What a Barn Find!
60 years ago today, Marty McFly traveled back in time and crashed into a barn located at the Twin Pines Ranch on Nov. 5th, 1955 – a red letter date in science and cinematic history. To celebrate that milestone anniversary, LOCATION, LOCATION, Location? is taking a detailed look at the fabled Peabody farm, as seen in Back to the Future, by shining some light on the mystery surrounding it and providing conclusive evidence about the actual filming location. With what we’ve uncovered here, history’s gonna change.
To refresh memories of the Peabody farm in Back to the Future, here is the clip of Marty’s bumpy entry into 1955.
Two things of note about this scene that most people may not know:
* Marty arrived in 1955 at exactly 6:00 a.m. although that is not fully seen on the time circuits display. Writer and Producer of the Back to the Future Trilogy, Bob Gale, clarified this for us by sharing, “We thought 6 a.m. was sort of a default — a time to arrive when there’d be just enough light to maneuver, but little chance of being seen. As I recall, when Old Biff went back to 11/12/55, he also arrived at dawn, which can be seen when Doc programs the time circuits after he rescues Marty from the hotel roof.”
* Even though the DeLorean is seen exiting the Twin Pines Ranch at what is supposed to be dawn, the filmmakers actually shot that scene at sunset as the true geography of the filming location gives away that the sun is setting behind the mountains in the west.
It can truly be said that the filming locations utilized in the Back to the Future Trilogy are some of the most popular real-life places for fans to visit in person. They’re so widely known and revered that they’ve even served as centerpieces to a wide range of fan events throughout the years, most recently the ‘We’re Going Back’ gatherings that celebrated the 30th Anniversary of Back to the Future in late October, 2015.
Since the ramp up of the internet age in the late 90’s, there have been several websites that have covered the addresses of Back to the Future locations and have been extremely useful in pointing people in the right direction to experience the movies up close and personal. If you were a fan dedicated to researching every facet of Back to the Future back then, you might remember that for quite a long time, the holy grail of filming locations had been finding Jennifer Parker’s (Marty’s girlfriend) family home … a hard to decipher location that eluded many people until it was finally discovered in Monrovia, CA. Once Jennifer’s house had been found, fans thought that almost every urban filming location in Southern California had been accounted for, little realizing that one site had been misidentified – The Peabody Farm / Twin Pines Ranch – notably the barn that Marty crashed into located at the famed Disney Golden Oak Ranch in Newhall, CA.
As recounted in a great article from the Jeff Beard website, BTTFTour, entitled, “Sorry About Your Barn,” which posted on February 26, 2013, Jeff tells of how the barn misidentification started with former Disney Imagineer and Back to the Future fan, Bruce Gordon. Bruce had visited the Golden Oak Ranch in the 90’s, searched for a barn on the property, and named the ‘Ragwing’ barn as the one that was used in Back to the Future. The barn had earned it’s nickname from an old biplane named the ‘Ragwing’ in a Disney film entitled, Sky’s The Limit. Unfortunately, Bruce Gordon was wrong in his assessment and that information went uncontested and found its way to Wesley Treat’s comprehensive ‘Back to the Future Tour’ on his Big Waste of Space website after he also had visited the ranch and concluded the barn had gone through some ‘superficial changes’. Blame really can’t be cast for the misidentification as Disney’s Golden Oak Ranch is closed off to the public and any information about the ranch is closely guarded by The Walt Disney Company. Bruce and Wesley took their best guess and ran with it.
Eventually, that one mistake led to an almost 20-year game of time machine telephone in which the ‘Ragwing Barn’ was consistently and incorrectly labeled as the ‘Back to the Future Barn’. Take a quick search of the numerous sites today listing Back to the Future locations and almost all of them, save for one, still incorrectly name the ‘Ragwing’ as the barn filming location. In the course of research for this article, this author met and spoke to no less than 5 people ‘in the know’ who said they had information on the barn and still ended up producing images of the ‘Ragwing’.
To sharp-eyed Back to the Future fans who watched the film closely and compared the on-screen barn to images of the ‘Ragwing,’ something just didn’t seem right, yet no one could really put their finger on it. In one camp, if they took the filming location websites for their word and believed that the barn had been changed over the years, the identification of the barn seemed like a done deal. In their mind, some other productions had come in after Back to the Future wrapped and changed things around with the structure. In another camp, some fans just didn’t accept the hearsay as fact and continued to look into the matter for cold-hard facts. Jeff Beard persisted in looking into the actual barn location and within his article, he came to the conclusion that everyone on the Internet was wrong and that the ‘Ragwing’ barn was not used in Back to the Future.
His conclusion had been reached after several months of writing back and forth with the webmaster of the comprehensive studio ranch website, CinchSet.com. Webmaster, Kurt, had compiled an amazing website with a wealth of information about Disney’s Golden Oak Ranch (paying particular attention to Disney’s classic “Spin & Marty” television show which had used the ‘Ragwing’ barn in several episodes). Kurt’s conclusion, just by looking at the still images from Back to the Future and knowing the ‘Ragwing’ barn inside and out, indicated that the ‘Ragwing’ had been misidentified. Jeff agreed and then posted his excellent write-up on the matter, finally calling it correctly and in so doing, further adding to the mystery about the Peabody Farm right at a point when the trail was about to go cold.
Picking Up The Trail
Now that the ‘Ragwing’ barn was out of contention as the set used in Back to the Future, new questions arose as to what sets and location were actually used and, more importantly, did they still exist at the Golden Oak Ranch or were they torn down?
Jump ahead to late December, 2014 when this author was perusing CinchSet.com for information on the locations used in Disney’s classic (and little-known gem), Follow Me Boys!, starring a young Kurt Russell in his first Disney film. A simple click on over to Kurt’s (not Kurt Russell’s) page on the ‘Ragwing’ barn and a look at an addendum he had put in about the barn not being used in Back to the Future managed to ignite the LOCATION, LOCATION, Location? engine into gear to get a final answer about the barn.
Research began by reaching out to Kurt directly and discussing the barn issue at length which led to many months of sharing information, photographs, leads, false-starts, contacts and the like. His contributions to the research have been invaluable and the conclusions about the filming location that we’ll get to in this article are due, in great part, to the clues Kurt helped provide along the way. In addition to Kurt’s help, the Beyond the Marquee staff is fortunate to have several good connections into Disney and other studios, including a good friendship with Bob Gale, so it was just a matter of putting one’s mind to it to seek out the right information and accomplish something worthwhile. The task of getting conclusive information about the Peabody farm was as difficult as buying a bottle of Pepsi Perfect online … well, maybe not that difficult.
Erased From Existence?
The first question to answer was ‘what sets were used at the Golden Oak Ranch for Back to the Future and do they still exist?’ For that, LOCATION, LOCATION, Location? immediately sought out information from Disney and it was discovered that they actually have very little information available on the history of the sets used at the GOR. This was quite a shock considering that The Walt Disney Company Archives are known for their attention to detail and preservation of the studio and company legacy.
The ranch, however, falls into a different category and former Disney Archivist, Dave Smith, shared that, “The Archives does have some lists of films that shot at the Ranch, but not by exact set. Even such documents as shooting calls and production reports would usually only list Golden Oak Ranch as the filming location, without detailing the particular sets.” In short, the only way to get information on the history of a particular set is for it to be very popular (as in the case of “Spin & Marty” locations), know the Golden Oak Ranch managers who worked the land throughout the years, or have specific knowledge on what productions built what sets and then seek out their respective production designers.
We chose to speak to the current senior ranch manager at Golden Oak and eventually got an answer to our question when he replied with the following information, “The barn you refer to was called the ‘Round-house Barn’ when I arrived. It was in disrepair, had become a hazard and I removed it. I have been told that it was the barn used in the Back to the Future feature where the DeLorean crashes out of the barn doors.” In a later communication, he also confirmed the barn was torn down in the mid-1990’s.
While the ranch manager’s answer about the barn was disheartening to read, it did provide enough information to further look into the history of the Peabody farm set and discover what other productions it had been used in (more on that later). With the sets (at least the barn) now confirmed as being torn down, the next step was to find out where they had once been located on the property.
According To This Map …
At the same time we were in communication with Disney, LOCATION, LOCATION, Location? was also in contact with Jerry Schneider, webmaster of another great studio ranch website, MovieLocationsPlus. It was Jerry who provided the best evidence yet of the Peabody farm when, after a few short back and forth e-mails, he sent along 6 pictures of the house and barn as they looked in 1991. He not only helped establish somewhat of a timeline for how long the sets continued to stand, but he also helped provide clues as to their northerly location on the Golden Oak Ranch property with this added information, “The northern section of the ranch is located in a small narrow canyon. At the northernmost section is a set they refer to as the outlaw shack/cabin. About half-way down the canyon is a grouping of sets which include a two-story house, a barn and corral, and a few other buildings.” A look at Jerry’s pictures shows a barn and house still in some disrepair with mild sagging. Here’s a look at all 6 photos that clearly show the Back to the Future homestead in daylight.
A look at the Golden Oak Ranch website showed several potential locations on a map where the sets could have been placed in what is called, ‘Heil Canyon’, but pinpoint accuracy was still a bit of research away. To tackle finding the precise spot for the sets, the original Back to the Future blueprints for the Peabody farm were acquired and several clues were gathered that not only provided a different name for the barn, but also zeroed in on specific geography of the ranch that would lead to the right location.
On a large aerial overview blueprint, plot lines indicated that the property on which the house and barn were located was just south of a ‘Y’-shaped road with one branch of the ‘Y’ containing a bridge that the set designers of the film took pains to disguise as much as possible for filming (the edited footage in the film is cut to where the bridge isn’t seen anyway). The blueprint also shows the location of the large trees on the property along with other set structures including a bunkhouse, corral, and shed that lined the area used for the Peabody homestead. Pencil lines further indicate the path the DeLorean took beginning with the crash into the barn, a roundabout between the house and barn, and then the exit over one pine tree before speeding away from the farm.
Some detailed searching online also brought up additional undated, but current location scout pictures from an obscure website that showed a view of the area where the house and barn were once located, identified by spotting the bunkhouse in one shot, just down the road from what Golden Oak Ranch refers to as “The Mine”.
With some location pictures in hand and a good idea of where to look, the next thing to do was take a virtual trip over the Golden Oak Ranch via GoogleEarth. That was eventually what helped clinch the exact spot where the barn and house had been located on the property. The location for the Peabody homestead is approximately a 1/2 mile (just over 2,660 ft.) north of the ‘Ragwing’ barn. A standing set called, “The General Store” now sits almost directly on the southern end of where the former Peabody house once stood.
Seen Below: A video clearly showing the location of the Peabody homestead at the Golden Oak Ranch. The path starts at the secondary entrance to the GOR which was used as the DeLorean exit from the Twin Pines Ranch. It then passes over the location of the ‘Ragwing’ barn on its way to the northern end of the property.
A detailed history of the Peabody farm location was a bit harder to come by and it wasn’t until several sources of information flowed in from Kurt, Jerry, Disney and our own looking around that a rough timeline of when the area was in use could be established. Studying historical aerial photographs showed that the sets most likely did not exist on the property until the late 1970’s. Several sources indicate that the barn and house were used in the Don Knotts/Tim Conway Disney movie, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979), although viewings of that film tend to only show a sliver of what could be the barn and house. Without any question, the sets were used for a 1981 episode of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color called, “The Cherokee Trail” . The show’s description reads as follows:
“In the late 19th Century, Mary Breydon, a widow, and Peggy Breydon, her daughter manage a stagecoach stop on The Cherokee Trail. The story is told from the perspective of Peggy, looking back on her adventures.”
The Back to the Future blueprints indicate the name of the barn as “The Overland Stage Stop” and this ties in perfectly to the description of “The Cherokee Trail.” The show was later adapted into an Australian-filmed Disney Channel series entitled, “Five Mile Creek” which just happens to feature a very rough-hewn version of a stagecoach barn that bears a slight resemblance to the barn located at the GOR.
Not much more is known about the Peabody sets or if they were used much throughout the 80’s outside of their appearance in Back to the Future. The next known instance of the sets being used to great extent began in 1988-1990 with the short-lived western-themed television show, “Paradise” – later renamed “Guns of Paradise” starring Lee Horsley. A quick search online will bring up several episodes of the show and we located a couple with some minor cameo appearances of the Peabody barn, house and homestead. The home had been used as a Room & Bath Hotel while the barn remained a barn.
Two clips can be seen below showing the barn, house, and land as seen in “Guns of Paradise.”
Not long after “Guns of Paradise” wrapped, the Peabody barn was close to buying the farm and aerial photographs indicate that it did not last through 1994. As for the house, it was still around in 1994 and looks like it went through some modifications that kept it standing through 2003 before also being torn down and replaced by a new set, “The General Store.” The bunkhouse, located across the way from the barn and house, may still be standing although it is likely in serious disrepair.
What can be conclusively determined is that both the Peabody barn and house were erased from existence by 2003.
A look at the history of the Peabody farm would not be complete without the insight of those who were closely tied to working on the set during the production of Back to the Future. Several individuals offered their recollections and we’re glad to provide them here.
Early on in our research, when we were still looking at existing one-story sets on the ranch nowhere near the actual set location, Bob Gale shared, “We filmed at the Disney Ranch in Newhall on Feb 16-18, 1985. I don’t recall that we had to build much, and there’s certainly no way we would have spent the money to build a 2nd story on that farmhouse. So maybe another company had been there in the months prior and built it up, or maybe we were at another portion of the property.”
Zeroing in on the right location along with a detailed study of several of the available blueprints made research into the extent of what the Back to the Future crew had done to the sets much easier. There were blueprint mentions about the roof cupola that had been added to the barn (which, as seen in the film, drops down after Marty crashes) which meant that a special effects team had to be present during filming. In behind-the-scenes footage, Special Effects Supervisor, Kevin Pike, can be seen throwing feathers when the crew is filming in the barn and that was a good indicator that we should speak with him about his role while working at the Golden Oak Ranch.
Kevin shared, “I think we shot there for a couple of nights. The barn and the house were set-pieces on the Golden Oak Ranch, what we called the ‘Disney Ranch’. The production designer, Larry Paull and Art Director, Todd Hallowell, had put everything to a nice redo and hooked it all up for all the scenes that Bob Zemeckis wanted to shoot out there. The sets looked pretty good.
There were a lot of things to do. We had to have smoke come out of the chimney of the farmer’s house and have the cupola on the barn all ready to collapse with prepped debris, smoke and dust to come out when the car crashed. Inside the barn, we had to position the car at a certain angle and add all the elements of the coldness on the car with the frosting method we did. We just jacked it up on one corner and tilted it so it looked like it had crash-landed. It was covered with hay so you couldn’t see the devices we used. We added the dust, smoke and feather elements to the set just before the camera rolled. I remember that the chickens were a concern that they wouldn’t get hurt by the car.
We also had to do all the bullet hits on the barn door when the farmer takes aim and then we had to do the mailbox where the farmer shoots and blows up his mailbox after Marty runs over one of the pine trees. It was a pyrotechnic device for both the door and the mailbox. It had to represent a shotgun blast and pyrotechnics helped achieve that.
We had the barn all rigged and Bob (Zemeckis) wanted to take a look at it to see how good it would look before he shot it. So, the night before we were ready to do the shot where the cupola drops, he had us put it all together in film mode and we all stood out there at the end of the day. We showed (the effect) to him and he was upset that we went through that and had the effect turn out so well for him. He turned to Dean Cundey and said, ‘We should have shot that.’ And, they should have. We had to bring the crew back at night and work all day to get it ready to do all over again after it was all set up. We got to do it twice.”
Kevin also recalled the work they did for the scarecrow hit immediately when Marty arrives in 1955. The wide shot of that scene was most likely also shot at the Golden Oak Ranch before it quickly cut to process work as Kevin discusses here, “What we did later was rig the scarecrow to come up and land on the windshield on Stage 12 at Universal where the car was stationery. The scarecrow is actually moving while the film on the process screen is showing the moving footage they shot of the farm location. We launched the scarecrow with an air mortar up onto the windshield and had a guide wire to help pull it away after hitting the vehicle.”
Art Director, Todd Hallowell, whose career has led him to become a producer of some of the top grossing films of the past two decades, had a good deal of insight into the work done on the sets for the film since he was on the front lines prepping them all for filming.
Todd recalled, “They had a lot of standing sets out at the Disney ranch and we sort of modified what already existed out there. It’s not like we built a huge amount from scratch. We pretty much reworked it, did some work on the roof line, put the doors on the barn as I recall. Production designer Larry Paull scouted the location. He looked at the photos the location dept. brought in and thought the sets were a pretty good version of what he was looking for, but felt we were going to do some modifications. So, that’s when I went with him and we started talking about what we were going to change to the existing set out there. The sets were in pretty good shape, but they had been aged. From the outside, they looked quite a bit older than they really were. They had become standing sets for location rental purposes on the ranch.
I know there was quite a bit of work that the practical effects guys did, but mostly what we did was to alter the roof line and add a cupola to the roof of the barn. The house itself was pretty much as-is except the set decorator, Hal Gaussman, came in and did quite a bit of set dressing on the house. I don’t recall that we painted it, but Hal did some dressing on the interior. He was a really good set decorator.
As for prep time, we were there about two weeks beforehand. We had to get all our stuff done and get out of the way so they could get lit for night photography and back then, lighting was a bit more cumbersome than it is today and required a lot more pre-rigging than we wind up doing nowadays. We prepped during daylight hours prior to filming and all the filming was night shooting. I was there in case, at the last minute, something needed to be changed.
By the time we got to filming at the ranch, we were still adjusting to the fact that we shot half the movie with a different actor and then the decision was made to recast and re-shoot what was almost the front half of the schedule. We had already struck sets off of stages with a tremendous amount of work already completed. So much of my work at that point was just trying to catch up so that we could reset and re-shoot so much of the movie. In my career, that was the first and last time that’s ever occurred. In retrospect, it was a ballsy decision, but it was the right decision. We used to come out of dailies and just go “what the hell are we doing?” The dailies up to that point were really tough to get through. Eric seemed to think we were doing King Lear and not ‘Back to the Future’. Michael came aboard and it was just night and day and was a breath of fresh air.
I think the thing I liked most about working on the film was that we worked in a lot of personal nods to various things in the course of the movie. The theater at the end of the street is named the ‘Town Theater’ and that’s an homage to the theater from my hometown. It was stuff like that where you could work stuff in from your own past that made it kind of fun.”
In their amazingly detailed and impressive book, Back to the Future: The Ultimate Visual History (Harper Collins), authors Michael Klastorin and Randal Atamaniuk, (going off exhaustive research from production call sheets and first-hand accounts), recounted, “On his second night of filming, (Michael J.) Fox continued to acquaint himself with his new coworkers. Bob Gale recalls, ‘He was so outgoing and happy to be there. I remember him introducing himself to the crew. Everybody knew who he was – he was on the second-highest-rated TV show at the time – but he’d walk up to people and say, “Hi-Michael Fox.’ Duh. How great was that?’ Recalls executive producer Kathleen Kennedy, “Once Michael arrived on set, the entire movie levitated in tone. His unique style and unbridled enthusiasm lifted everything. It became obvious this was what Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale intended the movie to be.”
Even with their new and improved Marty, there would still be other obstacles. Ivy Bethune, who portrayed Ma Peabody, arrived on location the first night with an injured ankle, rendering her unable to perform the physical aspects of the sequence. Hairstylist Dorothy Byrne was called upon to be Ma’s photo double and complete the work. Fox would work for two of the three scheduled nights at the farm location, because on Friday night he was taping that week’s episode of “Family Ties.” In his absence, the company would shoot Sherman (Jason Marin) and Pa Peabody (Will Hare) taking a shot at the disoriented Marty—stuntman Dick Butler trading the dog costume for the radiation suit.
Call it fate or density, but eventually, someone had to correctly locate and find out what happened to the Peabody house and barn sets that were used in Back to the Future. Determination led to some answers and we hope that fans will enjoy this extensive look into what’s currently known about this elusive filming location.
The past of the Peabody farm still hasn’t been fully written and if any fans out there have seen the sets in other productions or can provide tips, photographs or verified information, your contribution is appreciated.
Research into a subject with such a dearth of information does not happen without the contribution of several informed and talented individuals and organizations.
Special thanks go out to the following: Bob Gale, Kurt S., Jerry Schneider, Todd Hallowell, Kevin Pike, Golden Oak Ranch, The Walt Disney Company Archives, Steve Czarnecki, Dave Smith, ScreenUsed.com, Stephen Clark, BacktotheFuture.com, Michael Klastorin, Insight Editions (Harper Collins), Jeff Beard, and Universal Studios
When he’s not mutating into human form, Kevin Stern serves as a producer and contributing writer for Beyond the Marquee.
His articles can be found on BTM via this link: http://beyondthemarquee.com/category/about-us/articles-by-author/kevin-stern/
Previous LOCATION, LOCATION, Location? Entries can be found here:
Kevin can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org