The history of Yuma's movie magic

Yuma and nearby Imperial Sand Dunes have been making their mark in Hollywood for more than a century
Imperial Sand Dunes
Posted at 8:37 PM, Mar 10, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-10 23:37:03-04

YUMA, AZ — It may look like you're in the Sahara Desert as you drive on Interstate 8 just west of Yuma - but you're really much closer to home than what it may look like outside your window.

The Imperial Sand Dunes, while technically in California, are just a short drive from Yuma and have long been a staple of living in Southwest Arizona.

"I grew up here and lived here all my life," said Anthony Fernandez, a native of Yuma. "I like the sand dunes. They are beautiful."

Hollywood has also taken notice of how marvelous the dunes are; they've filmed some of our favorite all-time movies there, dating back more than a century!

Perhaps the most well-known being 1983's, "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi." Remember that epic battle scene on Jabba's barge? Historians say that was filmed in "the Dunes" as Yumans would call them.

And that's not all - other movies like Casablanca, Morocco, and more recent ones like Jarhead and Jumanji: The Next Level all reportedly shot scenes in the Dunes as well.

"A lot of times, since we are a smaller community, they kind of don't believe it," said Joe Teposte with Vist Yuma.

Teposte has lived in Yuma for most of his life and tells ABC15 the area's "movie magic" also brings plenty of visitors, especially during big Star Wars anniversaries.

"A lot of people do come down and they want to see the sites and they want to see the places these movies were done."

In addition to the tourists, it also brings the moviemakers themselves.

"They stay here, they eat here, they drive out there for filming...you've got the staff coming in, the actors coming in — it makes revenue for everything," Teposte said.

But it's not just the Dunes experiencing that movie magic: Rumor has it that Marilyn Monroe stayed in the Hotel San Carlos in downtown Yuma on her honeymoon with Joe DiMaggio!

There are even rumors John Wayne rode his horse into the lobby of the hotel!

Other films like Casablanca, Psycho, and Raiders of the Lost Ark also shot scenes in and around Yuma, according to historians. Not bad for a place some people have incorrectly labeled as just a "stopover" on the way to another, larger city.

"That's the misconception - they think it's just a pitstop or a go-between or restroom stop between San Diego and Phoenix and vice versa."

"This is just one of things that make our community that diamond in the rough," Teposte said.

Yuma's movie magic is something Fernandez knows all too well.

"My father was in the one of the movies," he said.

His father, who was a WWII veteran and POW, worked on a war movie in the 1940s that was filmed in the Dunes.

"He was part of the explosions where they would get shovels and throw dirt up into the air," Fernandez said.