Some longtime film production workers called Imogene Hughes the queen of the Western movie sets.
She often would drive onto her Bonanza Creek Ranch south of Santa Fe while a production was filming, with her hair immaculately set and her attire appropriately Southwestern and outdoorsy. People, including higher-ups in the movie industry, could easily become enamored with and intimidated by her, said film set construction coordinator Arlen Johnson.
“She demanded respect,” Johnson said of Hughes, who died Monday. “That was important, and so were manners — ‘Yes, ma’am, no, ma’am.’ ”
Hughes died of natural causes Monday in her home in Pueblo, Colo., at the age of 89, one of her daughters, Denise Spaccamonti, said Friday.
“She loved the state, the cattle, the movie business. She worked hard,” Spaccamonti said. “She worked with legislators to create incentives to bring the entertainment business into New Mexico.
In 2018, Imogene Hughes was inducted into the New Mexico Film and Television Hall of Fame for her work building the movie industry within the state.
Johnson, who knew Hughes for close to 40 years, said many in the film business treated her like “our Aunt Imogene.”
Hughes was born April 25, 1932, in Lenapah, Okla., to Ed Sanders and Marie Tevebaugh, both of Cherokee descent, her daughter said. Her family moved to Pueblo, Colo., when she was 8. There she got a cosmetology license and ran a beauty shop for years.
Hughes told The New Mexican in a 2011 interview she decided to make a new start when she turned 50 and moved to New Mexico, where her parents had once lived. While taking courses to become a real estate agent, she met Santa Fe rancher Glenn Hughes. Having been married and divorced, Imogene Hughes had no intention of marrying again until Glenn Hughes asked her out for lunch.
“One thing led to another. One month later, we were married,” Imogene Hughes said.
Glenn Hughes, who died in 1998, came from a family of ranchers who for years ran the Forked Lightning Ranch near Pecos, as well as Bonanza Creek Ranch.
Bonanza Creek had hosted film productions for decades. In the mid-1950s, director Anthony Mann filmed the James Stewart revenge Western The Man from Laramie there, though the ranch did not yet have its collection of film sets. According to a 1994 New Mexico magazine article, cattle drive sequences for the 1960s television series Rawhide also were shot there.
After their marriage, Glenn and Imogene Hughes, who continued to raise cattle on Bonanza Creek, became known for running the property as an increasingly popular place to film shoot’em-ups.
Late in 1983, Columbia Pictures contracted with Bonanza Creek Ranch to build sets for the film Silverado, released in 1985. After that, the ranch became popular with filmmakers looking for landscapes containing mountains, prairies and streams. Among the films and television series shot at the ranch are Lonesome Dove, The Missing, Cowboys and Aliens, Astronaut Farmer and, currently, according to Johnson, Chupa.
Imogene Hughes was a fair but tough negotiator who knew her business when she was dealing with movie production people, said Rebecca Puck Stair, a location manager who befriended Hughes and often worked with her to rent the ranch.
“She had this way of being so sweet and driving a hard bargain at the same time,” Stair said. She said Hughes enjoyed getting to know the people she worked with and invariably wanted to “chit chat” before getting down to business.
She said Hughes was curious about people’s personal lives, the movie business, cows and cowboys, and what was happening at the state Legislature. She said Hughes would lobby lawmakers and governors to build support for filmmaking in New Mexico.
Stair said Glenn and Imogene Hughes had “an enormous hand in laying the foundation for the movie industry [in New Mexico] today.”
“We would not be where we are with the movie business today if it were not for Imogene and Glenn. They saw the future” of filmmaking in the state, she said.
Stair said the couple had the sense to make deals with movie companies that ensured the sets those companies built for films stayed on the property. She said there are at least six standing sets with cabins, barns and a fort on the property, located south of Santa Fe.
Once those companies took root on the ranch to film, Hughes would be both warm and welcoming — offering coffee at all hours, checking in to see if the roads were usable — and strict about such on-set rules as adhering to the ranch speed limit of 15 miles per hour, Johnson said.
Imogene Hughes also rented out the ranch for weddings, photo shoots and music videos and offered it free of charge to nonprofit and church groups. “Freebies are my way of giving back to the community,” she told The New Mexican in 2011.
She said, at the time, she was still up to the challenge of running both a working ranch full of cattle and a movie production location.
Asked when she planned to retire, Hughes said, “I’m a rancher, and ranchers never retire.”
Spaccamonti said her mother, who turned strangers into friends overnight, often told her she had no plans to retire. “She said, ‘I’m going to work until I die.’ And she did.”
The ranch will continue operating as it is now under the guidance of Spaccamonti’s brother, Richard Hughes, she said.
Imogene Hughes is survived by four children, six grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren, Spaccamonti said.
The family plans to hold a memorial service for Imogene Hughes on the Bonanza Creek Ranch sometime in November.