An Old Hollywood Set Is Becoming a Real Destination

Hollywood’s classic Western heroes built the mock village of Pioneertown in the California desert. Half a century later it’s been reborn.

By Allison Williams February 26, 2020 Published in the March 2020 issue of Seattle Met

Believe it or not, this is a real motel.

“It’s fake. The whole thing is fake.”

Mike French is blunt as he stands in the dust of the Pioneertown street, amid wooden storefronts so cutesy they might as well be a human-size Playmobil set. It’s not a dis on his adopted hometown, a half hour north of Palm Springs; the place has been artifice since its birth in the 1940s. A cadre of Hollywood investors, including cowboy actors Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, constructed the mini town as a movie set that could double as their private desert hangout.

French and his brother came here to buy the aging Pioneertown Motel, originally built to house actors and filmmakers. “It was pretty kitschy when we found it,” he says. “A lot of doilies.” But the French brothers weren’t out to completely ditch the kitsch; their update retiled the showers, but added kicky rope curtain closet doors. Think an Ace Hotel by way of Blazing Saddles.

Once the 19-room hotel reopened, drawing a cool-kid Los Angeles crowd, the pair took a Puget Sound detour to buy and refurbish the Captain Whidbey Inn. When their focus returned to Pioneertown, they tackled the shuttered Red Dog Saloon, a film set Rogers constructed on Main Street (sorry, Mane Street) for the likes of The Gene Autry Show and The Cisco Kid, but also a working watering hole where Hollywood cowboys could drink after filming wrapped.

Red Dog will reopen in 2020 as a real bar with a menu from James Beard–nominated barman Eric Alperin, plus three meals a day and a grab-and-go menu. Mike French strolls through the space, past the original bar top carved with names, describing his vision—an 1880s saloon remixed with a 1970s roadhouse. “Don’t want to go too modern,” he says. A separate owner hopes to reopen the bowling alley a few doors down.

A visit to Pioneertown—the hotel or the greater community—means accepting, even loving, the hyper-Western camp: Mane Street is still mostly a faux-storefront roadside oddity. But contrary to French’s pronouncement, it’s no longer all fake. The hotel is a legitimate vacation destination, especially popular during Coachella. Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a restaurant and music venue inside the shell of an old cantina set, draws big names like Shooter Jennings and Kurt Vile.

LA artists have flocked to the area’s cheap cost of living, a vintage shop has opened nearby, and now, says French, Pioneertown is “a completely made-up idea, but paired with the desert counterculture.” A dusty simulacrum that becomes a living, breathing thing after an influx of genuine affection? Classic Hollywood.   

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