This weekend, we drove north to Santa Clarita Valley to attend the annual Cowboy Festival at Melody Ranch – a working movie ranch that’s normally closed to the public. Melody Ranch has a long history. It was originally known as Placerita Ranch, and its western street provided the backdrop for countless Monogram b-westerns in the 1930s, including (according to our tour guide on the shuttle bus) 30+ titles with a young John Wayne. Gene Autrey, the famous “singing cowboy,” appeared in a number of movies there around the same time – beginning with TUMBLING TUMBLEWEEDS in 1935. He has said that he knew on that first shoot that he wanted to own the ranch one day.
In 1952, he bought the 110-acre property and renamed it after his 1940 film MELODY RANCH. That same year, main street made its most famous appearance on film – in the controversial western HIGH NOON, with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. It also served as a location in hundreds of hours of popular TV westerns over the course of the decade. In 1962, a wildfire swept through Placerita Canyon and destroyed most of the original buildings – with the exception of a house that was being used as a location in the Elvis Presley movie KISSIN’ COUSINS. Elvis himself pitched in and helped firefighters save the structure… but little else survived.
Melody Ranch was given a second life in 1990, when brothers Andre and Renaud Veluzat – owners of the nearby Veluzat Ranch (where the incomparable FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3 was filmed) – purchased the last ten remaining acres from Autrey and began restoring the ranch to its former glory. Not long after that, the ranch became home to a new generation of screen westerns: the 1994 Richard Donner film MAVERICK with James Garner, Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster; the 1995 Walter Hill film WILD BILL with Jeff Bridges in the title role; and the 1996 Walter Hill film LAST MAN STANDING with Bruce Willis… which isn’t technically a western, but is based on a western (A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS... which was based on a samurai movie called YOJIMBO... go figure). More recently, Walter Hill and “Wild Bill” Hickock (this time played by Keith Carradine) returned to Melody Ranch for the pilot episode of the HBO series DEADWOOD. All three seasons of this stellar series were shot on location at Melody Ranch, where visitors can still see Al Swearengen’s balcony, Seth Bullock’s dream house, and Mr. Wu’s bloody pig pen.
In between these two historical epochs, the Melody Ranch environs also played a part in the long-running TV series THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, which I shamelessly admit was a pillar of my childhood. One of the first sights I saw this weekend as we pulled into the ranch was the General Lee (one of hundreds that was built for the show). That’s all it took for me to feel like I was at home. And I’m sure there are thousands of people who feel the same way whenever they step foot onto the dusty trails of Melody Ranch.
Anyone interested in learning more about the ranch should check out the following links:
Santa Clarita Valley History - Melody Ranch
Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio - official site
Veluzat Motion Picture Ranch - official site
Friday the 13th Part 3 - filming locations
Deadwood (Sheriff Bullock’s house)
Deadwood (Wu’s World)
The House That Elvis Saved