July 1st, 2009
Utah filmmaker captures Kanab's Hollywood history in new documentary.
by Jonny Glines
Don't blink, or you might miss it. Located in Southern Utah, Kanab is your classic small American town. Except this one carries a glamorous history. With Bryce Canyon, Zion's National Park and the Grand Canyon all within reasonable distances, Kanab is an ideal spot for outdoor enthusiasts. But as tourists admire the red rocks and sand dunes, few realize that stars like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, John Wayne and James Garner once walked those same roads. Kanab has earned the nickname "Little Hollywood" for its history of being quite the hub for Hollywood Films. Now one Utah Filmmaker wants to bring the town's history into the lime light.
When Dixie State College Film and Writing Professor Stephan Armstrong took his first glance at the city of Kanab, he saw what most people see: a small, desolate town of less than 4,000 people located in Utah's southern desert. He knew about the town's film history, but was amazed by the extent that Kanab's role played in American filmmaking.
"I had no idea that Frank Sinatra or James Garner had made movies there," said Armstrong. "Once I picked up the history of the place, I was in awe of how Kanab has made its way onto the screen and into American culture."
Armstrong said that from the 1930s to the late 50s, directors and producers couldn't get enough of Kanab's open spaces and beautiful landscapes. Kanab was the home to major American western blockbusters such as "Buffalo Bill," "Union Pacific," Clint Eastwood's "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "Stagecoach" starring John Wayne and Jonh Ford, and of course, the very popular TV series "Gunsmoke."
So, what was Kanab's biggest draw for Hollywood's heavy hitters? It was cheap.
Instead of building a set in a Los Angeles studio, filmmakers just had to point and click to take great shots of western landscapes. There was also the element of having an abundance of cheap staff that lived in Kanab at the time. Locals often worked on sets and helped with production. In Armstong's documentary "Return to Little Hollywood," he takes us back to the sets of some of those movies and speaks with locals who had their hands in some big productions.
"We had a lot of pre-production for the film," said Armstrong. "We were tracking down the sites and where the films were produced. On shooting days, we'd knock doors and find people who had stories."
Armstrong says his documentary is filled with great interviews with people who participated in classic films and illustrates how Kanab played such a large role in American Filmmaking. "There were plenty of locals who would work in Kanab and then help make a movie or two," said Armstrong. "Some of these movies were very influential and helped shape filmmaking in America."
Several Dixie State College students helped with the making of "Return to Little Hollywood." Shooting for the film started last May and former KSL Anchor Dick Norris is the film's narrator, a voice that Armstrong says was a perfect match.
Unfortunately for Kanab, when the 1960s rolled around, westerns lost their appeal to American audiences, and Kanab lost Hollywood. Sci-fi and action adventure films were the new buzz. Armstrong hopes his film can help bring Hollywood back to Southern Utah. "The history hasn't been compromised, why not come back to make movies? Now is an ideal time to come back to Utah. Anyone looking at this film will say why not come back?" said Armstrong.
"Return to Little Hollywood" premiered in Kanab on June 17 and producers plan to show it across the state.