MS. REBECCA SHEIR
So we've all heard of ghost towns, right? Well the town we'll be talking about next could kind of qualify as just that. It's called Almeria and though it's way off on the southern coast of Spain, chances are, you've probably seen it.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
During the 1960s and '70s, Almeria was host to dozens of filmmakers and movie stars. Whether a director wanted rolling dunes, desert mountains, or a rocky coastline, Almeria always fit the bill. Photographer Mark Parascandola has family roots in southern Spain and 50 years after the filmmaking boom he's introducing D.C. to Almeria with a new exhibit at the embassy of Spain. Emily Berman, formerly known as Emily Friedman, congrats on the wedding Emily, brings us the story.
MS. EMILY BERMAN
There's the scene in "Lawrence of Arabia," when the city of Akaba is attacked. But what you see isn't really Akaba, its Almeria.
MR. MARK PARASCANDOLA
Well, so "Lawrence of Arabia" was one of the first big productions and David Lean and his crew had been filming in Jordan and basically it got too expensive. Spain at the time was cheap, labor was cheap and it was after that that a lot of other directors started to come. All of Sergio Leone's early spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood were filmed there.
MR. MARK PARASCANDOLA
Patton, Cleopatra, with Elizabeth Taylor.
For most of the 20th century, Parascandola says Almeria was one of the poorest regions in Spain. When Hollywood directors started showing up in the 1960s and '70s everyone got excited that their little costal town could be something more.
They thought that they were going to be the "Hollywood of Europe." Big named actors passed through there, Sean Connery, Claudia Cardinale, Elizabeth Taylor, many of them multiple times, making different films.
For many European directors, it was cheaper to film in Spain than to go to the America West.
You had in Almeria 360 days of sunshine a year and then of course these incredible landscapes, which really look like you're in a Southern California or in Nevada somewhere.
Thousands of people went to work, making costumes and building sets. Parascandola photographed one of the most iconic sets called "Mini Hollywood" which is built for the Leone film "A Few Dollars More." For a set built in the mid '60s it's in pretty good shape. Parascandola explains that's because it's not just an old set. It's a business.
And they do every day, they do a few of these Western shows where they reenact an episode that could've been in a film, you know, with a gunfight and all that.
What you hear is an actual scene from one of the reenactments. It's from a video Parascandola shot while working on this photo series. Typically, he says there's a bank robbery then the sheriff shows up and then there's a gunfight.
There's always a scene with a hanging.
Yes, a hanging, yes. pretty much everyone ends dead in the end.
And the tourists love it?
They do, yes.
Parascandola documents crumbling historic buildings used as bad guy hideouts. The desert sun gives these old painted shacks a Technicolor glow. One print hanging in the exhibition at the Embassy of Spain shows a giant hotel abandoned midway through construction. This is the exact spot, he says, where the crew of "Lawrence of Arabia" built the city of Akaba.
How did this era in Almeria's history and this, these events, impact the town, just in terms of this culture of Almeria and the spirit of the people there?
Many people in Almeria got involved in working on the films in some way or other. So it certainly affect them, many of the people who remember that time are now gone. There's a danger of it being lost.
The province's boom years were short-lived. After about two decades of jobs, money and movie stars, all these things began to slip away. By the late '70s, westerns weren't as popular as they used to be. In the '80s Steven Spielberg shot "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" there. But other than that apart from the occasional music video or car commercial, Almeria is pretty much a ghost town.
Except for the occasional run-in with a local.
So one day I was at, taking photographs at the set from the "Condor" and a fellow shows up with a rifle and pointing his rifle at me and I just said, "I'm talking photographs." And he said, (speaks foreign language) which, you know, means we could shoot you.
That's funny, that you almost became a character in one of these westerns.
That's kind of how I felt at that time, yes.
He stepped away from the man, a little frightened, he says, but also quite pleased to see the gun slinging rough and tumble spirit lives on long after Hollywood walked away. I'm Emily Berman.
You can view "Once Upon A Time in Almeria" at the Embassy of Spain through November 14th. And you can check out some of Mark Parascandola's photographs on our website, that's metroconnection.org.
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