The best auto parts store in, say, the galaxy, is in Guadalupe, California. A couple hundred miles up the coast from LA, it’s where you want to be if you have the urge to buy a fan belt, new headlights, various oily fluids. Or you can just wander the aisles, like I did, and discover what you can’t live without, maybe a sponge-squeegee combo like the one I use to thwart my windows’ coastal grime. When you’ve finished shopping, you could offer to leave some little thing, testimony of another world—a bill in foreign currency; a campaign button for a battle now forgotten; a theater program culled from the floor of your backseat, particularly if the stars are known. A paw the size of a car engine, made of plaster now weathered—who left that?
North and west of Guadalupe, down a walkway raised above Oso Flaco Lake, past a sign warning of mountain lions and their preference for children, through dune scrub of native leathery-leaved plants, past the roped and sign-posted snowy plover nesting grounds, along the wild-waved ocean shore, across the inches-deep mouth of the Santa Maria River, I walked into the dunes. Although it was cool that April day, I trod barefoot, my soles massaged by sand. Coreopsis gigantea, a strange, cartoonish plant—thick trunk, three feet high or higher, rubbery leaves sprouting from the top in carrot-like proportions—dotted one hill. The blooming time gone, I saw a lone aster flower. The leaves, a brighter green than most drought-tolerant plants, had already begun to wilt and turn brown, as if paying the price for that color. Veering north, I shoe-surfed down small craters and crawled up the opposite sides, my legs moving just faster than the sand slid down. You can come to the edge of larger bowls, not knowing until you’re there that below your next planned step the sand drops several feet. It feels wildly dangerous, though maybe it’s not.
Sand. The plot of the second half of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 version of The Ten Commandments turns on the misapplication of sand. Made long before Charlton Heston played Moses, the film opens with the biblical basics. It feels short, considering the commotion over the set—the biggest, grandest, costliest of the time—and frantic, relying for dramatic effect in this silent era on Big Eyes and Sweeping Arms. Featuring two twenty-something brothers, and their mother, who’s at least eighty, the second half of the film jumps forward three millennia to show what happens in modern times when you break a bunch of commandments. The bad brother, a contractor building a church, skimps on the concrete mix, adding too much sand, and bribes the building inspector who notices. Later, when the bad brother’s wife discovers his lunch-time tryst, she zooms up a construction lift to be consoled by the good brother, the job foreman. Bad concrete gives way under her feet, and she dangles from a convenient beam. Eventually the concrete church collapses, killing the mom; OSHA comes much later.
Halfway through Peter Brosnan’s unfinished documentary on the sets and the making of The Ten Commandments, appears the title “Dana Walker, Saw the Jello.” Dana says he was seven or eight or nine when he and a friend snuck onto the Paramount lot in the Guadalupe dunes and discovered DeMille’s secret Red Sea. A round tank, maybe fifty feet across, held the Jell-O. Even though it was not very clean, the boys tasted it anyway. Who could resist that red? On film the gelatin is quivery and smooth in the role of state-of-the-art fake sea walls. After the Israelites traverse the sea floor, dripping edges of the parted fluid become buckets of water that bury the Pharaoh’s troops. I watched The Ten Commandments after the documentary, fretting that the two Jell-O banks, if bumped, would slide into each other.
The Napa Auto Parts store in Guadalupe—“J. Perry Auto Supply, Inc.” on a sales slip and “Napa Auto & Antiques” in a Chamber of Commerce brochure—is filled with glorious treasures, of sorts. As curator of his own collection, John Perry displays things meaningful to himself: the metal Phantoms car club symbol he forged in high school, the forty-five rpm record of Perry and the Biscaynes performing “Church Key” and “Moment of Truth,” written by the Surfaris of “Wipeout” fame; things people might have discarded but instead gave to John: an ashtray from a defunct local bar, an old fire extinguisher; and things John acquired by his own volition: wood panel and glass walls from the old Post Office, “Parcel Post—Stamps—Registry” painted on frosted glass above the walk-up counter. These mingle with the new supplies. No lines stake out separate territories of merchandise for sale and antiques on display.
The dunes near Guadalupe have posed not just as Egyptian sand, but also as Algerian sand, in the 1926 film Son of the Sheik, Rudolph Valentino’s last; Arizonan sand, in The Water Hole, a 1928 adaptation of Zane Grey’s Lost Pueblo; Moroccan sand, in the 1930 film Morocco with Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich; and Sudanese sand, in “The Light that Failed,” the 1939 film based on Rudyard Kipling’s novel of the same title. All these places attributed to pieces of rock so small they shift with each breeze.
DeMille feared abandoning his sets when he finished filming The Ten Commandments. Another director could move in and spew out a low-budget movie faster than DeMille could release his. So, he buried them, leaving this clue in his autobiography: “If, a thousand years from now, archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe, I hope that they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization, far from being confined to the valley of the Nile, extended all the way to the Pacific Coast of North America. The sphinxes they will find were buried there when we had finished with them and dismantled our huge set of the gates of Pharaoh’s city.” Hollywood studios have resisted Peter Brosnan’s fundraising efforts to unearth, unsand the sets, but the Bank of America—founded by A. P. Giannini, who bailed out DeMille’s film when Adolph Zukor balked at rising costs—paid for their archaeological mapping.
The Jell-O used for the parting Red Sea could have been raspberry, strawberry, or cherry. All these red Jell-Os were available at the time, in addition to orange, peach, and the brown and yellow flavors: chocolate and lemon. Originally introduced in 1904, chocolate was discontinued in 1927. Twenty-three years on the market—what happened? Did quivering umber suddenly seem portentous, causing us to squirm?
An early history of Santa Barbara County describes Guadalupe in 1874 as a “wide awake little village” with one hundred homes, six shops, five saloons, two hotels, two livery stables, one blacksmith shop, a Wells Fargo & Company express office, a post office (including the parts John owns), and a fruit store. I visited the town on a Friday, a fairly lively Friday, I thought, for a fairly remote town. Although it’s on Highway 1, this isn’t the stretch that coastal travelers might take for the scenery. The biggest excitement around town that day was the news that the mayor had racked up $5,600 in cell phone calls the previous year. “That guy made 160 calls a day!” John said, and the mayor wouldn’t explain. Guadalupe—a town on the move.
Dune sand moved under my feet like dry sub-zero snow, but without the squeaky sound. Behind me, a brisk breeze rounded the edges and filled the valley of each footprint just as a blizzard of snow might. The bulk of the scenes for Son of the Sheik were filmed in Yuma, Arizona, where large fans whipped sand into a required storm. Fans were not needed for the shooting of The Ten Commandments in Guadalupe. In fact, the actors and actresses, protecting their eyes and faces between scenes with goggles and scarves, might have preferred less blowing sand.
A dramatic high point of Peter Brosnan’s documentary centers on his desire to confirm the location of The Ten Commandments sets. He hoped they were buried in the dunes, but had no evidence other than local rumors and DeMille’s book. Captured on film is Marilyn Stanley, employee of Holly Sugar, the company that owned the dunes land in 1923, a company deserving of a five-star award for record keeping. Ms. Stanley was able to produce the original contract for Paramount’s use of the land. It states that the said second party will dismantle all buildings erected on said property of first party and will remove therefrom all said material from said property and all of the refuse and rubbish within thirty days after the completion of said filming. Ms. Stanley next produced a copy of Holly Sugar’s letter to Paramount confirming they had “complied with the terms of the agreement and left the land in proper condition.” A geophysicist’s investigations with ground penetrating radar proved Holly Sugar wrong.
I write as though I know that the gelatin for the parting of the Red Sea was Jell-O. But other brands of gelatin were available in 1923; Knox has been producing it since 1890, though that company didn’t even consider flavored gelatin until 1936. Before commercial gelatin, derived from the animal hides and bones of selected abattoirs—a word that, to me, conjures boutique slaughterhouses—molded desserts and salads required cooks to mess around with soup bones or fish. These would be simmered, then cooled until a translucent jelly formed on the surface, ready to be reduced and clarified with egg whites. The gelatin could then be flavored, colored, textured by beating, and molded into shapes. Traditional Jell-O molds remind me of mythical cathedrals or mountaintops that loom above clouds and imply unattainable knowledge or unattainable fun. Especially in these shapes, the appeal of a transparent food was enormous, then as now.
A dirty, disembodied glove grabs the top of an oil can pyramid. The gold-plated wrenches John won at a Napa event are in the same display case as a soldering gun that you may want and an old photo of the local Druids’ baseball team that you probably won’t. I sense John’s indiscriminate affection for everything in the shop: the staff carried by Rudolph Valentino in Son of the Sheik, a pig-skinning device, a Black & Decker drill, the original ticket shredder from the Royal Theatre down the street, a starter from a ’41 Buick, small wood hieroglyphs that once projected from the movie set. The opposite of the temples in Egypt, where words on exteriors were painted or carved into walls, these hieroglyphs hint at a reverse Egyptian world, temples inflated until the carved forms pushed out.
Traditional concrete formulas from the turn of the century, and still used today, refer to cement, sand, and stone mixtures of 1:2:4, sand filling the space between stones, cement filling the space between grains of sand. Then water is added, inciting these particles to hydrate and harden. The bad brother in The Ten Commandments used twelve parts sand and apparently no stone, but is the good brother right when he says that made the concrete weak? After fifty thousand tests over six years on different concrete formulas, the Duff Abrams study of 1912 concluded, “The strength depends on only one factor—the ratio of water to cement.” Aside from that, by the 1920s, ready-mixed concrete helped control the quality. The more-fascinating-than-you-might-think 1964 Pictorial History of the Ready Mixed Concrete Industry suggests it wouldn’t have been as easy as DeMille implies to double the amount of sand: this was a new industry proving itself.
In the biblical half of The Ten Commandments, the set mimics the entrance to the temple of Luxor, with its colossal statues of Ramses II, the Pharaoh of the Old Testament’s Exodus. It is not dissimilar to what might have stood behind the Colossi of Memnon, a pair of sixty-foot high statues built two centuries earlier. The real colossi now stand isolated in a fertile Egyptian field and seem as out of place as they would in a field of North Dakota wheat—or on a Guadalupe dune. The distant pyramid on the movie set seems merely to signify Egypt, anchoring the film there, rather than in ancient Guadalupe.
When my maternal grandmother died, a friend appeared at my mother’s door, presenting a dish of fruit suspended in clear red Jell-O, because this is what their mothers would have done. I noted this courtesy, and, years later, when the young men three houses away were arrested one dawn for their lawless botanic enterprise, I thought of leaving a note at their door saying, “I’m sorry,” with cookies, or Jell-O. They’re nice men, helped me when my scooter blew a fuse and I didn’t know what to do. Younger than I, they might have grown up on Jell-O flavors unknown in my youth. According to Kraft Foods literature, the ‘60s were a time of “flavor expansion and experimentation.” Perhaps the course of these men’s lives turned a corner when their mothers brought home wild cherry, wild strawberry, wild raspberry.
While I linger at Napa Auto Parts, two customers enter. One, a retiree, says he moved to Guadalupe from Seattle years ago, then tells me about his bypass surgery. When I say, “Take care of yourself,” he tosses off the remark with a scowl, as if to say, “Why bother?” Another man, named Frank, wants to show something to John outside. “Want to watch the store?” John asks me, and barely noticing that I agree, leaves the shop. I’m in charge! I don’t know if I should hope for customers or not. I continue browsing the shelves: a vacuum gage from the old ice plant, small cars of colored glass (Avon, I am later told), a menu from Leo’s Drive-In (Bacon, fifty cents; Ham & Eggs, one dollar), a swan ornament for a ’28 Chevy that once had a thermometer on the backside that could be read from the driver’s seat.
Dozens of pieces of light green glass, each three-sixteenths of an inch thick, and not much longer or wider, lie scattered in the sand. All sides lightly etched, no longer transparent, but translucent, they catch and hold the sinking sun. I can’t tell whether they’ve just been released from burial by the wind, or the opposite—that they will soon disappear. A display at the Dunes Center in Guadalupe recommends lying down on a dune to feel sand blowing over you and to hear its whisper. I am too busy collecting glass. My hand sweeping over the surface of the sand buries too many shards and picks up too much sand, but the pieces I leave will break down until indistinguishable from sand. The glass shards are waiting for me to pick them up and later build small pyramids on the glass surface of my desk. It’s no worse than Mr. Brosnan saying the plaster sphinxes that lined the pathway to Ramses’ temple await rescue from the dunes.
In the movie, the Pharaoh worships a scarab-headed god with appendages that recall antlers, though my insect field guide says they’re antennae of leaf-like plates. This would be Khephri, the Egyptian god who played a major afterlife role during the New Kingdom. Scarabs lay single eggs in balls of dung—why not?—and roll them around for forty days while each hosts a larva-nymph act that culminates in the emergence of a beautiful winged beetle. It’s all symbolic—mud into life—and Khephri further represents spiritual potential. I think it’s a mistake to worship potential. Just give me the winged creature. But I’d enjoy a closer look at Khephri exhumed, and after that, someone might like to have him. For years the Santa Maria Country Club had two of the movie’s twenty-one five-ton sphinxes guarding their driveway entrance. Until succumbing to the elements, they were popular family photo props.
Alcohol was not allowed in Camp DeMille, where the film crew lived, but archaeological evidence indicates that high-alcohol cough syrup was not banned. Anyone who could drink that for fun would probably enjoy Jell-O shots. One party host, C. M. J. Baden of Anaheim, California, suggests combinations that have been “well received,” though he thinks they are rather timid—raspberry schnapps with raspberry Jell-O, Grand Marnier with orange Jell-O. He prefers the heartier Irish whiskey sour Jell-O: 1 small lemon Jell-O, 1 small lime Jell-O, ½ cup Irish whiskey, 2 cups boiling water and 1½ cup cold water; and his World Famous Margarita Jell-O: 1 large lime Jell-O, ½ cup tequila, ¼ cup Triple Sec, 2 cups boiling water and 1¼ cup cold water. Mr. Baden does not recommend substituting all water with alcohol.
When John returns, he shows me an old turning light that, attached to the side of a truck, was operable by the driver flipping it down to indicate a turn and flipping it up when heading straight. John has mounted this signal to some shelves, next to new tail-light lens caps. By now we are friends, and I compliment him on the nice juxtaposition of the old and new lights. And while examining a photo of a handsome young man and his ’53 Buick Skylark, John admits it was him, and I say, with approval, “Look at you!”
The historical location for the biblical parting of the sea, and whether in fact it was the Red Sea, is not known. The words used in the Bible, yam suph, translate as “sea of reeds” and may mean the swampier area to the north. Narrower and shallower, fifteen or twenty miles wide, this location makes more sense than the one-hundred-and-fifty-mile wide Red Sea. Maybe DeMille knew this. The first encounter with the sea in the movie shows, well, not exactly a sea of reeds, but it’s not one hundred and fifty miles wide either. Land in the background looks a lot like San Luis Obispo Bay, not much more than seventeen miles from Guadalupe. And the waves in the foreground look a lot like the Pacific Ocean, but that’s neither here nor there. When DeMille watched his Israelites practice walking a straight path between lines of poles that represented edges of the future Jell-O banks, he was disturbed by the cleanliness of the sand they trudged—a groomed beach, not a drained sea. Think of the hair and scum left in the bottom of your drained tub. Just before the final filming at the zenith of the sun (to avoid shadows cast from the poles), he clamored into the ocean and grabbed armfuls of kelp to line the Israelites’ path.
Although The Ten Commandments was filmed nearly eighty years ago, Peter Brosnan found a few local residents who remembered the event. One segment in his documentary features Ernie Righetti, who, when asked if the filming was something he’s never forgotten, replies informatively, “That’s right.” Another gentleman recalls renting unbroken horses to the film crew that spilled boys all over the road, adding that while he enjoyed the spectacle at the time, when you get older you don’t do those tricks anymore. Actor Pat Moore, who played the Pharaoh’s son, says it wasn’t that hard to play dead when he was carried to the Pharaoh: “You just let your arms go out.” Excellently playing dead in part two of the film is Edythe Chapman. After she’s killed by her son’s collapsing church, her arms go out in much the same manner as Pat Moore’s when the good son carries her to his brother. Some of the old timers interviewed are now dead, and while Mr. Brosnan may not be able to rescue the sets, his great legacy may be the capture of these men’s words.
Howard Hansen, bless his soul, maintains a web site devoted to a home version of Creating the Red Sea in Jell-O. Intending to liven up Passover with some wholesome fun, he explains, “This is a family event, so we tend to downplay the whole killing thing.” He’s referring to the first-born-son killing thing, not the Red-Sea-collapsing-on-the-Pharaoh’s-troops killing thing. He starts with a brilliant yellow Nubian-Arabian Jell-O desert in a rectangular baking pan. An aluminum foil dam—weighted down with coffee mugs and an All-Clad four-quart pan—blocks out space for the sea. After the yellow Jell-O solidifies, he carefully removes the foil; it sticks to the Jell-O, he warns. I thank Howard for coining the term “Jell-O shards,” the stuck bits and the pieces that slip under the foil and need to be removed. “Create terrain,” he suggests as a use for the shards, and this geographical fix looks quite realistic in his photo. Next, he pours un-gelled red Jell-O into the blank space, and when set, this is the Red Sea. It’s easy to imagine what happens next: a slash down the middle of the Jell-O, children’s fingers pulling back the edges of the sea, other fingers safely traversing the bottom of the pan, more fingers running as flaps of Jell-O sea are released.
Real and pretend history blend when the buried Ten Commandments sets are billed as an archaeological find. Stirring this hash is the plea for funds to uncover these sets, whether to acknowledge them as a work of art or to enact the perfect finale for Peter Brosnan’s documentary film. Time equals deterioration, the story now reads, though I would think dry sand not the worst embalmer. The Dunes Center in Guadalupe honors the sets, devoting as much, if not more, space to their mystery than to the endangered snowy plovers that nest in the oceanside margins of the dunes. Save the plaster temple, save the plovers, bring back chocolate Jell-O, and don’t throw anything away—give it to John. In California landfills, new garbage is covered almost immediately and always by that night. Landfills in other states are more fun to visit. People rummage around, take things home—sometimes more than they leave—and ponder big questions: what should be saved, what should be buried, what should remain underground? A 1930 Chevy Repair Manual, vintage fuzzy dice, sphinxes made in Hollywood, a shattered windshield glistening where a buggy drew lines in sand, snowy plovers huddled on one side, the rest of us hot-rodding on the other.