It takes a lot of imagination to look at the sandstone bluffs and rugged terrain of the Santa Susana Mountains and see the perfect site for an encampment of green-skinned space aliens or an island in the middle of the ocean.
But creatively making fantasy and the imagined come to life is what Hollywood does best. And Hollywood has loved the rolling hills and scenery in and around the site of the former Santa Susana Field Laboratory since the early days of the film industry.
From the films of legendary singing cowboy Gene Autry to Wonder Woman and Star Trek, the natural beauty of Santa Susana — and later, the facilities used for research and testing on behalf of the U.S. government — have been a backdrop and movie set in Hollywood’s colorful history.
Current and former employees of Boeing and its legacy companies have had a front row seat.
“The first filming I saw at Santa Susana was the helicopter from the 1980s TV series Airwolf circling the site,” remembers Thomas Tarn, a test engineer at Boeing Rocketdyne from 1984 to 2007. Tarn currently manages Boeing’s Satellite Propulsion Test group in El Segundo.
“In the finished episode they made one of the test areas at Santa Susana into an island laboratory,” Tarn said.
If you’re having trouble picturing the site as an island, imagine a village of space aliens in an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, filmed along Coca Rd. near the property’s southern border.
“Some employees watched from about 50 yards away, out of camera view, but close enough to see the actors in their alien makeup and costumers, with different color skin and pointed ears,” Tarn said.
Another former Boeing Rocketdyne employee, Larry Manring, 83, has a direct connection to the Hollywood film industry and Santa Susana. While working as a second- or third-shift site mechanic, Manring was also a part-time stuntman for several studios in the 1950s and 60s.
“My specialty was Western stunts, like falling off horses and getting in fights,” he remembers. Although he didn’t perform any stunts shot at Santa Susana, Manring’s favorite site film memory is close to a stuntman’s heart.
In the 1978 film Hooper, actor Burt Reynolds portrays a stuntman who, in one scene, jumps out of a helicopter and lands on a large air mattress set up near one of Santa Susana’s rocket engine test stands. “I was a real-life stuntman watching Burt Reynolds play a stuntman in a scene shot at Santa Susana,” Manring said.
He didn’t get a chance to meet any of the film or TV stars, mostly because of his schedule, but other employees occasionally did get to mingle with the actors, Manring said. He retired from Boeing in 1993, although he continued consulting on projects until 2009.
Tarn and Manring grew up in Southern California and saw a lot of movie making in the area as kids. Both men look back with pride at the Santa Susana site’s role and mission in the country’s space exploration.
“Boeing Rocketdyne was my life; we were making history, and I was part of it,” Manring said.
Watch clips of Westerns shot in the Santa Susana Mountains, selected by the Chatsworth Historical Society: https://www.youtube.com/user/chatsworthhistory1.