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Story by Andrew Kiraly
A silent film star once fled to a remote Searchlight ranch for a respite from Hollywood. Can the storied Walking Box Ranch become a hub for history and education?
All these years later, silent film star Clara Bow still doesn’t need words. Even today she can send classic film buffs into swooning fits of nearly mesmerized ardor. Her eyes — now smoldering, now coy, now like deep pools of pure come-hither. Her mouth — at once pouting and playful. Her face — almost acrobatic in its ability to express wordless emotion (but never elastic, hammy or cartoonish). In the numerous documentaries about Clara Bow — America’s premier silent film actress, Hollywood’s first sex symbol, the flapper goddess — critics and historians talk about her like an otherworldly force on the screen.
You hear the fuss and then you see her yourself. They’re right. She’s such a natural it’s almost supernatural. Silent film fanatics (yes, they exist) often talk about how she “leaps” and “explodes” from the grainy, jerky, two-dimensional screen. But maybe it’s more accurate to say the strange freshness of her presence makes it seem as though she’s been imposed on the screen after the fact and from outside time. And we cannot miss mention of her plainspoken, tomboyish sex appeal. In an era when sex was not talked about in polite company — or maybe much of any company — Clara Bow was declared to have “it.” (Whispered: sex appeal!) They even made a movie about her having “it.” (The movie was titled “It.”)
All her sexy amazingness was spent on the equivalent of dime-store potboilers: At the height of her productivity, Bow was churning out dozens of films for exploitative flick mills such as Preferred Pictures. Between the grueling schedule, her near-legendary penchant for partying and Bow’s chronic insomnia, it’s little surprise that the young actress began to succumb to a case of burnout. The woman who at age 25 could already call herself a veteran screen actress told the press she wanted something real.
So in June 1931, Clara Bow closed her home in Beverly Hills and left the lights of Los Angeles for an isolated ranch just seven miles outside of Searchlight, Nevada. Her husband-to-be, silent film actor Rex Bell, who bought the acreage, would eventually name it Walking Box Ranch. That’s what a movie camera on a tripod looks like.
In search of silence
Rex and Clara Bell lived for nearly 15 years at this remote ranch — but they were hardly isolated. Frequent parties at the ranch went off like firework displays, with guests that read like a who’s-who roster of Hollywood elite — Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and Errol Flynn reportedly threw back more than a few here. On the walls are photos of Hollywood stars crowded around the house’s small bar, laughing and drinking. After passing through many hands over the years — even doing a stint as an executive retreat — the 5,000 square-foot, two-story Spanish Colonial Revival ranch house is still in good shape. On the first floor, a grand living room features a dramatic stone fireplace that looks like it was hewn out of a cliff; upstairs, Rex and Clara’s bedroom overlooks seemingly endless waves of pristine Joshua forest. It’s said Clara would sunbathe in the buff on its small balcony.
“It’s isolated and peaceful, isn’t it?” says Paula Garrett of UNLV’s Public Lands Institute. “This is where Clara was going to get her life on track again.”
A silent film star seeking solitude in the pristine desert — that intersection of celluloid history and wild Nevada has created a unique alignment of people interested not just in preserving this ranch, but perhaps turning it into an educational center.
[HEAR MORE: Learn about Rex Bell’s post-Hollywood political career on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]
“This area is not all wilderness, not all history, it’s both nature and culture,” says Andy Kirk, a UNLV history professor who was instrumental in getting the ranch on the National Register of Historic Places, and is part of a project to preserve and enhance the ranch. “It’s one of those in-between places, a natural area with an overlay of culture.”
So far, yet so close
Indeed, there’s a lot more than just historic preservation going on here, and that creates an interesting dynamic at this ranch outside Searchlight where nature, culture and science are converging in some interesting ways. The Nature Conservancy oversees more than 150,000 acres in the vicinity; it so happens the ranch is in the middle of some prime desert tortoise grounds. The Bureau of Land Management owns the ranch buildings, and UNLV’s Public Lands Institute manages them.
The ranch was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, but that’s just the beginning of a larger project. In addition to the gradual restoration of the original ranch house — from wiring to water to an aesthetic makeover to make it look as though Rex and Clara still live here — the vision is to create in this area a sort of Swiss army knife that both educates and preserves. The specific goal is to use about $11.5 million from the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act to complete a museum on the site by March 2014.
Sure, the museum will tell visitors the story of Clara Bow’s great escape from Hollywood, but it will also serve as a physical and educational gateway to the fragile desert environment of the Mojave National Preserve — the birds, beasts and plants. Who’s going to show up? More people than you think. Garrett says the area is home to a happy paradox: It’s remote but convenient.
“I live in Henderson, and this is closer to me than Mount Charleston,” she says. “It’s more than 100,000 acres to play in and hike, and mountain bike and explore. We’re hoping this will be a place to introduce people to the area, the launching point. The Mojave is one of the least-known American deserts. There’s still stuff even we don’t know about. There are petroglyphs and pictographs that haven’t even been documented yet.”
“What’s neat about the place is it immediately looks like history,” adds Kirk. “There’s an old house, an old ranch. And it can be a great starter to the amazing environment of the Mojave — and also a starter on the cultural history of the area. A who’s-who of the American West passed through here.”
Currently, Walking Box is only accepting scheduled private tours (call Garrett at 895-1421), but they hope to have regular hours and docents in place next year. Whether visitors come for a brush with celluloid history or the hush of the desert, they’ll get a deep drink of the rich solitude that so eluded Clara during her Hollywood years — a silent film star who had to trek to the desert for some real silence.
Take US 95 south, taking the Searchlight exit after the Railroad Pass hotel-casino. When you reach Searchlight, take a right on Nipton Road, taking it about 7 miles to Walking Box Ranch. Trip time is about 1 hour.
Pick up your Desert Companion today at one of these Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf or Jamba Juice locations.
Also available at Clark County and Henderson libraries.