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Down on Main Street at Melody Ranch

Owners of working studio take us on a tour of their western sets.

Posted: April 20, 2008 12:08 a.m.
Updated: June 27, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Andre and Renaud Veluzat take a stroll down the freshly refurbished Main Street at Melody Ranch. The otherwise deserted set seemed surreal. In a week, thousands of western fans will pack the street for the 2008 Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival.

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"Fifteen years!" Renaud Veluzat remarked to his brother Andre, as the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studios owners stood on the porch of their production office, admiring Buck Taylor's original poster art for the 2008 Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival. "It's hard to believe we've been doing this that long."

The Veluzat (pronounced val-u-ZAY) brothers and the historic Melody Ranch with its old western town have hosted the annual west-fest since 1994, when the city of Santa Clarita began producing what has become one of Santa Clarita's biggest annual homegrown events, now drawing around 10,000 Santa Clarita Valley locals and out-of-towners each spring.

"People come from all over the country and beyond just to see the ranch and attend the festival, and without Renaud and Andre and the entire Veluzat family, we wouldn't have been able to have such a successful event at such a famous location," said Gail Ortiz, city spokeswoman.

Located in the "30-mile zone" surrounding Hollywood, the studio is a closed, working movie set the other 51 and a half weeks of the year.

And one knows the brothers are hands-on ranch guys just by shaking their hands, which are tough as leather.

Between and sometimes during production, the Veluzats start meeting in June with Mike Fleming, the city's Arts & Events supervisor and Cowboy Festival director, to begin planning the next spring's roundup.

"It's almost a year-round process," Renaud said. "In our first meeting we talk about the last festival and how we can improve the next one.

We choose a date, which sometimes can be tough. If the ranch is doing a show in the meantime, we may have to work around production stuff.

Then it takes most of the rest of the year to plan and to get all the entertainment booked and vendors signed up and ads placed and everything."

'Deadwood' done gone
From 2004-2007, the studio was four-walled by director/producer David Milch, who shot the gritty, very adult western "Deadwood" and then the short-lived contemporary surf-themed drama "John from Cincinnati" series there, both for HBO.

During those years, the Cowboy Festival carried on as usual, but the production company prohibited festival-goers access to some of the sets, especially the interiors.

Last year, after "Deadwood" ingloriously rode off into the sunset and "John..." wiped out with critics and viewers, Milch's crew moved off the lot, so access is therefore less of an issue at this year's Cowboy Festival.

Then, Nov. 5, the Hollywood writers went on strike, and production at the studio went south for the 100-day duration.

"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 out a lot of dirt."

"(Main Street) is more level now - it was difficult for some people to walk through," Renaud said.

"Now, the buildings are mainly open for the vendors to set up and sell their merchandise, which is good," Andre said. "It gives us more area to work in and people can move around more."

"So we've improved (Main Street) from last year, and we're ready to go again," Renaud said, as he and his brother and a visitor jumped into a golf cart for a quick ride to see the refurbished storefronts. With all the natural wood, the street looked sepia-toned even when viewed in living color.

Living history
Tucked between the oaks on 22 acres in Placerita Canyon, Melody Ranch is legendary among western filmmakers, actors, stuntmen, and just about anyone who knows anything about the western and B-western film genre. Its storied Main Street is among the most-filmed in movie history.

The Veluzats have owned the studio since 1990, but it first opened for filming 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, most of them in glorious black and white.

During the 1940s, singing cowboy Gene Autry also filmed many of his features at the studio, known then as Placeritos Ranch, and bought it from Monogram Pictures in 1952. By then Monogram had shot more than 750 B-westerns there. Autry dubbed it Melody Ranch, and throughout the 1950s and early '60s, when television was young and westerns were popular among viewers and much less expensive to produce than feature-length movies, the set was home to scores of small-screen productions.

Among the famous western TV series filmed at Melody Ranch were "The Gene Autry Show" (costarring Pat Buttram), "The Lone Ranger" (starring Clayton Moore) "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp" (Hugh O'Brian) "Gunsmoke" (James Arness, Milburn Stone, Amanda Blake, Dennis Weaver and Ken Curtis), "Hopalong Cassidy" (Bill Boyd, Edgar Buchanan), "Annie Oakley" (Gail Davis, an Autry discovery), "Rin Tin Tin" (aka "Rinty"), "The Cisco Kid" (Duncan Renaldo, Leo Carillo) and "Have Gun, Will Travel" (Richard Boone).

Between series, the studio was also the location for classic big-screen western features including "High Noon" (Gary Cooper, 1952); "The Man from Del Rio" (Anthony Quinn, 1956); "Tension at Table Rock" (Richard Egan, 1956); "Man of the West" (Gary Cooper, 1958); "The Gunfight at Dodge City" (Joel McCrea and Julia Adams, 1959).

Destruction, restoration
In 1962, a fire swept through Placerita Canyon, and wiped out the venerable Main Street. Autry maintained the rest of the ranch for his horse Champion until the trusty steed's death in 1990. When Autry put Melody Ranch up for sale, the Veluzats purchased it, meticulously and faithfully restored the famous Main Street, and once again made it available to TV producers and filmmakers.

In the '90s, the Veluzats purchased 74 truckloads of Western doors, windows, bars, and swinging saloon doors from another studio that was doing their Western Town Film Studio spring cleaning, according to Renaud.

"This contributed greatly to our ability to complete the restoration," he said. "We have more than 65 storefronts, some of them with permanent interiors, such as the church, hotels, bank and jailhouse. The town can be signed and dressed to meet any filming company's needs. We also have many props available for rent to help dress a set if desired."

Restored Main Street storefronts also include a bath house, saloons, a cigar shop, gallows, a grocery store, livery/feed stable, lumber yard, a mission, side streets, telegraph office, theater, trading post and more.

In 2006, the Veluzats completed building the ranch's 20,000-square-foot Soundstage C, used for interior scenes for all kinds of films and TV productions. That augmented the existing 1,200 square-foot Soundstage B. Both are soundproofed, fully insulated and air-conditioned, powered by 6,600-AMP electrical service, allowing production of just about anything from commercials to features, anytime.

Also on the lot are offices for production, wardrobe, hair and makeup, plus an art department, and a shop for construction and props.

Melody Ranch Museum
Several years ago, the Veluzats converted a small three-bedroom Spanish-styled house - built on the ranch in the early 1920s and originally called "The Hacienda" - into the Melody Motion Picture Ranch Museum.

"We've been collecting all the old photos, books, memorabilia, etc. for a long time now," said Sue Veluzat, Renaud's wife, who works in the studio's production office.

"This year, we received some new stuff from Gene Autry's museum that (his widow) Jackie Autry donated to ours," Andre said. "We have an old, old surrey Gene used on the ranch back in the '40s. If you've watched those westerns, he always seemed to use the same one. And now it's here. We also have some of the mechanical horses Warner Bros. used in 'The Last Samurai,' and they look pretty real."

"It's always amazing for people as they go through the museum to see some of this history, like the full saloon bar from 'The Shootist,' John Wayne's last western," Renaud said. "To see all the memorabilia
- Gene's original boots that he wore in different shows, guns and cars from his original series, the wagons from 'Maverick' and so much more stuff - it really takes you back in time."

The Veluzats are always on the lookout for donations and contributions to the museum that could be tax-deductible.

Now shooting at the 'other' ranch
Andre and Renaud also own the Veluzat Motion Picture Ranch, a 750-acre film location 30 miles north of Los Angeles, where sets include a complete Spanish town with church, hacienda and cantina; a '50s town with diner and gas station; and assorted ranch houses, cabins and barns. Backgrounds range from desert to pine forest, with an open-area mesa, meadows and a lake.

"There is a show going on there right now, a western - they've been there almost a month," Andre said. "They wanted a Spanish town. And another (film) will follow that, for the Hallmark Channel."

Back at Melody Ranch, this year's festival almost shared the lot with the production crew for Adam Sandler's next film, "Bedtime Stories," but, Andre said, the actor "broke a leg playing basketball, so they moved the filming schedule up and it will shoot after the festival.

"Unfortunate for him, but great for the Cowboy Festival."

Also on the horizon, Renaud said, are some new westerns to be shot on Main Street. The Veluzats are in discussions now with "a major network company," Renaud said. "We don't really want to unveil anything yet, until we get it signed on the dotted line."

The ranch and museum are open for private tours, school field trips and special events only by arrangement - and at just about any time other than during the Cowboy Festival, when the Veluzats are slightly busy. Call (661) 259-9669.

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