Silver Screen in Silver State | Information Center
Cruise south an hour from Las Vegas on Route 95, drive past a strange car, past the cheerful cop patrolling, you’re not quite sure what.
Slow down as you glide through Searchlight proper, then snap quickly to the right and into the great nothingness of Nevada. Imperious sky. Disconcerting calm. Dirt road, and God help you if you don’t drive a truck or SUV.
At the end of this dirt road, nothing begins to return to something. The faint hum of insects in the bush; the breeze in Joshua; a sidewalk with a curious seal engraved in the concrete. It’s a square with two lines coming out of it. On the one hand, it could be an old portable TV, its bunny ears reminiscent of the distant reigns of Zenith and RCA. But this is a mistake of a few decades.
It’s an icon of something much older – the rugged, portable camera from the heyday of Hollywood that gave this place its name, a walking box. Wrapped in its cocoon of the Mojave Desert, the ranch is an artifact of the most modest excesses of the silent era, a happy survivor of benign neglect, and one of the state’s semi-hidden treasures that doubles as a ‘a primary resource for students of rebellious history.
Rex Bell was a cowboy pretender who wanted to be the real thing. Clara Bow was a meteor in the movie industry. Together, the two actors fled Hollywood for the desert hideaway. Bow, a star of silence, debuted in 1923 and quickly became one of the best box office draws in the country.
She was America’s original “It girl” – literally, as the star of the 1927 film. This. Betty Boop was modeled after Bow, the quintessential screen flip.
By 1931, Bow was nearly done with Hollywood, escaping with Bell to marry in Las Vegas and settle on his newly acquired ranch in Searchlight.
Bell, who starred in a series of westerns in the late 1920s and 1930s, purchased 400,000 acres of land in southern Nevada, stretching from the Piute Valley from the California border to the Colorado River. , so he can turn his cowboy characters into real life.
The Walking Box cattle grazed from Searchlight to where Laughlin would eventually appear. Bow made two more films in 1932 and 33, before retiring completely into private life to raise sons George Jr. and Tony Beldam (Bell’s first name was George Beldam) on the hacienda-style ranch that the couple there. built in 1931-32.
Tony would later change his name to Rex Bell Jr. – the name by which he would serve as Clark County District Attorney – and donate many of his parents’ artifacts to the ranch.
From Walking Box Ranch, the elder Bell plunged into a political career that culminated with his appointment as lieutenant governor of Nevada in 1954. It was a career that garnered excessive public attention and would go on. prove the fall of Bell and Bow’s relationship. His run for Congress in 1944 led Bow to attempt suicide.
The couple broke up (but never divorced) and Bow returned to California. In the early 1950s, Bell sold Walking Box to former ranch manager Karl Weikel, who in turn sold it to mining company Viceroy Corp., who used it as a corporate retreat in the years. 1990.
In 2005, UNLV, in partnership with the United States Bureau of Land Management, purchased the 160-acre Walking Box including the 6,300-square-foot Bell and Bow mansion (an early and significant example of neo-neo architecture). colonial Spain in Nevada long before the expanses of red – stucco-tiled houses dot the valley) and the surrounding lands and outbuildings.
With this acquisition, the university gained access to a surprisingly well-preserved property that could be used by generations of public history students from angles as disparate as pop culture, architecture, work, the West, agriculture, environment and equipment. cultural history.
Restoration of the ranch
Story Professor Andy Kirk came to UNLV in 1999 to help start the university’s public history program. The office of then-US Senator Harry Reid put the Walking Box on Kirk’s radar in 2001. Kirk helped secure a $ 250,000 National Park Service grant in 2004 which he passed on to UNLV Public Lands Institute to help cover the purchase of the property.
What he found when he stepped out there was this vast estate virtually untouched from the days Bow, to Norma Desmond’s spite, withdrew from the world.
âThe old saying in preservation is that benign neglect is preservation’s best friend,â Kirk said. âIf you leave a house like the Walking Box, just sit there in the empty desert, and maybe we don’t really take care of it. It’s much better than if everyone is interested and they tear up the kitchen, they tear up the amazing original bathrooms, or add a big addition that changes the character and the imprint. When this happens, the historical value of this place is gone.
In 2009, Public Lands, with the help of public history graduate student Aaron McArthur, helped place Walking Box on the National Register of Historic Places, giving it its place in the preservation firmament. As BLM’s restoration work over the past decade progressed in stages, along with the vagaries of federal funding, UNLV was on the sidelines of its role as curator of materials inside the ranch.
But finally, in 2018, it was time for Kirk and his fellow history professor Deirdre Clemente to retrieve the Walking Box artifacts from deep storage and start cataloging them at UNLV’s Paradise Campus. This was the first step in finally putting these items back in the Walking Box and restoring the house to its original glory so the Nevadans could get out and explore.
Along the way, they gave the public history students at UNLV a rich field to cultivate, even having the opportunity to hear Senator Reid personally give an oral history interview where he shared his memories of childhood on the ranch while growing up in Searchlight.
âThe most important thing with public history is that we try to work with the public and involve the community,â said doctoral student Paige Figanbaum. âWe’re trying to forge Hollywood and breeding and tell not only the story of Clara Bow and Rex Bell, but also the story of Searchlight and the Mojave. So, by using these objects that people can touch, people get these three-dimensional teaching tools and actually understand and see what this story is.
Kirk and Clemente’s one-year public history seminar is involved in presenting ideas, including to the BLM, on how to interpret and present ranch history to the public.
The house itself is largely preserved in its Depression-era splendor thanks to the stewardship of the Viceroy – the owners of the company wanted to preserve the character of the building. Bars remain on the window of the children’s room, a product of the paranoia caused by Lindbergh’s kidnapping in 1932.
Closets, worthy of a Hollywood wardrobe back then but now relatively quaint, still feature adjustable shelves to meet the demands of Western outfit from Bell and Bow kimonos. The vanity where Bow would apply her makeup is intact, as is her own purple-tiled bathroom.
The star of the house is the large hall, a huge open space dominated by a rough stone fireplace. This was the common room where Bell and Bow met with Hollywood friends like Errol Flynn, Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Around 1941, the Walking Box Ranch entertained General George Patton and his troops training in the Southwest.
The class has cataloged artifacts that trace the history of the ranch, with special attention to its early years, including the Great Hall furnishings that Clemente said should be brought back to the ranch this winter. This will be the first time that the original furniture has been put back in place since the 1940s.
âI studied in the 1920s, so to me it was like, ‘Do I have access to this place?’ âSaid Clemente. She first visited the ranch in 2010. âIt was instant love. This thing was unlike anything I had ever seen or understood. And in that semester I spent many days there and it made me fall in love with Nevada. You could feel the changes of the desert in the air.
With the furniture restored on the ranch, the challenge is to educate the public about the resource tucked away on the outskirts of Searchlight. It already receives groups two to four times a month, but it could become a destination for school trips and more frequent visits after the repatriation of the furniture.
A nonprofit group, Friends of the Walking Box Ranch, has recently formed so that community members can help organize tours of the property as well.
âSearchlight is amazing, and they love this place,â said Joe Varner, director of the BLM’s Sloan Canyon Nature Conservation Area. âThis place has been there for almost 90 years and there is no damage. I have a little BB hole in a window – that’s it. It has been crazy to me how much people love this place, take care of it and people know not to touch it.
This idea – that the Walking Box is something precious, crystallized in desert amber – is what makes it so valuable to historians and Nevadans in general. It might not have been what Rex Bell and Clara Bow had in mind when they built their Xanadu badlands, but the story doesn’t always live up to the intentions.
Bell believed he would serve Nevada by seeking his highest office. Instead, Walking Box could become its biggest public service.
âThere are some amazing breeding properties in Nevada,â Kirk said, âbut what’s unique about The Walking Box is this convergence of pop culture, breeding, Hollywood, the history of the environment and everything in between. There is nothing like it in southern Nevada. This place embodies the crossroads of multidisciplinary research which is at the heart of our public history program.