The Silver(ton) screen

Courtesy San Juan County Historical Society

A rockslide was created along the Animas River south of Silverton for the movie “Denver & Rio Grande.”

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the Silverton Standard’s summer travel magazine, Destination: Silverton.

By Mark Esper

Silverton Standard


The town and surrounding mountains were settings for several 20th-century films, bringing in stars such as Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, James Cagney, Janet Leigh and Barbara Stanwyck.

The arrival of the old Western movies in Silverton meant a fistful of dollars for the local economy and, as locals recalled recently, plenty of fun and excitement along for the ride.

Silverton old-timer Gerald Swanson recalled the hubbub in 1949 when many scenes from the movie “A Ticket to Tomahawk” were filmed here.

The movie featured Dan Dailey, Anne Baxter, Walter Brennan and the then-little-known Marilyn Monroe.

“I was working at the market (Swanson’s Grocery) that summer and got to watch a lot of the action,” Swanson said.

The movie producers preferred Blair Street, which had retained its pristine Old West look.

One of the more spectacular scenes featured a 20-mule team pulling a railroad engine up Blair. (The engine replica, the Emma Sweeney, now sits in a park in Durango.)

The scenes with Monroe playing a dance-hall girl were shot at the old National Hall, now the vacant lot at 12th and Blair.

“In the movie, all the dance-hall girls were standing on top of the balcony waving at the train as it pulled into town,” Swanson said. “But the train was made of wood. The real one never went down Blair Street.”

The plot of “A Ticket To Tomahawk” involved competition between a stagecoach line and a new railroad linking the mythical towns of Epitaph and Tomahawk, Colo.

Silverton served as both towns in the movie.

Making friends with Clark

Zeke Zanoni, another lifelong Silverton resident, remembers running into Clark Gable during the filming of “Across the Wide Missouri” at Molas Lake in 1950.

Zanoni was but 10 or 11 at the time. He said he and some of his Silverton friends decided to watch the action.

“We thought we’d go up to Molas Lake to fish and to watch them film,” Zanoni recalled. So he and his buddies hitchhiked up the pass.

“They had all these tents on the side of the lake. One of them had a big, long line of people going into it.”

The Silverton children soon found out it was the “chow tent.”

“Someone told us that all we had to do is get in line,” Zanoni said. And it worked. “We had no problem at all. This was a fun day for us. They gave us trays, all kinds of food. Everything was great.”

The next day the Silverton kids decided to try it again. But this time when they lined up for lunch, “one guy grabbed a hold of us and yelled, ‘Get out of here!’ Well, we were about ready to start running,” Zanoni recalled.

But at a nearby table they heard a booming voice.

“Hey, Ed. Those boys are with me.”

To their astonishment, it was Clark Gable.

The movie-set caterers suddenly treated the Silverton lads differently.

“You’ve never seen such catering in your life,” Zanoni said. “We filled our plates up. Clark said, ‘You guys come sit with me.’ So we got to have lunch with Clark Gable. We were kind of flabbergasted.”

Zanoni said Gable was a favorite among Silvertonians.

“Everybody in Silverton loved him,” Zanoni said.

In those days, old-timers would gather on the benches in front of the Grand Imperial Hotel to swap stories.

“Clark would show up and talk with them for an hour or two in the evening,” Zanoni said.

An extra

Mike Loftus, who grew up in Silverton but now lives in Louisiana, was an extra in a couple of films – “Run for Cover” (1954) starring James Cagney, and “Great Day in the Morning” (1955) starring Robert Stack.

Loftus recalled a scene from “Great Day in the Morning.”

“I was maybe 10 or 12 years old then,” Loftus said. “We walked down the street singing about Jack Lawford’s body and his son don’t give a hang.”

“A whole lot of Silverton people were in that movie,” Loftus said. “That was with Raymond Burr – he was the bad guy.”

Loftus said the Hollywood stars “for the most part were all pretty good folks.”

But he remembers actress Ruth Roman a bit less fondly.

“She was kind of a pinup girl back in those days,” Loftus said. “I asked her for her autograph and she told me to go blow my nose. She was a rude person.”

Loftus recalled that the wardrobe room for the filming of “Great Day in the Morning” was in the school activity room.

“I don’t remember how much we were paid,” Loftus said. “It wasn’t much, but it was a lot of fun. I know if they told us to ‘suit up,’ we’d get paid for the day. It was maybe 20 bucks.”

When he wasn’t working as an extra, Loftus and his friends used to just watch the movies being made.

“I remember going up the Gladstone canyon,” Loftus said. “We’d go up there and Bob Stack was up there and he was gonna show somebody how good he could shoot.

“Someone would throw a bottle into the air, and there was a guy behind the camera with a .410 shotgun, and he’s the one who broke the bottle,” Loftus recalled. “They had to do that four or five times to get the shot reports to be synchronized.”

In “Run for Cover,” Loftus had a brief but prominent role.

“I was right in front of the camera when the sheriff says ‘get those baggage men in here,’” while investigating an apparent train robbery.

‘The sweetest thing’

Grace Ann Lappin was a schoolgirl in Silverton in the 1950s. She remembers a lot about the various actors who came to Silverton in those days.

“Barbara Stanwyck (“The Maverick Queen” – 1955) was a doll,” Lappin said. “She was the sweetest thing.”

In the movie, Stanwyck played a crooked dealer in rustled cattle, with her headquarters in the Grand Imperial Hotel, which appears in several scenes.

“We used to laugh about how they would paint the utility wires so they wouldn’t show up on the camera,” Lappin said.

She recalled how James Cagney in “Run for Cover” couldn’t quite mount a horse properly, with his short legs.

“They had a little stepladder, and they would film him from the other side and he would get on,” Lappin said. “They didn’t want people to know he couldn’t mount a horse.”

And when actress Virginia Mayo was in Silverton for the filming of “Great Day in the Morning,” she caused quite a stir, Lappin remembers.

“She was staying in one of the front rooms of the Grand Imperial and was changing into her nighty without closing the curtains,” Lappin said. “The guys all got an eyeful. They told all the miners in town. So the next night, practically every guy who could get away from his wife was in front of the Benson (across the street from the Grand Imperial) waiting for her to change. But that night she closed the blinds.”

Audie Murphy starred in the movie “Night Passage” (1956) with Jimmy Stewart. Among the notable local scenes are those shot on the Mayflower Mill tram.

“Audie Murphy was always in a crap game,” Lappin recalled. “These guys were betting $10,000, $20,000. The guys in town thought Hollywood actors were all crazy.”

During the filming of the 1950 film, “Across the Wide Missouri,” actor Ricardo Montalbán (who later starred in the TV series “Fantasy Island”) suffered serious injuries while playing an Indian chief in a scene shot at Molas Lake.

He was thrown from his horse, knocked unconscious, and trampled by another horse, resulting in a painful back injury that never healed.

“He was sitting on his horse, kind of side saddle,” Lappin recalled. “His horse just suddenly reared up and he landed on a rock.”

The pain increased as he aged, and in 1993, Montalbán underwent nine hours of spinal surgery, which left him paralyzed below the waist and using a wheelchair. He died in 2009.

The action didn’t stop

Other movies filmed in and around Silverton include “How the West Was Won” (1962), and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1968).

Since those glory days, only a handful of movie scenes have been filmed in Silverton itself.

In 1987, a scene from “Over the Top,” starring Sylvester Stallone as a truck driver, was filmed here. It showed Stallone driving his truck into Silverton.

Another film with Stallone, “Cliffhanger,” (1993) featured scenes in the San Juan Mountains surrounding town.

And “City Slickers,” (1990) starring Billy Crystal included many scenes filmed in the Durango area.

This summer, production is under way for “The Lone Ranger,” with Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Armie Hammer.

A casting call for extras in that film was conducted in Durango this spring. But it appears most of the movie will be filmed in the high desert of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

Like an aging movie star, Silverton is still waiting to get that call from the movie studio so the town can ride again onto the Big Screen.

Mark Esper is editor and publisher of the Silverton Standard & the Miner. Reach him at

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