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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.