Even if you’ve never been to Utah, you’ll recognise its landscapes. They’ve appeared on screen hundreds of times in films and TV series, from Westerns to thrillers and comedies. They’ve featured as themselves and been passed off as places across the world, and even beyond in a couple of sci fi films. And at the heart of the Utah movie world is Kanab in the south of the state, christened ‘Utah’s Little Hollywood’ after its role in bringing movie-makers to Utah almost a hundred years ago. Over 100 movies and TV series were filmed around here, with more Westerns than anywhere else other than California. And although its cinematic heyday might have passed, you can still get a taste of movie history in Kanab.
Hollywood first came to Utah back in the 1920s, and it’s thanks to the three Parry brothers. They worked in transport and tourism in the recently set up Utah National Parks. But they’d also spotted the potential of the Utah landscapes as movie locations. So they headed off to Hollywood armed with photos and set about persuading the film producers to come to Utah. And it didn’t take them too long to convince one. In 1924 silent movie star Tom Mix and his trusty steed Tony the Wonder Horse came to make a Western called The Deadwood Coach in Cedar City, Utah. And from then its reputation grew.
The movie producers loved having so many different landscapes in a relatively small area – from canyons and deserts to forests and mountains. And the Parrys did their bit to keep on promoting the area. They built a lodge to house the film crews (which you can still stay in and where Frank Sinatra paid for them to build a swimming pool), did the catering on location, and helped find filming spots and locals to appear as extras. The film business became the biggest employer in town and movie money helped get this remote ranching town through the tough days of the depression. MGM built a makeshift studio just outside town in the 1940s, and a constant stream of films were made here until the 1970s, including The Lone Ranger, Billy the Kid, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Outlaw Josie Wales, and Planet of the Apes.
Most of the old movie locations, like a fort on the MGM lot which was burned down and rebuilt for at least three different movies, are gone or on private land. But you can still get a window into its days as the home of the Western at Kanab’s Little Hollywood Museum. Behind a door at the back of a gift shop, we weren’t expecting much from this free museum. But out the back you’ve got a whole Western town, from the saloon to the jailhouse. The buildings have been rescued from various different films over the years and preserved here. There’s the ranch from The Outlaw Josie Wales, a homestead from the Disney film One Little Indian, as well as movie props and hundreds of photos of movies being made here.
You can wander around the sets on a self-guided tour, sit in a rocking chair out on the front porch of a wooden cabin, go behind bars in the jail, and generally pretend you’re Clint Eastwood on location. It’s a great spot for photo opportunities and a window into the glory days of Western movies. Though if you want to see cowboys in the flesh, then you need to head to Kanab in August. Each year the town hold the Western Legends Round Up – a three-day celebration of all things cowboy-related. There’s poetry, music, film, food and appearances from classic Western movie stars, bringing Hollywood back to Kanab for the weekend.
Kanab’s Little Hollywood Movie Set Museum is open 9am–5pm from Monday to Saturday and entry is free. It’s located at 297 West Center Street, behind the Frontier Move Town Gift shop on Highway 89 (look out for the big statue of a cowboy on a horse out the front).