Cruise south an hour from Las Vegas on Route 95, past the odd car, past the blithe cop patrolling you’re-not-en-tirely-sure what.
Slow down as you slide into Searchlight proper, then hang a quick right and into the great Nevada nothing. Imperious sky. Discomfiting quiet. Dirt road, and God help you if you don’t drive a truck or SUV.
At the end of that dirt road, the nothing starts to come back into something. The low buzz of bugs in the scrub; the breeze in the Joshua; a sidewalk with a curious sigil stamped in the concrete. It’s a square with two lines sprouting from it. From one angle it could be an old portable TV set, its rabbit ears recalling the distant reign of Zenith and RCA. But that’s a few decades’ worth of wrong.
It’s an icon of something much older — the sturdy, portable movie camera from the Golden Age of Hollywood that lent its name, walking box, to this place. Wrapped in its Mojave Desert cocoon, the ranch is an artifact of the Silent Era’s more modest excesses, a happy survivor of benign neglect, and one of the state’s semi-hidden treasures that doubles as a prime resource for Rebel history students.
Rex Bell was a pretend cowboy who wanted to be the real thing. Clara Bow was a meteor through the movie industry. Together the two actors fled Hollywood for the refuge of the desert. Bow, a silent star, got her start in 1923 and quickly became one of the top box-office draws in the country.
She was America’s original “It girl” — literally, as the star of the 1927 film It. Betty Boop was modeled after Bow, the quintessential screen flapper.
By 1931, Bow was about done with Hollywood, escaping with Bell to marry in Las Vegas and settle on his newly acquired ranch in Searchlight.
Bell, who starred in a series of Westerns in the late 1920s and through the ’30s, purchased 400,000 acres of land in Southern Nevada, stretching the Paiute Valley from the California border to the Colorado River, so he could will his cowboy characters into real life.
Walking Box cattle grazed from Searchlight to where Laughlin would eventually spring up. Bow did two more films in 1932 and ’33, before fully retreating into private life to raise sons George Jr. and Tony Beldam (Bell’s given name was George Beldam) in the hacienda-style ranch house the pair built there in 1931-32.Tony would later change his name to Rex Bell Jr. — the name under which he’d serve as Clark County district attorney — and donate many of the artifacts from his parents back to the ranch.
From Walking Box Ranch, the elder Bell dove into a political career that would culminate with his becoming Nevada’s lieutenant governor in 1954. It was a career that came with a surfeit of public attention, and that would prove the downfall of Bell and Bow’s relationship. His 1944 Congressional run drove Bow to attempt suicide.
The pair split (though never divorced), and Bow returned to California. In the early 1950s, Bell sold Walking Box to former ranch manager Karl Weikel, who in turn sold it to the mining Viceroy Corp., which used it as a corporate retreat in the 1990s.
In 2005, UNLV, in partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, purchased the 160 acres of Walking Box comprising Bell and Bow’s 6,300-square-foot manor (an early and significant example of Spanish colonial revival architecture in Nevada long before tracts of red-tiled stucco houses dotted the valley) and the surrounding lands and outbuildings.
With that acquisition, the university gained access to a stunningly well-preserved piece of property that could be used for generations of public history students to pore over from angles as disparate as pop cultural, architectural, labor, Western, agricultural, environmental, and material culture history.
Restoring the ranch
History professor Andy Kirk came to UNLV in 1999 to help launch the university’s public history program. Then-U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s office put the Walking Box on Kirk’s radar in 2001. Kirk helped secure a $250,000 grant from the National Park Service in 2004 that he passed along to UNLV’s Public Lands Institute to help cover the property’s purchase.
What he found when he got out there was this sprawling estate virtually untouched from the days that Bow, in a Norma Desmond pique, retreated from the world.
“The old adage in preservation is that benign neglect is the best friend of preservation,” Kirk said. “If you leave a house like the Walking Box, just sitting out in the desert empty, and maybe it’s not really being cared for. That’s way better than if everybody’s interested in it and they tear out the kitchen, they tear up the amazing original bathrooms, or add a big addition that changes the character and footprint. When that happens, the historic value of that place is gone.”
By 2009, Public Lands, with help from public history graduate student Aaron McArthur, helped shepherd Walking Box onto the National Register of Historic Places, setting its place in the preservation firmament. As BLM’s restoration work over the last decade progressed in stop-and-start stages along with the vagaries of federal funding, UNLV was on the sidelines in its role as the curator of the materials inside the ranch house.
But finally, in 2018 it was time for Kirk and fellow history professor Deirdre Clemente to retrieve the Walking Box artifacts from deep storage and begin cataloging them at UNLV’s Paradise Campus. It was the first step to eventually returning those objects to the Walking Box and restoring the home to its original glory for Nevadans to come out and explore.
Along the way, they’ve given UNLV’s public history students a rich field to till, even getting the opportunity to hear Sen. Reid personally grant an oral history interview where he shared his childhood memories of the ranch while growing up in Searchlight.
“The biggest thing with public history is we’re trying to work with the public and get community involvement,” doctoral student Paige Figanbaum said. “We try to forge Hollywood and ranching and telling not only the story of Clara Bow and Rex Bell, but also the story of Searchlight and the Mojave. So by using these objects that people can touch, people are getting these three-dimensional teaching tools and actually understanding and seeing what this history is.”
Kirk and Clemente’s year-long graduate-level Public History Seminar is involved in presenting ideas, including to the BLM, about how to interpret and present the history of the ranch to the public.
The house itself is largely preserved in its Depression-era splendor thanks to Viceroy’s stewardship — the company’s owners wanted to preserve the building’s character. Bars on the window of the kids’ room remain, a product of the paranoia caused by the1932 Lindbergh kidnapping.
Closets, at the time fit for a Hollywood wardrobe but now relatively quaint, still feature adjustable shelving to handle the demands of Bell’s Western gear and Bow’s kimonos. The vanity where Bow would apply her makeup is intact, as is her own purple-tiled bathroom.
The star of the home is the great hall, a huge open space dominated by a rough stone fireplace. It was the common room where Bell and Bow would gather with Hollywood pals like Errol Flynn, Lionel Barrymore, and Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Around 1941, Walking Box Ranch entertained Gen. George Patton and his troops training in the Southwest.
The class has catalogued artifacts that stretch the history of the ranch, with particular attention to its earlier years, including furniture for the great hall which Clemente said is expected to be moved back to the ranch this winter. It will be the first time the original furniture is back in place since the 1940s.
“I studied the 1920s so for me it was like, ‘I have access to this place?’” Clemente said. She first visited the ranch in 2010. “It was instant love. This thing was like nothing I had ever seen or understood. And over the course of that semester, I spent many days out there and it made me fall in love with Nevada. You could smell in the air the changes of the desert.”
Once the furniture is restored to the ranch, the challenge becomes educating the public about the resource nestled into the Searchlight outskirts. It already sees groups two to four times a month, but it could become a destination for school field trips and more frequent tours after the furniture is repatriated.A nonprofit group, Friends of the Walking Box Ranch, recently formed so community members could help give tours to the property, as well.
“Searchlight is amazing, and they love this place,” said Joe Varner, manager of the BLM’s Sloan Canyon Natural Conservation Area. “This place has been here for almost 90 years, and there’s no damage. I have one little BB hole in one window — that is it. It’s been crazy to me how much people love this place, and that they care for it and people know not to mess with it .”
That idea — that the Walking Box is something precious, crystalized in the desert’s amber — is what makes it so valuable to historians and to Nevadans at large. Maybe it wasn’t what Rex Bell and Clara Bow had in mind when they built their badlands Xanadu, but history doesn’t always meet intent.
Bell thought he’d serve Nevada by seeking its highest offices. Instead, Walking Box may go down as his greatest public service.
“There are amazing ranching properties in Nevada,” Kirk said, “but what’s unique about the Walking Box is that convergence of pop culture, ranching, Hollywood, environmental history, and everything else. There’s nothing like that in Southern Nevada. That place embodies the intersection of multidisciplinary research that is at the heart of our public history program.”