Raising the sphinx, meet the people behind a movie set restoration project

Posted at 9:25 PM, Apr 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-24 00:25:13-04

It started as a piece of one of the biggest movie sets ever created. 

Nearly a century ago, Cecile B DeMille commissioned a set 12 stories high and 800 feet wide. It was built on the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes.

More than 3,500 people were brought in to work on DeMille’s epic silent film, "The Ten Commandments." After filming wrapped, the set was too big to move so it was buried in the sand. It stayed until 2012 when director Peter Bronson set out to find the buried treasure.

"It took a very long time to get to the point of excavation and he excavated enough to make his documentary film but didn’t want to continue on anymore," said Doug Jenzen, the executive director of the Guadalupe Dunes Center.

Relics from that first dig greet visitors in the center. Jenzen said one of the archaeologists approached him with a picture of the partially uncovered set and warned saving the rest of it was a race against time.

"So at that point, it just kind of fell into my lap. Do I continue to let this thing decay? Or do I start a fundraising campaign to try and rescue it," Jenzen said.

He’s spent years raising money and organizing archaeological digs to save a piece of Central Coast history.

"It’s a really unique piece of community heritage. It’s not like anything else on earth," Jenzen said.

But the project was still a long way from being finished and that’s where art restoration specialists come in. They’ve been traveling to the center from Southern California piecing together what is basically a huge jigsaw puzzle.

"All morning I was searching for something to define our edge line because I want to know where it ends so I can move into the center," said Christine Muratore Evans, an artist working on the restoration.

The artists say the painstakingly slow process is a chance to preserve history.

"This is a rare treat and the fact that Doug Jenzen has been able to raise money to try and continue to excavate larger and larger pieces, and this last time we were very successful," said Amy Higgins who usually works as a building conservationist. Her experience working with plaster is perfect for putting the plaster statue back together.

"This project becomes bigger than itself (just putting the puzzle pieces back together). I find that It’s a time capsule. It’s a time capsule of American culture," Muratore Evans said.

The whole process is being displayed and shared with local students and visitors alike.

"There’s nothing quite like seeing the look of awe on a small child’s face when they walk in and see this ginormous statue that is from their community,"  Jenzen said.

Those faces make it all worth the effort for everyone working on the project.
"I’m honored to work with a great team of people. Doug and his intentions are also magnanimous in that way, so it feels like everyone is on the same mission beyond this," Muratore Evans said.

Jenzen says the project is a great fit for the Dunes Center; helping to interpret the history of the area. 

There is now a fundraiser underway to move the Dunes Center into the former Far Western Tavern building where the sphinx can be assembled and displayed.