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High Chaparral: Yuma home pays homage to popular Western TV series
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An old Western television series, "The High Chaparral" — the saga of the Cannon family's hardships in the Old West — inspired a Yuma businessman to build his own home as closely as possible to an exact replica of the home in the TV series — except for the dirt floors.
Why did Ronnie Rubino, owner of Ronnie's Pizza, select The High Chaparral as his theme? Rubino said that he considers that show to be perhaps the most authentic western to depict the Old West.
“It was real,” he said. “All the dust was real; the sweat was real because it was done mostly on location, (sometimes) in hundred degree temperatures. You hear them mention Yuma, the Yuma Prison, the Salt River and the Gila River. The Mexican culture was included (they spoke Spanish in the film),” he said.
About the show's producer, he added, “David Dortort's goal was to create a western that would show harmony between the white man and the Mexican and the Apache and to show them as human. The fact that it was based on an American family gave it a more warm, real quality.”
As a youth living in Pennsylvania, Rubino grew up watching “The High Chaparral.” When he and his wife Sue honeymooned in Tucson in 1975, he became enamored with the West‘s warmer climate and especially with Old Tucson Studio's movie sets. There they encountered “The High Chaparral's” ranch home, used in the filming of the television series. That Old Western territorial-style home became the model for his home, aptly named “High Chaparral,” seven miles south of his Yuma pizzeria.
“Armed with a 100-foot tape measure, a notebook and a pencil, I made several trips to Old Tucson and proceeded to take every dimension possible of the original High Chaparral house — with the exception of the height,” Rubino states on The High Chaparral's website, “I don't believe that the Old Tucson management would have appreciated me climbing all over the home, nor do I think they would have given me permission to do so.”
More importantly, the late David Dortort — television writer and producer who wrote the series and also Bonanza — gave Rubino permission to name the home “High Chaparral” in a letter dated April 12, 1997. Construction began in July of that year. Dortort was so enthusiastic about the idea that he even helped choose the colors for the home from samples that Rubino sent to him.
“I am not even sure I would have built it if I hadn't gotten his blessing,” Rubino said.
Rubino explained that the “mission finish” on the walls is smooth, “like they did years ago.” On The High Chaparral's website, he comments that the interior walls are “painted in Arizona White (a light cream).” He adds, “With the different variation of light throughout the day, the walls seem to change color, like they do on the show. The outside walls are Meadow Brook white stucco.”
Dortort's letter of endorsement, displayed in its frame in Rubino's living room, is only one of the unique features of his home, which might have depicted an upscale ranch home during the Arizona Territory in the mid- to late 1800s — the time in which the television series is set.
“‘The High Chapparal' has always been very close to my heart,” Dortort's letter states in part. “By all means, you have my blessing to call your fine new house ‘The High Chaparral.' I hope it will be an omen of good luck and happiness for you and your wife for many years to come.”
However, almost from the home's beginnings in 1997, Rubino with his wife Sue were plagued with bad luck. His first contractor went out of business, leaving them with an $8,000 debt that almost caused Rubino to give up his dream and leave the Yuma area. Not one to give up easily, he became his own contractor, hiring local help to complete the 2,700-square-foot project.
He wasn't alone though. One actor and stunt coordinator for other TV westerns, the late Bill Catching, called in to former Yuma sheriff John Phipps' local radio talk show one morning, and Rubino recognized the name. He phoned Catching, who invited him over, and Rubino found that Catching lived on a horse ranch about a half mile down the road.
“It was Bill who warned me that the contractor was about to deflect,” Rubino said. “He kind of got the ball rolling.” He and Rubino remained good friends.
At the entrance to the property, visitors encounter the sign that announces “High Chaparral,” suspended from a crossbar set upon 18-foot-tall wooden beams. The eight-by-eight beams were sculpted with a machete and then coated with diesel fuel to age the wood.
The dusty circular driveway takes visitors to the covered front porch, where between the two front doors hang bleached a bleached steer's skull and antlers. Beneath the antlers and skull that adorn the white portion of the exterior wall, the exterior colors contrast to correlate with the home's interior wall accent colors — chili pepper and robin egg blue. Just as in the television model, the front of the home has no windows.
Near the front door, a wagon wheel leans against a porch pillar not far from a one-armed saguaro, purchased from a neighbor who no longer wanted it on his property.
Those who don't want to “sit a spell” on the wicker furniture on the porch can enter the home's custom designed 7-foot wooden double doors, each of which has a hinged speakeasy-style window about the size of a four-by-six note card, covered with wrought iron. Outlaws paying a visit in the Old West might have expected to face a gun barrel sticking through the wrought iron bars over those windows.
Mounted upon the wall to the left of the front entry, a gun rack, built exactly like the one in “The High Chaparral,” contains facsimile guns and a holster belt.
“Another bridge we had to cross and yet retain the authenticity of the home was with the spindled door to the left as you enter the house,” says Rubino on the TV show's website. “On the show, the door has no windows or glass in it — Victoria simply unfolds the bi-fold doors. But these doors don't lock and are far from being secure. What we came up with are two glass French doors inside that close and lock, and the outside spindled doors can be seen (whether they are opened or closed) when the French doors are opened. I had special removable screens made that snap into place over the spindles to keep out any unwanted Arizona insects!”
Near the entry to the living room, a white bannister in the shape of a trapezoid appears to be made of thick adobe. It partially hides two small staircases — one to the right, another to the left that lead up toward one of the home's special features — a raised hallway that extends from the living room to the bedrooms and bathrooms. Set diagonally, the gleaming terracotta tile — the color of burnt sienna — leads the eye toward the end of the hall, lit by a skylight. There, in a slightly recessed alcove, hangs an autographed picture of “The High Chaparral's” 11-member cast, seven of whom are now deceased.
On a wide adobe-looking shelf at the entrance to the hallway sits a lamp made of mesquite, whose base contains the autograph of Don Collier, the actor who played ranch foreman Sam Butler in “The High Chaparral.” Collier created the lamp of mesquite from his Benson, Ariz. ranch, as he did with three other lamps in the High Chaparral home.
On the east end of the living room, a log ladder stands beside a colorful serape. The ladder might have extended up onto the roof like a trap door, if Rubino had installed one. Just as in Hollywood though, some the home's features are just for show.
Just as in the TV show, the office is in the correct position as it was in the show, and that is where the Rubinos' home office is, too. However, on the set, the door to the office opened into what is the raised hallway.
“It was just geometrically wrong,” said Rubino. “If you had gone through that door, you would have fallen onto the lower floor.” He added, “That's Hollywood.” He explained that the television series' outdoor scenes were filmed in Old Tucson, but the indoor ones were filmed on a Paramount Studio soundstage in Hollywood. Also, his home is 10 feet deeper toward the back of the property, since a movie façade for “The High Chaparral” has no need for more space.
The southeastern portion of the living area has a ceiling lower than those of the rest of the living room area. That portion of the ceiling is covered with the ribs of dead saguaros that lie across four long wooden beams.
Just as many westerns feature cowboys and Indians, the High Chaparral home also features both. In the hallway beside the bedrooms and main bath are two pieces of art — the work of John McCabe, a Yuma Navajo, whose father was one of the Code Talkers of World War II. The face of McCabe's father is illustrated in one of the paintings.
Two Apache spears, angled toward either side of the horns of a longhorn steer, provide part of the décor above the living room's fireplace with its flagstone hearth. The fireplace mantle, a scorched wooden beam heavily bolted to the wall, is home to several kachina dolls. Elsewhere in the living room, woven rugs — mostly of Navajo origin — are displayed on the walls or on the bench of the old Hammond organ, one of several musical instruments that Rubino plays.
On the west wall of the living room hangs an authentic, beaded leather Shoshone quiver with its arrows, purchased from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Above the quiver hangs a peace pipe adorned with decorative Navajo beadwork, purchased from Navajo traders who came to Yuma selling their art.
More Native American art is in the kitchen — pottery, for instance, in an oak curio cabinet with glass front and sides. On the wall above the kitchen's bar hang three decorative spoons whose art appears to be sand paintings — the products of Navajo women.Some of the décor incorporates the influence of Mexico, too. On the dining room wall is a painting of a matador taunting a bull. On each side of the painting is a wrought iron sconce, each holding three red candles. Each sconce has a decorative sombrero suspended from it.
The lighting throughout the home consists of mostly wrought iron sconces with lights that resemble candles. The chandelier above the dining table also contains electric lights that resemble white candles.
The other exterior front door features shutters of solid wood, inlaid with iron grates to allow a view of the front yard. The shutters' interior handles—heavy, spiraled iron — are made to look as if they have rusted.
The front yard adds a touch of the Old West, too. Near the front gate stands a windmill not far from an old wooden water tank on a raised wooden platform. A broken down buckboard sits near a replica of an old family burial plot. What resembles two headstones placed side by side is a copy of the Ten Commandments. To the north side of the burial plot stands what might have been the bunkhouse, which for now is the log skeleton of a ramada with a sloped roof.
“We used to park under that,” Rubino said. “It had arrow grass and palm leaves. It used to give a lot of covering.”
To the left of the house, where the barn would have been in “The High Chaparral,” stands the garage, whose exterior colors match those of the house. On the road leading toward the back of the property stands a dilapidated wickiup, which Rubino says that he needs to improve.
In fact, his plans for the future of High Chaparral call for putting a smaller version of a Western set such as what a visitor might see in Old Tucson on the back of his property.
As for visitors, Rubino welcomes them if they will call to arrange a visit. His guest book contains 18 pages of names. Some folks have come from as far away as London and Australia. Others were also cast members of the show.
Rubino said that several of the show's actors and others connected with “The High Chaparral” plan to attend the show's annual reunion in Tucson, March 22-24. Among them will be Don Collier (Sam Butler), Henry Darrow (Manolito), Rudy Ramos (Wind) and Kent McCray (the show's production manager).
Additional details can be viewed at www.thehighchaparralreunion.com or about the Rubinos' home at www.thehighchaparral.com.