“Helen Gibson and The Rodeo Grounds”

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The development of Topanga Beach happened quickly after a public campsite was created there in 1919 by two brothers, manager Miller Cooper and Deputy Sheriff Archie Cooper.

Dancing was popular at Cooper’s Camp, and musicians were the first group to see the potential of the new resort. In 1920, members of the Los Angeles Symphony and Philharmonic Society arranged with the Coopers to build cabins, first for weekend parties, then for a summer camp. They were George Leslie Smith, Caroline E. Smith, William Edson Strobridge, Sylvan Noack, Mildred Marsh, Olga Steeb, and R. D. Shepherd; their cabins may be the same ones that still exist as the Topanga Ranch Motel. 

A more ridiculous opportunity was seized upon by Abraham Franklin Frankenstein (1873–1934), who composed the music for the official state song, “I Love You, California.” Trying to collect evidence for his divorce trial, he hired detective John McCaleb to make out with his wife Gertrude on Topanga Beach. He also had them followed by a witness, Fred J. Lee, who testified in court: “Mr. McCaleb put his head in her lap—or rather, she pulled his head down in her lap.”

The year 1921 saw 150 “beach cottages spring up like magic.” These houses were mostly for vacation use, making them vulnerable to break-ins. 

The Smiths, who managed the Philharmonic auditorium and orchestra, had their cabin broken into seven times in six months. Surprisingly, Police Officer H. E. Gregg and a friend were caught dancing there with their dates in the early morning hours. Archie Cooper made the arrest with deputy sheriff George Saunders, who lived in a nearby cabin. However, the Smiths later said that they had given Gregg permission to be there.

At another break-in, Archie and Saunders discovered 20 men and women at a table spread with food and “indications of something stronger than tea.” This sophisticated “joy-riding party” was organized by 23-year-old F. S. Rubio of South Los Angeles, who got into a fight with the deputies when they arrived to arrest everyone.

The Cooper brothers were New York natives who romanticized the spirit of the Wild West. Behind their campsite, they created their own Topango Ranch, which went back 4,000 acres into the Canyon. Therefore, they were excited when the next group of people discovered their resort: cowboys.

“…the famous Cooper’s Camp north of Santa Monica, today boasts of an honest-to-goodness, rip-roarin’ bunch of cowpunchers: also, some of the niftiest cowgirls that ever wielded a wicked six-shooter or roped a roarin’ bronc.” (“Topango Ranch Has Truly Western Color,” Santa Monica Evening Outlook, September 2, 1921)

They were especially thrilled to meet cowgirl movie star Rose “Helen” Gibson (1892-1977), who had brought along this posse to film her new Western. 

Archie reported: “She can ride high and fancy; bucking bronchos [sic] are her matutinal [early morning] pastime and she can bulldog a steer as good as any man that ever flung a rope.” (“New Movie Outfit Permanently at Topango Beach,” Santa Monica Evening Outlook, August 30, 1921)

Archie recalled a film shoot two years earlier, when “a famous English actress had to be lifted onto her pony for equestrian scenes.” He boasted that Gibson brought a “real rodeo culture.” The area would later be known as the Rodeo Grounds. 

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Gibson started out as a teenage rodeo performer who could pick up a handkerchief from the ground at full gallop. She came to Venice with the Miller-Arlington Wild West Show and found herself looking for winter employment at the end of the 1911 season. Fortunately, the entire show was hired by filmmaker Thomas Ince of the Inceville studio, located at the present-day intersection of Sunset and PCH. Helen rode her horse there from Venice every day to perform tricks in Ince’s Westerns, becoming the American film industry’s first professional stuntwoman.

Gibson’s first featured role was in Ranch Girls on a Rampage (1912), in which cowgirls visit a Venice Amusement Park and become so rambunctious that they are chased out by the police. The film starred Ruth Roland, one year after she had filmed A Chance Shot (1911) at the Topanga Beach Native American burial ground.

Gibson’s biggest role was in The Hazards of Helen (1914-1917), the longest serial in history with 119 episodes. She played a telegraph operator who turned into a kind of superwoman when problems arose, saving the day with incredible stunts like jumping onto moving trains, racing motorcycles, and standing on galloping horses. The studio re-named her Helen after her character.

In August 1921, Gibson began working on a Western with costar Bob Burns and Jack Ganzhorn in the role of the villain. The film would be shot entirely at the Topango Ranch. Unfortunately, the financiers, I.X.L. Productions, went bankrupt during filming and never paid the actors. Worse, riding horses during the film shoot caused complications from appendicitis. She was  hospitalized. By the time she recovered, the studios were no longer hiring her, and she had to sell all her possessions to survive. The working title of her Topango Ranch film was Going Some, but the film appears to have been released by a different production company the following year as Thorobred (1922). It is one of the estimated 75 percent of silent films that are lost.

For the next five years, Gibson supported herself by performing at rodeos and Wild West shows again. When she returned to acting at age 35, she only did small parts and stunts, yet she was able to maintain a solid career that lasted until the 1960s.

One cowboy actor who stayed on working at Topango Ranch was Wallace Jones Willett or “Jonesy” (1898-1970), a double for star Ken Maynard. In July 1922, like a scene from a Western, Willett helped solve a crime by recovering a safe from the bushes with two other Topango Ranch cowboys, Clarence Ditman and “Red” Steeb. Bandits had tried to pry open one side of the safe, then given up and thrown it away. Inside were several thousand dollars in stocks, bonds, and checks stolen from the Bellflower post office. 

Willett  would go on to become a rodeo calf roper, and the manager of the Orcutt Ranch on Oat Mountain above Chatsworth. 

The Topango Ranch’s first official rodeo was thrown on August 27, 1922, by Archie Cooper in honor of his boss, Sheriff William Traeger (1880-1935). An astonishing 1,500 people attended, and three world champions performed: trick rider Buff Brady, bronco rider Hank Potts, and Roman rider Benny Crawford. Two 10-year-old children also performed: “Dolores Steelman, a small deaf and dumb girl who gave an exhibition of trick riding, and Newton House, who rode a calf.” 

An even larger rodeo was held to celebrate the opening of a new bridge across the Topanga lagoon on June 24, 1923. The straighter route was part of the new Oxnard-San Juan Capistrano Highway, an improvement that the Coopers protested as unnecessary, since it cut right through their campsite only to stop at the Malibu Rancho gate. Nevertheless, the rodeo seemed to have been fun for all, and Helen Gibson even returned to perform in it.

Thousands of persons from Santa Monica and neighboring cities attended the barbecue and rodeo yesterday afternoon at Cooper’s Ranch…. Several long lines were formed by the rodeo visitors before the improvised tables where the barbecued meat and “frijoles” were served, while long benches fashioned after those used in army camps were the dinner tables. 

Occasionally, wandering hungry mules stole up behind the dining folk and purloined food from the paper dishes. Coffee was served in ranch tin cups of large capacity. Local color also was added to the rodeo by the numerous stands which affected being operated as those of the days of ‘49. Preceding the rodeo, there was an entertainment by dancing girls, while speakers representing Southern California Automobile club [Carl McStay], the State Highway commission [William H. Carter], and Los Angeles board of county supervisors [R. F. McClellan], were heard. Spectacular horsemanship was shown, not only by the numerous ‘buckaroos,’ but by Grace Teed, Marrietta Gregory, Miss M. Carlson, Helen Gibson and Miss M. Steelman, all of Los Angeles. 

Events included a maverick race, a cowgirls’ free-for-all race, pony express, cow pony flat race, trick riding, Roman race, cowboy quick-change race, bull-dogging, cowboy relay, wild horse race, steer riding, calf roping, trick roping, chariot race and riding of bucking horses. (“Thousands Roll Over New Road,” Santa Monica Evening Outlook, June 25, 1923)

These rodeos were the biggest events ever held at Topanga Beach, and probably no bigger event has been held there since. After the opening of the new highway, the name “Topango,” suggesting a fantasy Wild West place, began to lose its mystique, and the mainstream “Topanga” was more often used. The Topango Ranch even changed its name and became the Sea View Ranch.

Pablo Capra is a former Lower Topanga resident, and continues to preserve the history of that neighborhood on his website, www.brasstackspress.com, and as a board member of the Topanga Historical Society, www.topangahistoricalsociety.org.

 

Pablo Capra
Pablo Capra

Pablo Capra is a former Lower Topanga resident, and continues to preserve the history of that neighborhood on his website, www.brasstackspress.com, and as a board member of the Topanga Historical Society, www.topangahistoricalsociety.org.

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