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Movie dreams at Diamond Lake

Did you ever dream about being a movie star?

Right after Labor Day 1945, Jackson County residents, with stars in their eyes, were having the very same dream.

“Hollywood types” from Universal Studios were at Diamond Lake, preparing to film the popular western novel, “Canyon Passage.” Holiday travelers found the lodge booked solid, but even so, were content just to watch set designers recreate pioneer Jacksonville on the south shore of the lake.

With a Mount Thielsen backdrop, the California “movie magicians” built cabins, sheds, and a ranch house from timber they cut themselves. After a replica belfry was nailed to its roof, an old Civilian Conservation Corps building became a church. And just to bring even more color to this Technicolor movie, the browning leaves on shrubs and trees were each painted green.

But the big news was the studio was hiring local people as extras. “Wanta Get In the Movies?” asked the headline. You bet!

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Posse was ready to ride again, even though it had just finished performing at the Rogue River Round-up. Riding 80 horses, the Posse would play bad guys, good guys and Indians.

Some of their wives also got parts in the picture, but they were surprised and somewhat annoyed to find that the skillful touch of those make-up artists had turned them into bearded men.

One of the extras, Martha Miller, described her experience. “Everything was a beehive of activity. There were many cameras, and reflectors of silver leaf that almost put your eyes out if you looked directly at them. Everywhere you looked there was action—cows, horses, mules, ducks, chickens, carts, covered wagons, plows axes, pots, pans, old furniture and people everywhere. I enjoyed it to the utmost.”

Just as shooting was about to begin, eight Hollywood horses and five Hollywood mules staggered out of their trailers to join them. An 1,100-mile journey from Universal Studios had ended on the shores of Diamond Lake.

“Canyon Passage” had its “World Premiere” in Portland July 13, 1946. A week later the film came to Medford’s Craterian Theater.

“We are looking forward,” said a Mail Tribune editorial, “to our own preview of ‘Canyon Passage.’ With its brilliant cast, its familiar scenery, and its generous sprinkling of neighbors rigged out in grease paint and pioneer costumes. …The picture is filled with eye-appealing scenery of hereabouts … It is the most pretentious drama of Oregon and the Northwest to reach the screen.”

The editorial meant pretentious in the good way.

Over 18,000 tickets were sold during the first week in Medford with no movie stars or celebrations, but plenty of excitement and curiosity. With advertisements that screamed, “THE GLORIOUS SAGA … FILMED AT CRATER LAKE … IN LIVING TECHNICOLOR …WITH MANY OF OUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS,”— just about everyone HAD to see it.

The film was so popular it was held over for an “action packed” four more days. Theater owners recommended that patrons avoid long lines and purchase tickets for the late afternoon performance in advance.

Musician Hoagy Carmichael wrote and performed four songs in the movie including the Oscar nominated, “Ole Buttermilk Sky.” However, the song most agreeable to the ears of many Rogue Valley old-timers was “Rogue River Valley,” and Carmichael was just the first of many singers to record it.

For many years, KBOY radio DJ, Tom Carnes, began to play a copy each evening at the station’s signoff. Until the station was sold in the early 1970s, “Rogue River Valley” was KBOY’s traditional signoff tune.

Canyon Passage wasn’t the first or last movie filmed in Southern Oregon, but definitely one of the more popular. How could it miss? Locals recognized the beautiful locations and scanned each scene looking for the real stars — friends, neighbors, or maybe even themselves. It was nothing less than a dream come true.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.