Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Movies in the Santa Clarita Valley - Part 3: Melody Ranch

If you drive east on Lyons Avenue in Newhall from Interstate 5, eventually you will hit a dead end at Railroad Avenue. There are stores, franchise restaurants and gas stations and, in this post-real estate boom, a disturbing amount of traffic. The only things that hints at any uniqueness are a few Western-style buildings. Railroad Avenue itself is occupied by various run-of-the-mill businesses such as insurance agents and pizza parlors. Nothing out of the ordinary for a suburb of Los Angeles. Yet tucked away behind Railroad Avenue, off of Placerita Canyon Road, is a location that is anything but. If you consider how many people have watched movies over the past eighty years, the movie locations that make up Melody Ranch have arguably been seen by more filmgoers than any other location on earth.
The area around Melody Ranch, originally called Monogram Ranch, has been used for movie locations since 1915. By the time the ranch was sold to Gene Autry in 1952, 750 B Westerns had been filmed at Monogram Ranch. In a 90 day period in 1940 alone, 30 movies were filmed. Leon Worden, in an article for The Signal in 2003, writes, “They’d rename a few buildings and swap out the signs at city limits so that at one moment in 1955 you’d be in “Wichita” with Joel McCrea, and the next you’d be in Dodge City for an episode of “Gunsmoke.”

These numbers don’t include other genres that also used the property. For example, Bella Lugosi, struggling to regain the fame he acquired as Dracula in 1931, was signed by Monogram Studios in the early 1940s, and starred in 10 horror films – all filmed at Monogram Ranch. But Monogram was the palace for the B Western, and any major cowboy star and those that were up and coming stars at one point or another worked at Monogram. William S. Hart, Gary Cooper, Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, and Bill Boyd were just a few. Johnny Mack Brown filmed 60 movies there alone over a 10 year period.
In 1933, Bob Steele, up and coming actor and son of Monogram writer Robert Bradbury, brought in a high school friend to work on one of his dad’s pictures. The friend, Marion Morrison, would star in several pictures at the movie ranch and eventually would be known as John Wayne.

The original founders of Monogram Studios, Trem Carr and W. Ray Johnston, brought in a man named Ernie Hickson who ostensibly was hired as a writer but eventually would be known as a set design and art director genius. Besides being gifted in set design, he was also a historian and a collector of Western memorabilia.

This possibly may have been what made Monogram Ranch so unique. Besides the natural topography of the area that lent itself naturally to the Western genre, the construction of the studio sets on the ranch were much more than the facades that you normally associate with movie sets. Hickson and Carr built a self-contained town with homes, corrals that were actually used for stabling horses, and a restaurant and a bunkhouse used by the film crews. The buildings were constructed with aged lumber Hickson brought in from Nevada. Besides the western town, there was a log cabin and pioneer settlement, a Mexican hacienda, an Indian village, a schoolhouse and a trading post. The ranch, besides being used by Monogram Studios (which eventually merged with Lone Star, Liberty Films, Mascot Pictures to become Republic Pictures), was leased and heavily used by other studios.
During the 1930s and 40s, the property virtually became an assembly line, but that doesn’t mean that it was used strictly for low-budget and questionable quality Westerns. Rather, many a famous film used Main Street as a backdrop, one of the most famous being the final showdown in “High Noon.”

After Gene Autry bought the property in 1952, he changed the name of the ranch to Melody Ranch after his film with the same name, and continued to lease out the property for numerous movies and television shows. Movies studios continued to heavily use the property, but more television shows began to be filmed there. First “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp,” starring Hugh O’Brien began to be filmed there in 1955, and Gunsmoke was started the same year and would continue to be filmed at Melody Ranch.

Then, in 1962, a devastating fire in Placerita Canyon destroyed 15 buildings at Melody Ranch. The famous Main Street was gone. (A side note of trivia: it is said that Elvis Presley, on location at the ranch for a still photo shoot, helped fight the fire with water buckets and helped save one of the buildings.)

After the fire, Autry continued to use the property for a few productions, but it was a fraction of the previous volume. Autry could not bring himself to spend much time at the ranch and eventually used the property as a retirement home for his horse Champion. (Although some sources say this was Champ III which would make more sense, because these sources say that Champion died in 1990). Autry’s second wife began to sell the property piecemeal in 1981, and after the final Champ died in 1990, the final acreage was sold off.

But it was not for naught. Two brothers, Andre and Renaud Veluzat, who had grown up in the movie production and rental business, were the buyers of the final acreage in 1991, and immediately began to rebuild Main Street using old photographs and films as guidance.

Now it is used by producers year round - maybe not as heavily as it was in the 1920s and 1930s -but still enough so that the ranch is booked year round. One of the latest series to be filmed there was a Western: Deadwood.

Melody Ranch is not open to the public except for one week during the year when it is host for the annual Cowboy Poetry Festival.

Sources for this post:

Melody Ranch: Movie Magic in Placerita Canyon by Leon Worden. The Signal, March 29, 2003.
The Melody Ranch Official Web Site
The Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society Web Site


Oscar said...

I used to watch those old movies with Johnny Mack Brown, my favorite at the time, Bob Steele, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers when they came to our small town for the Saturday night movie, but never knew where they were made. Thanks for the article and the work you put into it.

Laurie Powers said...

Glad you liked it Oscar. I'm really enjoying writing them.

Richard Prosch said...

Melody Ranch has been part of an 20 year long ear worm for me via the original "Matinee at the Bijou" theme song! (It's on YouTube)
I always wanted to visit!

Great series, Laurie --and a bunch of them would make a right fine travel book!

Laurie Powers said...

Thanks, Richard! I'll have to check out the YouTube spot. As for the travel book, you've got me thinking now..

Tinsley E. Yarbrough said...

Boyd Magers sent me your recent three-parter on filming in the Santa Clarita Valley. Excellent! Your readers may be interested in purchasing THOSE GREAT WESTERN MOVIE LOCATIONS, my chronicle of western movie-making in the Santa Clarita Valley and over 100 other filming sites. It's a 365-page hardback with over 400 photos and stills and a comprehensive index. Leonard Maltin says it's "as good as any [location book] I've seen. . . Well worth having." Boyd Magers has termed it the "ultimate locations guidebook." The book can be purchased for $40 pp via check or PayPal order from Tinsley E. Yarbrough, 337 Glenn Court, Greenville, NC 27858.

Laurie Powers said...

Tinsley, your book sounds great. While my posts are more of an overview, I'm sure your book goes into more detail. Sounds like a winner. I may have to get a copy myself. And thanks for the nice words - I'm really having a good time with this.

Evan Lewis said...

Sounds like a magical place. If I ever make it back to Californy...

E and A said...

The owners now are my dad's cousins, in 2000 some time we had a family reunion there and had a private tour. it was so awesome. what a great piece of history they were able to bring back.

Laurie said...

Are they the Veluzat's? I am going to go to the Cowboy Poetry Festival at the ranch at the end of April - I guess that's the only weekend during the year that it's open. I'm really looking forward to it. Thanks for stopping by the blog!