Fatal movie-set accident in New Mexico – bitter memories in Ridgecrest

Fatal movie-set accident in New Mexico – bitter memories in RidgecrestBy ELIZABETH BABCOCK, Local Historian


“I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about the shooting on the set of “Rust” and how similar it was to the Wayne Carpenter death we experienced 50 years ago.” – Liz Babcock

As Ridgecrest learned last week of a fatal gun accident on the Santa Fe set of the Western film “Rust,” the incident brought fourth bitter memories of a far too dramatic theatrical death 50 years ago during the dress rehearsal for the Bakersfield College Desert Division (Cerro Coso predecessor) production of “Oliver.”

Starring in the production as Bill Sykes was Wayne Carpenter, a PhD chemist at China Lake and the father of six children. Carpenter, who arrived here as a member of the Research Department in 1969, had made his name on the base in the field of organic chemistry.

But his passion involved sharing his golden basso voice and his heartfelt acting style in an astonishing array of leading roles in local theater. Already he had starred as King Arthur in “Camelot,” Billy Bigelow in “Carousel,” Gaylord Ravenal in “Showboat,” Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha,” and more.

In 1971 after his shooting-star career on the local stage, Carpenter had made up his mind to scale back his theatrical activities. But he took one final role because his children wanted to appear in “Oliver” as Feagin’s boys and crowd members and he thought it’d be enjoyable to share the experience with them.

Thus it was that on Wednesday, March 17, 1971, Carpenter was high on a scaffold, as his part required, being chased by armed “police.” His children were there watching.

Marine Sgt. Wint Dillon in his guise as a policeman fired what he presumed was a blank, and Carpenter immediately fell to the stage. At first the other players thought the fall was an extra-realistic fake, but they soon realized that their friend was dead. Dr. Peter Pinto, who was at the college for a separate event, was called in and accompanied Carpenter in the ambulance. “He never regained consciousness,” said Pinto.

Subsequent investigations revealed that Pat Schwarzbach, the production’s director, had delegated the armaments job to Dillon, who then worked with Ralph S. Gilbert to prepare blanks for use in the .38 caliber gun used in the scene. A tiny shard of metal had remained in the “blank” Dillon used in the scene, but that was enough to pierce Carpenter’s heart and kill him instantly.

Needless to say, that production of “Oliver” was never presented. Many years later, Elena Vitale directed a popular new version for local audiences.

As I write this, no conclusion has been reached about the “cold gun” used in the recent fatal accident, but I can’t help thinking that it must have been a similar money-saving measure that resulted in the recent tragedy.

CLOTA Courtesy photo: Wayne Carpenter as Don Quixote and Chuck Wilcox as Sancho Panza look toward the Impossible Dream in a scene from the Community Light Opera and Theatre production of “Man of La Mancha.”

Story First Published: 2021-10-29