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See long lost Hollywood history only at local Dunes Center

by Amanda Hollingworth
July 13, 2018
CoastHills Community Relations Officer presents a $500 donation to the Nipomo-Guadalupe Dunes Center to help support the museum's upcoming gala, where it plans to unveil long lost Hollywood historical artifacts.
CoastHills Credit Union Community Relations Officer Amanda Hollingworth presents a $500 donation to Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center Executive Director Doug Janzen and Educational & Public Programs Coordinator Erin Gardner. The Community Action Sponsorship goes to support the Center's upcoming gala, where long lost Hollywood historical artifacts are set to be unveiled.

There are two places in the world where you might stumble across a sphinx buried in the sand. One is Egypt. The other — right here on the Central Coast.

For early Hollywood filmmakers, the vast Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes was the perfect stand in for the Saharan desert — closer to home and with a much kinder climate.

More than 20 films were shot in the dunes, starting with The Sheik in 1921, and more recently, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End in 2007. However, there is one film that has left a lasting and mysterious legacy — Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent epic, The Ten Commandments.

To call the production epic is an understatement. A cast of thousands set up a tent city in the dunes, and more than 1600 workers were needed to construct a massive temple set that spanned 800 feet, rose nearly 12 stories, and weighed over 60 tons — lined with an avenue of 21 5-ton sphinx statues. To this day it still ranks as one of the biggest movie sets ever constructed.

When filming wrapped, they headed back to Hollywood and simply left it all behind. Over time, the shifting sands claimed the set and it was all but forgotten.

DeMille hinted at the existence of the buried treasure in his autobiography, published just after his death in the early 1980’s, which inspired a passionate group of film buffs (and amateur archaeologists) to follow the clues.

That’s where the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center comes in. Nestled in a small Victorian house at the north end of Guadalupe, the nonprofit museum is lead by community members with a serious passion for the unique geological and ecological landmark.

Doug Jenzen, Executive Director, got the permits needed to excavate and assembled a crew that included a local archaeologist and Peter Bronson, the treasure hunter who set out to follow DeMille’s clues back in the 1980’s. In 2014, they went out into the dunes, but quickly found that traditional archaeological methods, like ground penetrating radar, didn’t work because of the unique and varied make up of the sands.

They did end up finding a sphinx, but that was because Doug just happened to stumble across a piece sticking out of the sand, “It was all luck.”

The team also found that traditional extraction methods were a little too intense for the delicate plaster, and they learned from trial and error how to preserve the specimens. With help from a local artist, they were able to put the surviving pieces back together like a puzzle to put on display in the museum.

They returned to the dunes in 2016 and 2017, each time getting better and better at finding and working with the artifacts. At their dig last fall, they discovered a new problem – they were now so good at preservation that the piece was so big they weren’t sure how to transport it.

Now the Center is ready to unveil the new additions to their exhibit. Tickets are now available for Sphinx & Drinks, a benefit gala and artifact debut the museum is hosting on Saturday, July 21st. The event is also raising money and awareness for their next big project — renovating the former location of the Far Western Tavern, which donated the property to the museum when they relocated to Old Orcutt.

In the new space, the Dunes Center will be able to display a fully erected sphinx — something they can’t do with the low ceilings of their current home.

In addition to these major projects, the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center is a hub for education, so they are looking forward to having the space to expand their exhibits, which highlight the history, geology, and ecology of the dunes. They also work closely with local teachers to host field trips, summer & afterschool programs, and even producing hands-on modules for the classrooms.

With so much going on, the Center is always in need of donations and volunteers. Those interested can learn more by checking out the volunteer opportunities posted on their website, or by stopping in to say hello.  

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