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Jun 12

Uncovering Moses of Guadalupe, Cecil B. DeMille films Ten Commandments in 1923

Is it archeology when the artifacts are actually movie prop replicas made of plaster?
Ancient Egypt has long captured the imagination of story tellers and in 1923 Cecil B. DeMille was setting the standard for epic movies, before color and sound had come into the picture. He would later remake the epic story in color in 1956 with Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner in lead roles.
On Nov. 20, 1990 Telegram-Tribune reporter Carol Roberts wrote about the then 67 year old discoveries from under the sand.

Glen Wharton shows a portion of Cecil B. DeMille's set for the 1923 movie The Ten Commandments, filmed in the Guadalupe Dunes. The set had been buried in sand for over 65 years when it was uncovered in the 1990. ©The Tribune/David Middlecamp

Glen Wharton shows a portion of Cecil B. DeMille’s set for the 1923 movie The Ten Commandments, filmed in the Guadalupe Dunes. The set had been buried in sand for over 65 years when it was uncovered in the 1990.
©The Tribune/David Middlecamp

Dunes Dig stirs memory of ’23 movie extra

Guadalupe old-timer Attilio Degasparis wasn’t sure what all the hoopla was about Monday as he watched more than 30 reporters and photographers traipse over the dunes off West Main Street.
Degasparis said he had been among the doubting locals back in 1985 when film producer Peter Brosnan said that some of Cecil B. DeMille’s gigantic 1923 movie set for “The Ten Commandments” might still remain under the dunes.
But he was willing to change his mind Monday, when the heavy-lidded eye of a plaster pharaoh winked out at him from under a sandy layer.
“I really didn’t think they were going to find much,” said Degasparis of Brosnan and crew. “I’d always thought there was nothing here but a bunch of rubble.”
Of course, Degasparis has something going for him that Brosnan doesn’t. Degasparis actually saw the 10-story tall set as an extra in the movie. He and his sister dressed in rags and walked the beach with hundreds of other “Israelites” when Moses parted the Pacific Ocean as the Red Sea.
“I really can’t remember much about it — only that I was impressed because the set was so enormous. To an 11-year old kid who had hardly been out of Guadalupe, it was huge.”
Degasparis wishes Brosnan well in the attempt to recover and restore the sphinxes and pharaohs DeMille may have left behind. But he still doubts much may be intact.
“I’d heard the whole thing had been bulldozed down when they finished the movie.”
Yet, he added, two of the sphinxes got carted off to some ponds in the dunes, and two went to the Santa Maria Country Club.
“The Ten Commandments” wasn’t the only Guadalupe movie Degasparis recalled. “‘The Last Outpost,’ with Cary Grant, ‘The Sheik’ with Rudolph Valentino, and ‘Morocco’ with Marlene Dietrich were all made here,” he said.
“Miss Dietrich had her car dragged on a sled across the sand because she refused to walk on it.”
Ken Wiley of the Nature Conservancy also was among those listening to Brosnan and his crew: Kelvin Jones of Sherman Oaks, Brosnan’s assistant; Lambert Dolphin, a geophysicist from Santa Clara; and John Parker, a Morro Bay Archeologist.
The men had marked off a large dune with a grid of orange ribbon and string. The grid, based on old photos, marks here they predict the movie set should be.
Once Brosnan and crew decide if they want to excavate the set pieces for restoration, “we’ll work something out with him,” said Wiley, “such as possible bond and permits.”
He admits that “excavating old movie sets” is a “zero part” of the Nature Conservancy’s mission. But it’s bringing a lot of attention to the area where the conservancy plans to build a nature interpretive center.
“It’s attracted network TV,” he grinned. “And it’s interesting.”
Dolphin and his ground-penetrating radar really were the stars of the dune-top show Monday. The crew had to trek two miles down the beach pulling the radar equipment on a makeshift sled of four skis.
Dolphin said he has helped several archaeologists decide where to dig. He’s worked in Egypt, “where radar doesn’t work well in the sand because of too much limestone” and in Israel, “where it works fine.” Besides helping Brosnan, he’s also working in White Sands, N.M., to find a large amount of gold” buried in caverns.
At Guadalupe, he sets his machine to “see” about 20 feed down. Objects below bring blips to a video screen as well as on a computer printout. The flags scattered several feet in the dunes marked the edges of what Dolphin called “significant figures.”
His equipment also can “see as deep as 100 feet, he said. “Radar is the best you’ve got, if you don’t want to dig randomly.”
Archaeologist Parker said the drought has made the sand erode from around the 10-story high and 800 foot wide wall so much that any reconstruction may be impossible. Occasional rain and moisture helped keep delicate pieces intact, he said.
Brosnan figures there is enough of the statues and sphinxes left to “fill a couple of museums.”
He said he’d like to offer some remains to local museums as well as the Smithsonian and Hollywood Heritage facilities, once he possibly films excavation for a documentary.
“But we’re still not sure what we’re going to do.”
The pieces might be so fragile, he said, they would be better to leave them in the dunes, make plaster casts, n cover them up again.
Though he’s been on a quest for DeMille’s lost city since reading the famous filmmaker’s autobiography in 1983, Brosnan said he, like the locals, wasn’t firmly convinced there was enough left of the set to resurrect. All he had seen were pieces of plaster.
“Until Lambert started getting his blips over here,” he said, “I was holding my breath.”

The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes center is holding a “Lost City of DeMille” artifact unveiling Friday June 14th from 6pm to 8:30pm, $5.00 Admission. Guests are invited to dress in 1920s clothing. For more details check out their website.

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