getting too high-toned for him,” Mrs. Wilson told police, “and that he guessed he would return to Nevada where he had mining interests.” She also revealed that Hazel had a small light-colored gun of the same .32 caliber which had killed Glab.
The police were satisfied that Hazel was their killer. On June 21st, Hazel and Ethyl were charged with murder. The story, featuring two beautiful young women, became a national sensation. Articles delved into the twisted life of the “Oklahoma Two-Gun Girl,” and every move Hazel made was followed by the press. The Los Angeles Times reported on a visit she made to her Ventura Blvd. house, before being sent to the city jail:
Mrs. Glab was particular to obtain several changes of clothing for herself when she visited the home, but failed to take anything for her youthful niece, who is in the Juvenile Hall and jointly charged with the murder. The two prize-winning Chow dogs which Mrs. Glab exhibited so much worry over will be taken to a downtown dog boarding home to be cared for.
Quickly, the case disintegrated. Without a murder weapon or confession, police realized they would never be able to secure a conviction. Hazel and Ethyl were released on June 27, and all charges were dropped. “I knew we would be freed without having to stand trial,” Hazel told the press triumphantly. “The charge was ridiculous in the first place. I had no reason to kill my husband.”
Hazel stayed in the news, fighting numerous court battles with Glab’s former wife, Martha, over his estate. Amazingly, it seems she ended up with a substantial portion, including the Ventura Blvd. home. She also jumped right back into her shadowy life. On Christmas morning 1928, police discovered Hazel and a man named Herbert Frazelle in a driveway “beating each other over the heads with loaded revolvers.” Both were bleeding. Frazelle was charged with drunkenness, but Hazel got off scott-free.
She continued her destructive, hard-partying, violent ways. By 1934, she was destitute- forced to sell the Ventura Blvd. house and living with a fellow wild-child, Thelma Dabney.
Hazel was ready for her next big con. According to Dabney:
Mrs. Glab announced she was about to meet downtown a man named “Rosie” who would introduce her to a millionaire. I went downtown with Mrs. Glab and we met Rosie and also Fred Steeger, a friend of Mrs. Glab. Mr. Steeger told Rosie that Mrs. Glab was a “clever girl” and just the type to handle Cheney.
Albert L. Cheney, the millionaire in question, was a retired manufacturer, lonely and alcoholic. Hazel soon moved in with him and quickly convinced/forced him to marry her. On March 12, 1935, the two went to Las Vegas to be married.
Tragically for Hazel, Cheney died from a heart attack the night before the wedding. But Hazel was not ready to lose out on her alleged fiancée’s substantial fortune. According to court documents:
The day after Cheney's funeral Fred Steeger drove Mrs. Glab to a stationer's store where she bought some ink and an ink eradicator, advising Steeger that she wanted to do something with a paper in her possession with Cheney's signature upon it. In fact, in December 1934, she had told Steeger that she had Cheney's signature upon a piece of paper, blank except for some numerals on the left-hand side….Mrs. Glab wrote a will on the sheet of paper above Cheney's signature and the two Steegers then signed it as witnesses.
The purported will, written in bright purple ink on hotel stationery, the numbers clumsily erased, read in part:
“All my property, personal belongings and insurance policies go to my future wife, Hazel Belford, and I do make her executrix without bond.”
Not surprisingly, Cheney’s daughter immediately challenged the will in court. The national news media was titillated, and all the L.A. papers clamored for an interview. Legendary newspaper editor Aggie Underwood, then a reporter for the Herald-Express, got to her first. She convinced Hazel to give her an exclusive interview, and the two fled from the rival reporters who were hot on their tail. Underwood remembered:
She seemed to enjoy the game of cops and robbers that followed…As one reporter overtook us near Eighth and Catalina Streets, where we had gone for her to return a borrowed automobile, she loyally beat him off with a rolled-up newspaper, jumped into the waiting Herald- Express car, and resumed with me the flight I had instigated for the Herald Express.
The two eventually ended up at Underwood’s home. “When we arrived there, forty little Girl Scouts had foregathered with the food they had brought from their homes,” Underwood wrote. “Hazel -it was Hazel and Aggie by then- pitched in and cheerfully helped serve dinner. The kids liked the well-dressed woman who was so kindly.” They later went to another safe-house, where the two women got drunk with other members of the Herald-Express staff.
Hazel had overplayed her hand. During a dramatic trial, which included the near fatal beating of Thelma Dabney by an unknown, pro-Hazel assailant, it was proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Hazel had forged the Cheney will. She was convicted in December 1935.
But Hazel had bigger things to worry about. In the fall, the LAPD had quietly reopened the unsolved murder of John Glab. On January 12, 1936, flush with new witnesses, they charged Hazel with his murder.
The trial was a sensation. The D.A. presented their new theory- that Ethyl had lured Glab out of the house, telling him Hazel wanted to speak with him outside. Hazel, laying wait in the car, had shot Glab and then sprinted to the family garage, where she hid the gun in a secret compartment in one of the couple’s large automobiles.
Numerous witnesses came forward, including one who claimed Hazel had offered him $500 to “bump off that husband of mine.” Mrs. Goodrich testified hearing high-heeled shoes which “went clickety-clack” down the street in the moments before and after the murder. Even a spiritualist, who had met with Hazel before her marriage to Glab, took the stand. “I told Hazel there were lots of dark clouds hovering over her and that a dark man was coming from a journey,” she told the court. “I asked her if she knew the man and she said ‘Yes, and I’m going to get him before he gets me’.”
Hazel held fast to her innocence, placing the blame on her old flame McIntire. “I did not kill my husband,” she testified. “W.R. McIntire killed him. The police told me that during the original investigation.” Tellingly, Hazel’s niece Ethyl, the one person who may have saved her, refused to come from Oklahoma City to testify on her behalf.
After a 24-hour deliberation, the jury convicted Hazel of second-degree murder. In April 1936, she started on her journey to Tehachapi Women’s Prison to serve her sentence of 7 years to life. A “gay” Hazel, “waving cheerful farewells,” beamed for newspaper photographers as she was taken to a waiting car in Los Angeles, holding tightly to a detective magazine. “Don’t say I cried or carried on,” she told Aggie Underwood. “Because I’ll be back.”
Remarkably, Hazel was back in a relatively short time. Secretly paroled in 1941, she immediately went back to her brazen ways. “Prison didn’t break Hazel Glab,” Underwood wrote in 1949.
Over her remaining decades, Hazel was arrested for pandering, threatening former friends’ lives, and accused of sleeping with a policeman on the night of his wedding. She married at least two more times and popped up periodically in the press. Although she got her papers back in 1965, her autobiography was never published. She died on Sept 9, 1977.
In my latest for Ventura Blvd. Magazine- the heartbreaking, inspiring and beautiful story of artist and Holocaust survivor David Labkovski, and how two amazing women are using his artwork to teach kids about history, empathy and responsibility. Buy on newsstands if you're in the Valley, or read THIS digital issue (starts on page 78).