Tag Archives: cowboy festival

Santa Clarita TV Tour: Gunsmoke

I’ve been thinking a lot about Gunsmoke this week (I’m sure you have too, right? Anyone? … Anyone?)

It actually makes sense because I’ve been spending lots of time lately at the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio in Newhall preparing for this weekend’s Cowboy Festival.

For several years until the Western town at the ranch burned down in 1962, Melody Ranch was the home of Gunsmoke.

Gunsmoke began as a radio show in 1952, and was adapted to television three years later, where it would remain at or near the top of the Nielsen ratings for 635 episodes over the next twenty seasons. The series was intended as a Western for grown-ups, with grittier and more realistic stories than those filling the airwaves at the time.

After the Veluzat family purchased the ranch from singing cowboy Gene Autry in the early 90s, they rebuilt the Western town in meticulous detail, re-creating Dodge City in the process.

This weekend I’ll be taking groups of Old West fans on a couple of behind-the-scene tours of the ranch, pointing out Marshal Matt Dillon’s old jail, Miss Kitty’s Long Branch Saloon, and the Dodge House Hotel.

Gunsmoke landed in my thoughts a couple other times this week.

On Wednesday, I wrote about the 20th anniversary of the passing of Ken Curtis, who for many years played deputy Festus Haggen.

Also on Saturday, I will be part of a panel discussing the two versions of True Grit, and whether or not Hollywood is seeing the return of the Western.

I discovered that Kim Darby, who played Mattie Ross in the original version of the film in 1969, was only selected for the role after Mia Farrow dropped out. Producer Hal Wallis was scrambling to find a replacement, when he turned on the television and found his girl.

And do you know what he was watching that night?

You guessed it: Gunsmoke.

Nostalgia & Novocaine

After high school I left Indiana, where I had lived my entire life. Soon afterwards, I discovered the books of Kurt Vonnegut, who was also from Indiana.

Vonnegut, who died four years ago this week, taught me many things in his writings, including that a body of water near the town where I grew up had the name Lake Maxinkuckee, and was not named Culver Lake like I had always believed. Vonnegut used to vacation at Lake Maxinkuckee as a kid.

Vonnegut, who was born into a prominent Indianapolis family in 1922, seemingly knew everything about the area he was born, and somehow worked Indianapolis into nearly every book.

I, on the other hand, knew next to nothing about my town, despite having lived there for 18 years.

This realization was brought home again to me last week as I was sitting in a dentist chair. While waitingfor the novocaine to take hold, I read from a book about Gene Autry called Public Cowboy No. 1 by Holly George-Warren and was shocked to see the town of North Judson, Indiana – my town – mentioned inside.

It turns out that at the height of the Depression, the singing cowboy came to the Gayble Theatre, our tiny movie house, and played a show that night before the featured film. 

It may not sound like a big deal, but I had never heard this story (or for that matter, had never seen my micro-community’s name in print). I would have thought this tale would have been regaled by at least one overalls-wearing old timer at every fish fry, high school basketball game, and tractor pull.

I’ve been feeling a bit nostalgic since, and thanks to the web, I’ve learned more stories about North Judson this past week – both good and bad – than I did during all the years I lived there.

I found out that in 1889 a world lightweight boxing championship took place in an opera house in Judson. It ended in a draw after a match lasting over four hours and 64 rounds.

And on a darker note, I also learned that the KKK once marched down Main Street in 1923, and someone, presumably a Klan member, blew up the Catholic parsonage that same year.

It’s also triggered memories of the Gayble, which was a brick 488-seat Tudor Revivalist gem, where I saw my very first movies on screen.

One of my goals is to return to Indiana for an extended period of time so that I can make a documentary about the places that Kurt Vonnegut mentions in his books.

If this ever happens, I plan to make it back to North Judson, to find the site of the opera house (which I never knew existed), and to have my heart broken at the vacant lot where the Gayble once stood (it was demolished in 1999).

If it’s summer when I make it back there, I may even take a dip in Lake Maxinkuckee … now that I know it’s real name.

(Speaking of Gene Autry, I will be giving tours later this month at Melody Ranch, Gene Autry’s old film lot, for Santa Clarita’s Cowboy Festival.)

The Black Hills of the Santa Clarita Valley

Newhall’s famous Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio has been made to look like lots of places in films and television episodes over the years. For three seasons beginning in 2004, it modeled for the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory for HBO’s gritty Western drama Deadwood.

Deadwood told the tale of a lawless mining camp that quickly sprang up on Indian land during the Black Hills gold rush of the late 1870s. The show was a brilliantly produced, unromantic view of the Old West, with tough language and even tougher characters. It was the creation of Writer-Producer David Milch and starred Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane.

The ranch’s Western Town set was as much a character in the show as any of the actors. Over the course of the series, the producers employed an army of painters and set builders to gradually change the settlement from a temporary tent city to an established town. The wood on the building fronts was even artificially aged as the series wore on to show the passage of time.

The show was famous for its use of profanity, which was liberally sprinkled into nearly every exchange. It has been estimated that the F-word was used nearly 3000 times over the show’s 36 episodes, averaging out to 1.56 times per minute.

Actors Keith Carradine, as Wild Bill Hickock, and Timothy Olyphant as Seth Bullock, from "Deadwood's" first season.

Legions of the show’s followers were heartbroken when it ended abruptly in 2006 after the conclusion of its third season. (Kimi and I experienced heartbreak earlier when Wild Bill Hickock was gunned down in the first season.)

Fans still wishing to step back into the 1876 town of Deadwood, Dakota Territory will be happy to learn that most of the Deadwood sets still stand at Melody Ranch. The town can be visited during specially arranged tours, as well as during Santa Clarita’s Cowboy Festival, which takes place every year during the last weekend in April.

The Grand Ole Autry

Multimedia star Gene Autry.

Of all the more than 2400 performers who have been immortalized with terrazzo and brass stars embedded into the Hollywood Walk of Fame, only one has a star in each of the five featured categories of film, television, music, radio, and live performance. Can you guess who it is?

Bob Hope? Nice try, but he only has four stars.

Frank Sinatra? Danny Kaye? Good guesses, but only three stars each.

I don’t know? … Elvis?

Nope. “The King” has only one star, but the true King of Hollywood Boulevard is none other than the great singing cowboy, Gene Autry.

One of Gene Autry's five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Singing Cowby Superstar Orvon Eugene Autry was born on this date in 1907 in the Red River Valley of Texas and grew up on a ranch a few miles to the north in Oklahoma. After high school, Autry worked as a railroad telegrapher during the graveyard shift where young Gene would entertain himself playing the guitar and singing.

Autry signed his first recording contract with Columbia Records in 1929 and later hosted his own music show for four years on WLS-AM in Chicago where he met singer-songwriter Smiley Burnette. Autry’s biggest hits came in the Christmas music category where he struck gold with “Santa Claus is Coming To Town,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.He would eventually record over 600 songs – half of which he wrote – and would sell over 100 million records.

Hollywood soon came calling and Autry and Burnette went west to star as singing cowboys in pictures for Monogram, which was later absorbed by Republic Pictures. He made dozens of enormously successful cowboy films over the next twenty years atop his horse Champion, with Burnette often playing his singing sidekick. From 1940 to 1956 he would also host a successful radio show called Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch.

He invested the millions he earned wisely in real estate and broadcasting. He was the long-time owner of L.A.’s KTLA television station as well as of the baseball team that is today known as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

A recent photo of my film class at the Melody Ranch gates.

Melody Ranch, another former Autry property, is a film ranch located in Newhall, California. Melody Ranch has a history stretching back nearly 100 years, and has been the filming site of thousands of Westerns, including many made by Autry. He was able to acquire it in 1953 and used it daily for film and television production until August 1962 when a brushfire burned most of it to the ground. Autry had intended to build his museum at the ranch, and much of his priceless personal memorabilia was destroyed in the fire. The museum was later built in Griffith Park. For the next three decades the property served as a retirement home for his horse Champion.

In 1991, brothers Renaud and Andree Veluzat purchased the ranch and re-created the Western Town from old photos. It has since been home to dozens of commercials, films, and television shows, including the spectacular HBO series Deadwood. (Fans can get a peek inside the Melody Ranch gates during Cowboy Festival, which takes place every April.)

Autry passed away at the age of 91 on October 2, 1998, just three months after the death of his friend and rival Roy Rogers.

(For more on Warner Bros. Sunset Studios, which later became KTLA, check out my new book Images of America: Early Warner Bros. Studios, which I co-authored with Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker.)

The New Home of the Old West: Melody Ranch

The portal to the Old West. The gates of Melody Ranch.

As a fan of the Old West, I’m lucky to live in Southern California’s Santa Clarita Valley, because this is where the Old West happened. Everything associated with that colorful era took place right here and is remembered in tales of cowboys, Indians, range wars, train robberies, gold discoveries, oil wildcatters, stagecoaches, claim jumpers, bandits, and shootouts.

As a fan of Westerns, I’m doubly blessed, because this valley is also the place where the Old West was portrayed to generations of movie viewers around the world. Literally thousands of Westerns were brought to the screen from movie locations within a few miles of my house. One of these special places is the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio in Newhall, California.

The history of Melody Ranch stretches back nearly 100 years to the earliest days of Southern California filmmaking. The name “Melody Ranch” may sound familiar to old-timer fans of Gene Autry’s radio show of that name. Autry was indeed the owner of the ranch for nearly 40 years, but ironically, he never recorded his radio show there. He did use the lot to film dozens of his own Westerns, and it was here that epic films like Stagecoach (1939) and High Noon (1952) were brought to the screen. Several long-running television shows were made here as well, like Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, The Cisco Kid, and Wild Bill Hickock. The character of Wild Bill returned to Melody Ranch from 2004 to 2006 when HBO’s highly-acclaimed Western series Deadwood made its home here.

On Saturday, Kimi and I were able to peek behind the scenes of the movie lot with about a dozen members of a film history class I teach in Newhall. The tour was conducted by Sue and Renaud Veluzat (two of the nicest people in the valley), who along with Renaud’s brother Andre, have owned Melody Ranch since 1990. Gene Autry, the previous owner, bought the ranch in 1952, but had used it primarily as a retirement home for his horse Champion after a devastating brush fire turned the lot to ash in 1962. After Champion died, Autry sold the 21-acre ranch to the Veluzat brothers who painstakingly rebuilt the lot’s former Western Town.

A "captive" audience. My film class in the Melody Ranch jail.

The members of our group were the only people on the lot that morning, and I quickly found myself imagining that I was strolling through an Old West ghost town that had been hermetically-sealed in time. The Veluzat’s conducted thousands of hours of research on the Old West, and constructed their town to look authentic, meaning shoddy in many cases, because that is how a hastily-constructed boomtown like Deadwood in the Dakota Territory really looked.

A highlight of the tour was the visit to the Ranch’s museum. It is one of the great hidden jewels of Los Angeles County, housing dozens of vintage movie props and automobiles from the Veluzat family’s own collection of memorabilia.

If you are into movies and the Old West, or better yet, movies about the Old West, do yourself a favor and visit Melody Ranch. It is open to the public on one weekend a year during Santa Clarita’s Cowboy Festival in April. Special tours can also be arranged through the ranch’s website.