Sunday, May 28, 2023

Esplugus remembers its golden years as a set of 'Spaghetti Westerns' [archived newspaper article]

 The Balcázar Film Studios hosted fifty shootings of western films in the 1960s, until a Francoist minister ordered their demolition

La Vanguardia

By Mari Carmen Gallego


    [Image of the filming of 'Pistoleros de Arizona' in the Esplugas City]

Almeria was not the only home of the Spanish Spaghetti Western. In Catalonia it also had its small set, located in the middle of the first metropolitan crown, although there is almost no trace of it. Neither in physical space nor in collective cultural memory. “Gunmen of Arizona”, “A Pistol for Ringo” and “Now They Call Him Sacramento” are some of the western films that were shot during the 1960s in the town known as Esplugas City, a large set built by the Balcázar Film Studios in Esplugus de Llobregat. The company, one of the most important of the time, already had some filming studios in the same city, playing Cornellà, and looked for a plot in which to record the exteriors.

"The western was a genuinely American genre, but those responsible for Balcázar had a vision and detected that the genre would grow in Europe," recalls Juan Salvador, a resident of Esplugus who knew the town firsthand and author of the book Más allá de Esplugas City. Those responsible for Balcázar Film Productions, the brothers Alfonso, Francisco and Jaime Jesús, detected the importance of having a stage to shoot films known as Spaghetti Westerns, set in the Far West but shot in Europe, since it would lower recording costs.

Time proved them right and in fact after Esplugas City the three villages of the West were built in the desert of Tabernas de Almeria: Fraile (1965), Juan García (1966), and in Gérgal the town of Tecisa (1966).

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the town’s construction. “We want to remember it from a playful point of view,” explains the Councilor for Culture, Eduard Sanz, who recalls that the consistory has commissioned the Consell de Nens to propose activities to publicize this heritage of the city.

Studios and exteriors

The Balcázars had no relationship with Esplugus but the fire of the facilities they used on the mountain of Montjuïc in Barcelona and the impossibility of restoring them made them look for a new space in the Barcelona area. "The place chosen was Esplugus where they placed the studios, with more than 5,500 square meters of sets, and the sets in which the exteriors were recorded, with more than 10,000 square meters that were previously fields," recalls Juan. In the Esplugas City more than forty buildings were recreated, from the saloon to the sheriff's office through the warehouse, the barbershop, the blacksmith shop, the hotel, the bank or the church. Most of the buildings were complete although others had only built the façade and there was nothing inside.

Juan Salvador recalls that the town operated at full capacity between 1964 and 1967. "It was filmed throughout the day and even at night," he recalls, and points out that "the construction of the B-23 motorway meant the expropriation of the town and the construction of a much smaller one on the other side of the highway, where the school of La Mallola is currently located."

Although the village was in the center of the town, it was a closed space that could not be accessed by neighbors. "The relationship more than economic was anecdotal," explains the Councilor for Culture. "I entered once thanks to the mediation of the guard of the enclosure, a retired civil guard," explains Juan. The actors and workers also did not relate to the neighbors. The expert Juan Salvador recalls that "the company had a hotel in Barcelona where the actors stayed, who were transferred to the Esplugues studios to make them up and then to Esplugas City to shoot".

The operation of the installation did involve a certain relationship with some company in the city, such as the Fíguls pastry shop that made the candy with which the windows of the living room were built so that they could be broken without the actors suffering damage. "The students of the Isidre Martí school when they left class went to collect the remains of caramel crystals and ate them like lollipops," explains Juan, who remembers that some neighbors had also collaborated as extras in some of the productions. The neighbors of the area also lived with the noise of the shots coming from Esplugas City.

The artistic director of the town, Juan Alberto Soler, also had to look for resources to prevent the reality of the city from sneaking into the shootings. To do this, for example, he placed a tower with a large water tank to cover the antennas of the buildings or a chimney two meters high to make sense of the smoke coming out of the Pujol i Baussis ceramics factory, which had two chimneys that worked alternately.

From theme park to pasture of the flames

The move to the new location, at the end of the sixties, coincided with the decline of the genre, which revived with the saga “Now They Call Him Sacramento”. At the beginning of the seventies, the Balcázar brothers, seeing the decline of the genre, tried to convert the space into a theme park, which would have been the first in Spain. They got the permits but couldn't make it happen.

If a fire took away the studios of the Balcázar in Barcelona, another did it with those of Esplugus, although for different reasons. The Francoist Minister of Information and Tourism Alfredo Sánchez Bella discovered the town one day when he was driving into the city of Barcelona from El Prat airport. He considered that it "gave a bad image" to Barcelona and decreed its dismantling. Faced with the high cost of demolishing the village, those responsible for the company decided to record one last film, “Now They Call Him Sacramento”, which ends with a fire that destroys the entire town. "It was a spectacular fire that was recorded with three cameras, in case one failed, because it could not be repeated," recalls Juan, who believes that in this way there was a dignified exit to Esplugas City.

On the occasion of the half century of the launch of the town, the city council also proposes activities to publicize this past of the city. In this way, for example, the medieval market that is organized within the framework of the festival will be this year a western market and an exhibition with images of the time is also prepared.

[Image of the arson that destroyed the town in 'Now They Call Him Sacramento']

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