Kanab: Utah’s Little Hollywood

By Stephen B. Armstrong

Settled by Mormon pioneers in the mid-1800s, Kanab, Utah, sits along the highway that links Zion National Park to the Grand Canyon. The majestic landscape circling the city has made this section of the state an important destination for motion picture companies since the 1920s.

In 1967, actor Harry Carey, Jr. came through Kanab and surrounding Kane County with co-stars James Stewart and Raquel Welch to work on Bandolero!, a Western. “There’s something about the country there that is very photogenic,” he recalled in a 2008 interview. “No matter where you put the camera or point it, you’ve always got a pretty good background. There’re some parts in southern Utah that look more deserty and barren, and then you can turn around and just go a few miles, and you’re right in the woodsy country again.”

One of the first Westerns filmed in Utah, The Deadwood Coach (1924), was shot in Johnson Canyon, ten miles from Kanab. The movie’s producers hired Chauncy Parry to transport cast and crew through the rugged landscape, an experience that proved to be lucrative for him. A feature appearing in the Saturday Evening Post explains that Chauncy subsequently set out to promote Kanab and Kane County as “the finest scenic wonderland to be found in the entire West.” To do this, he met with dozens of “Hollywood executives, directors and location scouts,” showing them photographs of the area that he’d taken from an airplane.

In 1931, Chauncy purchased a farmhouse in downtown Kanab that he and his brothers converted into an inn. The Parry Lodge, film historian James D’Arc notes, eventually became “a headquarters for motion pictures companies.” Indeed, the number of movies produced around the city rose considerably after the Lodge opened, among them several low-budget serials as well as Cecil B. DeMille’s blockbuster Union Pacific (1939), starring Joel McCrae and Barbara Stanwyck.

Kanab and Kane County saw more growth in the 1940s. “Oddly enough, with restrictions that most people associate with the World War II economy, that’s when Kanab [exploded] as a movie center,” says D’Arc. Director Fritz Lang, for instance, filmed Western Union (1941) with Randolph Scott and Robert Young in the Paria section of the county, an arid expanse filled with plunging rainbow-colored canyons. In 1943, Republic Pictures sent John Wayne to Paria, too, to make In Old Oklahoma. That same year, William A. Wellman shot Buffalo Bill (1944) in Johnson Canyon. Lore has it that the ease of access from Kanab to geographically-diverse locations so impressed Wellman that he christened the city “Little Hollywood.”

The area retained its popularity through the 1950s and 1960s. Frank Sinatra filmed parts of Sergeants 3 (1962) in Paria, for instance, and director George Stevens shot The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) on the shores of the Glen Canyon reservoir. Yet production in Kanab and Kane County declined in the 1970s, a response, it seems, to the public’s diminished interest in Westerns. One more significant picture, however, did come through the region during this period—Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). But following this, more than three decades would pass before Kane County hosted another big-budget production, Disney’s sci-fi epic John Carter (2012), which, unfortunately, underperformed at the box office.

Nevertheless, hope persists that Little Hollywood will regain its stature as a major production center. “Wishfully thinking, we could get…somebody to come in here and break loose with a major film that hits big,” says stuntman Neil Summers, who worked on The Outlaw Josey Wales. “And then Hollywood would pour in here again. Because hardly anything’s changed. It’s just great.”

Stephen B. Armstrong is a Professor of English at Dixie State University. 

For any press and media inquires, contact the Utah Film Commission at filmpress@utah.gov.