This story was originally published in July 2016. It re-aired on Nov. 25, 2016 as part of The California Report Magazine's "Hidden Gems" series.
1923 was the heyday for silent movies, and audiences were thrilled when Cecil B. DeMille’s blockbuster, "The Ten Commandments," was released. And though it was filmed nearly a century ago, its relics still capture people’s imaginations on the Central Coast.
To get there, drive west on Highway 166, past the bright green fields of broccoli and kale. Sand drifts across the road, and then suddenly, you’re surrounded by vast expanses of the shimmering Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes.
“Oh my gosh, I see it up there! That’s it!” exclaims beach walker Jill Effling. She points to rubble scattered at the top of the dunes. “That’s amazing!” She smiles. “That’s the lost city of Cecil B. DeMille.”
Those chunks of wood and plaster that Effling points to are remnants of the once-epic set of "The Ten Commandments." Best described as ancient Egypt meets art deco, giant sphinxes and massive statues of Ramses the Great stood guard over a hieroglyph-studded temple more than 10 stories tall.
Marjorie Lane-Mangogna is a docent at the Dunes Center, in the nearby city of Guadalupe. The center takes pride in preserving local cultural history while protecting the dunes.
“If you lived in an ag town and suddenly a movie set came to town and you got to be part of it?” she says “Oh my gosh, you’d be in seventh heaven, you really would.”
Most of the town ended up on the studio’s payroll, wrangling horses and working as extras. Once filming wrapped, DeMille wanted to prevent rival studios from poaching his set. He ordered some parts demolished -- the rest was buried in the sand. It remained a secret, known only to locals, for 60 years.
In the early '80s, the site was rediscovered by film buffs, and later partially unearthed. Today you can see restored artifacts, like the head of the giant sphinx, at the Dunes Center.
The center is located on Guadalupe’s main street, which is lined with turn-of-the-century buildings, not a chain store in sight. It hasn’t changed much since "The Ten Commandments" crew was in town.
“You see those chariots?” John Perry points to a photo still from the movie. It’s on display at his auto parts store, where vintage memorabilia shares shelf space with sparkplugs and fanbelts. “The old saying is they would come to town Friday, Saturday evening, and race up and down the street for beers," he laughs.
The Dunes Center's Lane-Mangogna explains the area’s appeal: “So many people come in and they say the dunes themselves are one of the spiritual vortexes, which I kind of laugh at, but I also think every time I go out there I feel pretty good.”
She pauses for a moment. “And I think Guadalupe has a sense of that, too, because what we have here is kind of magical.”
Magical, because of a unique combination of natural beauty and Hollywood history, in a place that time forgot.