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Mamas, let your babies grow up to be cowboys

Annual Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival rarin' to go

Posted: April 18, 2008 6:40 p.m.
Updated: June 27, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Jack Lilley is a 2008 Walk of Western Stars inductee, part of the 2008 Cowboy Festival in Santa Clarita.

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Five days of celebrating the Santa Clarita Valley's western heritage and film history begin Wednesday, April 23, as the 15th annual Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival stampedes into the legendary Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio, the William S. Hart mansion, Rancho Camulos and other area locations associated with local Western history.

An estimated 10,000 western music and culture fans of all ages are expected to attend the family-friendly event, staged since 1994 by the city of Santa Clarita.

On Saturday and Sunday, April 26 and 27, the festival will present live western music and cowboy poetry performed by more than 30 artists on the main Melody Ranch stage and two smaller stages.

Featured performers include legends of the genres, among them Grammy-nominated singer-guitarist Don Edwards, vocal trio The Sons of the San Joachin, and tall-tales-teller Waddie Mitchell, as well as rising stars such as The Quebe Sisters Band and their triple-threat Texas fiddles.

The talent lineup also includes renowned swing trio Hot Club of Cowtown, the all-acoustic family group The Sons and Brothers, award-winning duo Belinda Gail and Curley Musgrave, western swingers Cowbop, storyteller-yodeler Gary McMahon, musician-storyteller-horse trainer John Moore and his band, 2006 Western Music Association Crescendo award winner Eli Barsi, cowboy comedian Pat Richardson, cowboy-TV host-solo performer Larry Maurice, and more.

"Don Edwards and Sons of the San Joachin are regular and popular acts, and my philosophy is to bring them back," said Mike Fleming, arts and events supervisor for the city of Santa Clarita, and director of the Cowboy Festival each spring - a process that starts the previous summer.

"We also bring in high-quality acts that people haven't seen," Fleming said. "We introduced The Quebe Sisters Band two years ago, and they were so popular we brought them back this year. Cowbop has been well-received in the past and is back. John Moore will debut his cowboy music this year. I've known him for years. He's a great flat-picker who plays guitar and mandolin, and a real cowboy who flies to Europe to train horses in clinics."

Between main and side stage performances, festival-goers have more to see and do.

Shop for western gear and Cowboy Festival swag on Mercantile Row and at the Trading Post. Watch demonstrations of trick roping, blacksmithing, quilting and cowboy cooking. Get lost for hours in the on-site Melody Ranch Motion Picture Museum. See history come alive as people in authentic western dress wander around the ranch acting like they're in a time warp back to the 19th century.

"We've added lots more elements to the living history part of festival, a big boost from last year," Fleming said. "Main Street will be incredibly active. It's a more kid-friendly environment, too. They can learn how to make ropes, and there's a life-sized Fiberglas horse they can sit on and try to rope a mechanical steer head, which is a lot of fun."

The Gold Rush Food Court is another popular festival attraction every year - especially the festival's signature Cowboy Cobbler.

"Everybody's waiting for that Cowboy Cobbler," grinned Andre Veluzat, who with brother Renaud owns the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio, the storied 22-acre Placerita Canyon location that's renowned among western filmmakers, actors, stuntmen and just about anyone who knows anything about the western/B-western film genre.

The studio opened in 1915, and produced an endless string of hard-riding shoot-'em-up westerns starring legendary cowboy actors including William S. Hart, Gary Cooper, Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, Bill Boyd and John Wayne.

Singing cowboy Gene Autry also shot many of his features at Melody Ranch, and bought it from Monogram Pictures in 1952; by then Monogram had filmed more than 750 B-western movies at the ranch. In the '50s and early '60s, TV production was king, and "The Gene Autry Show" (with Pat Buttram), "The Lone Ranger," "Wyatt Earp," "Gunsmoke," "Hopalong Cassidy," "Annie Oakley" (starring Gail Davis, an Autry discovery), "Rin Tin Tin" and "The Cisco Kid" were among the famous western series filmed at the ranch.

Now that HBO's gritty western series "Deadwood" is dead, the formerly off-limits interiors of the set buildings along Main Street will also be open to vendors and the public.

"That's the most exciting thing this year," Andre said. "People can walk through the set and really get the feel of the Old West like it used to be."

After "Deadwood" wrapped, the same production company filmed the short-lived HBO series "John from Cincinnati," and then the Hollywood writers went on strike.

"That kinda put a damper on things, but it gave us the chance to repair things and put the town back like it was in 1865," Andre said. "We moved some signage around and moved a lot of dirt."

"(Main Street) is a more level street now - it was difficult for some people to walk through," Renaud said. "So we've improved it from last year, and we're ready to go again."

Leading up to the big weekend are three days of related events, including the "Silver Screen Cowboys and More" western movie festival at the Repertory East Theatre in Old Town Newhall Wednesday night, April 23, and the Chuckwagon Dinner Show with music by Juni Fisher at the William S. Hart Park's Heritage Junction, also in Newhall, Thursday night.

Friday is chock-full of cowboy-centric events, starting with the Californio Fiesta de Rancho Camulos with Don Edwards at 11 a.m. Next, at about 3 p.m. on the sidewalks of Old Town Newhall, the Walk of Western Stars will gain three new five-pointers, as stars for actors David Carradine, John Saxon and Jack Lilley will be unveiled in a special ceremony to be attended by all three.

A trio of festival happenings - all starting at 7 p.m. - make Friday night a tough choice. First is the Walk of Western Stars gala dinner and awards ceremony at the Hyatt Valencia, formally inducting Carradine, Saxon and Lilley. Larry Maurice will emcee the affair, with Bruce Boxleitner (of "How the West Was Won" and "The Gambler" fame, and a 1990 Walk inductee) set to introduce the three honorees.

The gala will also include a special video tribute to Jack Williams, the famed stuntman/actor and longtime Newhall and Agua Dulce resident who joined the Walk in 2005, and rode off into the sunset last April.

Tickets are a bit pricey at $100, but worth it to be able to rub elbows with a roomful of living western icons (the catered dinner isn't half bad, either).

Alternatively, there's the Fillmore & Western Railway Company's "For a Few Dollars Less" murder mystery train dinner, boarding 6:30 p.m. at the station in Fillmore. Adults ($59) and kids 13 and younger ($30) get to feast on an all-you-can-eat spaghetti (western) dinner while western characters play out clues that help riders solve a mystery.

Forget about the third event - "An Evening with The Sons of the San Joachin" at the William S. Hart Mansion - unless you already have a ticket; it's sold out.

On Saturday and Sunday, there's no public parking allowed at Melody Ranch, but festival-goers get to park free in the big open field at 13th Street and San Fernando Road and ride to the ranch in air-conditioned shuttle buses. Individual day tickets will be on sale in the lot for people who didn't buy them in advance.

For more information, or to purchase tickets in advance, call the city of Santa Clarita's Arts and Events Office at (661) 286-4021 or visit www.cowboyfestival.org.

For more about Melody Ranch Studios, visit www.melodyranchstudio.com.

See this year's official Cowboy Festival program and "A Closer Look" at the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio in the Sunday edition of The Signal.

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