Cecil B. DeMille and the Guadalupe Dunes

In 1923 Cecil B. DeMille, one of Hollywood’s leading directors, started work on his biblical epic, The Ten Commandments. A stickler for details he was hoping to film in Egypt but the idea was quickly axed by the studios. Instead they gave him a more practical location, the Guadalupe Dunes on California’s Central Coast. On this lonely expanse of sand DeMille built lavish Egyptian sets…and quickly ran over budget. So much so that when production ended the sets were simply dismantled and buried in the sand. So began the legend of  the“Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille.”

I’d long been aware of the “lost city” but I recently learned the whole story when I visited the Dunes Center in the small town of Guadalupe, CA just north of Buellton.

When I entered the center I was immediately greeted by an amiable docent who told me all about the dunes and the tale of the “lost city.”

The dunes, which lie right on the coast, are largely formed by the area’s strong winds. As such, they’re constantly shifting and changing shapes. So much so that it didn’t take long for the Ten Commandments sets to be completely buried after filming wrapped. The crew simply needed to lightly cover them and the wind did the rest.

For the residents of the area, it wasn’t so much of a secret and throughout the 1930’s folks would scavenge items and many props ended up as lawn ornaments, even decorating the local country club! But then the war came and Americans had more important things on their minds. Through the years, the winds kept howling burying the sets deeper and deeper until they were long forgotten.

Flash forward to 1983 when, based on a line in DeMille’s autobiography, a group of film fans decided to mount an archeological dig on the dunes and, lo and behold, there were the remains of the 60 year old set.

Since then two more official digs have occurred, in 2012 and 2017, and more artifacts have been discovered. So much so that the Dunes Center is currently adding a wing to accommodate them all and in a few months they’ll be on display.

After hearing the fascinating tale I had to check out the dunes myself. In the years since filming the they’ve become a wildlife refuge, the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge to be precise. On my visit, it was indeed windy and quite cold so I didn’t stay too long.

But it was fun to stand there and imagine the biblical epic being filmed all those years ago. who knows what treasure laid buried beneath my feet! It just proves you don’t have to be in Hollywood to still fee its magic.

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