Director-Editor Kirk Murray (red shirt) preps a scene for “Six-Gun Savior” on Main Street, Melody Ranch. The indie film is due out in 2014. Click images to enlarge.
“Last year was pretty good, and this one’s been a good one so far,” said Renaud Veluzat, co-owner of the world-famous Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio, a setting for Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” in 2012 and thousands of classic and obscure Western and action films and TV shows going back to Hollywood’s golden age.
A man of not too many words, Veluzat wasn’t necessarily talking about the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival, which his prodigious family (many of whom are Hart High School grads, incidentally) has hosted the past 19 years at the ranch, tucked between the oaks in Newhall’s Placerita Canyon. But the positive assessment applied to the festival nonetheless.
The 20th annual festival takes over Melody Ranch the weekend of Saturday, April 20 and Sunday, April 21, and an estimated 30,000 Western music, poetry, culture fans and food fans and vendors from many states in the West are expected each day. It gets bigger every year. You can find out all about the festival, the performers, the special events, the food, the prices and more at the official festival website.
Renaud and Paul Veluzat, hangin’ on the porch.
Veluzat was instead referring to his business the other 360-or-so days of the year, when the ranch is a working movie ranch used as a prime location for commercials, rock videos, episodic TV segments, feature films, photo shoots — you name it. Like the Cowboy Festival, all that filming activity pumps a lot of cash into the Santa Clarita Valley economy via jobs and money spent on local vendors, food, lodging, transportation and more.
In the past several years Renaud and his brother-partner Andre have built and upgraded huge soundstages at Melody Ranch, allowing interiors of any kind including non-Westerns to be built and shot on the ranch as well. A few years back, the ultra-authentic HBO Western “Deadwood” four-walled the ranch, and shot almost all the interiors and exteriors there.
Main Street looks a bit different packed with Cowboy Festival fans, as it did later in April 2010.
Renaud and Andre also own the Veluzat Motion Picture Ranch (they call it “the Big Ranch”) in Haskell Canyon, in north Saugus, outside the Santa Clarita city limits. Another Veluzat brother, Rene, owns the Blue Cloud movie ranch, also now in L.A. County territory.
According to Leon Worden, SCV historian and CEO of SCVTV and SCVNews.com (and another Hart High grad), “The Veluzats have been a fixture in the Santa Clarita Valley since the arrival of patriarch Paul T. Veluzat in 1939. Among his many real estate purchases was the Haskell Canyon property in 1943, initially as a cattle ranch, and then as a movie ranch in the mid-1960s.
Worden continued: “All three of Paul T.’s sons — Rene, Andre and Renaud — ended up in the movie rental business, which expanded when Andre and Renaud bought Melody Ranch from Gene Autry after Autry’s horse Champion died at the Placerita Canyon property in 1990. Paul T. died in 2000 at age 101.”
Between them the Veluzats have or can get just about anything a film production might need — authentic Western towns, bombed-out villages, nostalgic ’50s towns, all kinds of period military vehicles and more set accouterments.
Andre and Renaud Veluzat’s “big ranch” in Haskell Canyon
Both Saugus ranches could be annexed by the city of Santa Clarita as early as March 26, when the City Council is scheduled to weigh in on a proposed 824-scre “North Saugus” annexation, which the city’s Planning Commission OK’d in September in part as a way to further facilitate local filming.
So, lots of lucrative action on the sets, a pending annexation, the impending Cowboy Festival — seemed like a good time to visit the ranch and see what’s happening before the hordes of people take over, and update the community on what’s been happening at the ranch since last year. A pre-festival interview is something of a ritual for the Veluzats and this reporter, and it’s always fun.
At Melody Ranch’s main production building, Renaud invited me into his office. “Come on in, I’ll play you a little intro for our interview,” he said, picking up his handy acoustic guitar. He’s been playing rock, surf, country and whatever since the ’60s, so it was a short and sweet treat.
Andre Veluzat was away on business, but his son Paul, also Andre’s and Renaud’s right-hand guy around the ranch (and a fair drummer, as well), joined us and drove our golf cart a short distance, silently sneaking up behind an old Western store facade. Right on the other side was Main Street, where an independent film crew was busy shooting scenes for a supernatural-western mash-up titled “Six-Gun Savior,” with a cast including Eric Roberts as The Devil and and Martin Kove as The Mentor. The production had been shooting at Melody Ranch for several days and would be wrapping up before the Cowboy Festival.
Just as we rolled up, the director and crew took a short break. Perfect timing. Paul introduced me to the movie’s producers, who instead of throwing me off the set because I was a press guy, invited me to stay because I was a press guy. It’s 2013; these are filmmakers who get that movie-making and promotion is a whole new game. Separate story coming soon; it’s literally a whole different movie.
Meanwhile, back at Melody Ranch, Renaud and Paul filled us in on the latest Veluzat news. What follows are excerpts; you can see the entire interview here (complete with Renaud’s opening tune).
Andre and Renaud Veluzat survey Main Street at Melody Ranch days before the April 2010 Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival.
“Well, we’ve had an exciting new year. Big movie with ‘Django Unchained’ with Jamie Foxx, Quentin Tarantino’s new movie,” Renaud said. “It was really good. Two Oscars, right?” “Yeah, it was great for us, but it was great for Santa Clarita,” Paul said. “They were here for a long time and spent a lot of money in Santa Clarita.”
A win-win-win situation, to be sure.
“They shot the saloon scene here — you’ve got to go see the movie, and you’ll see Melody Ranch in it,” Renaud said. “It’s cool.”
From the grit of “Django Unchained” to the pip-pip Grey Poupon commercials that ran during the 2013 Oscars telecast, Paul said the studios can handle just about any kind of production, and that the nearby soundstages (looking like large adobe structures from the outside) keep the ranch hopping between Westerns.
“You could film anything in there,” he said. “We’ve had farms in there, houses in there, backyards in there, grocery stores in there, diners in there, you name it, it’s just about been inside there. Having those sound stages has really helped out a lot in business, not just for us here at the ranch, but bringing filming into Santa Clarita. And we’ve been knocking out a lot of commercials, music videos, overflow stages. Shows will come in, they’ll need extra room for their stage, they’ll come in there and set up. Or they’ll just want to base out of here with their show. So, it’s been a real blessing, having the sound stages.”
Paul noted that pop star Ke$ha shot a video at the Saugus ranch; another one shot there for heavy metal band Megadeth involved a monkey driving a car.
“That actually was a funny video, really funny,” he said of the latter. “It’s not everyday you see a monkey driving a car, especially spinning it out.” “Yes, that’s a good one,” Renaud agreed.
If the two Saugus ranches are indeed eventually annexed by the city of Santa Clarita, Renaud said, “That’s going to be a good thing. For one thing, it’s easier for all the film commissions right here. Everything’s local so we don’t have to mess with L.A. County anymore. That’s going to be a really great asset.”
Back at Melody Ranch once again, “Right now we’re doing ‘Six-Gun Savior,'” Renaud said. “And then we’ve got the Cowboy Festival coming up right behind.”
“I remember the first Cowboy Festival,” said Paul, who was just a whippersnapper. “Man, it was exciting. I encourage you all, whoever’s watching (or reading) this, to come because it’s exciting and fun. It’s different than any other festival going. It’s not a wild party. It’s a group of good folks coming out. We really like it. They’ll walk 10 feet to the trash can to throw their trash away. And over the time, (city organizers have) made a lot of stuff for the kids, family-oriented, great food — the peach cobbler is one of the highlights of the festival.”
Renaud confirmed that his longtime friend Nokie Edwards, original lead guitarist for The Ventures, will be in Santa Clarita from Arizona, as he has for the past few festivals, and the two guitarists will again be casually jammin’ on the side from time to time, with young Paul on drums. Among the official Main Stage performers, both Veluzats are looking forward to seeing headliners Riders in the Sky in a rare local appearance.
Renaud and Andre Veluzat welcome the writer to the Melody Ranch Museum in April 2010. Photo by Tom White.
Renaud and Paul also confirmed that Santa Clarita Western aficionado Tom White and Western author Julie Ream are collaborating on a new batch of memorabilia for the Melody Ranch Museum. The large building is already stuffed with a mind-boggling assembly of vehicles, props, photos, displays and other artifacts from the films and TV shows shot there. The museum will be open to all Cowboy Festival attendees.
The first phrase out of many first-time visitors’ mouths is, when they see things like the full-sized Russian tank from “Red Dawn” or the gangster cars from “Last Man Standing” is usually something like, “I didn’t know that was shot here!”
So many actors who’d later become famous shot some of their first scenes on Main Street.
“Burt Reynolds was in ‘Gunsmoke’ way back then. John Wayne started here and did 21 movies right here at Melody Ranch when he was just a kid. Republic and then Monogram Studios were right here. All those old Westerns you see on the late-night channels, most of them were shot here.”
“‘Annie Oakley,’ ‘Rin Tin Tin,’ ‘Hopalong Cassidy,’ ‘The Cisco Kid,’ ‘The Lone Ranger,’ ‘Gunsmoke,’ ‘Have Gun — Will Travel…” Paul said, rattling off just a few (see the ranch’s website for more filmography details).
“Big list of shows,” Renaud said. And there’s a story behind every one of them.
Melody Ranch burns down in 1962. (SCVHistory.com photo)
I mentioned the “Combat!” series from the early ’60s; some of the first season’s early black and white shows were shot at Melody Ranch after part of the main town burned down in a devastating fire in 1962.
“This town unfortunately burned down from the ranch fire over here off in Placerita Canyon, out of here over at Circle J Ranch, which was a riding academy at the time,” Renaud said. “A pile of manure self-ignited and that’s what started that fire. It came through the canyon and went all the way to Pasadena. It was a major, major fire.
“And Andre and I, we were in (Hart High School) at the time,” Renaud said. “We’d come over here and there was a dairy down the street, and he’d let all the cows out, a friend of mine we went to school with. All the cows and the bales of hay were burning and everything. We had cows all over this canyon. It was a bad fire. Then Gene Autry kept the ranch and filmed six episodes of ‘Combat!’ right here on the street as the burned-out village and stuff in Europe. When we bought the ranch (in 1990), we duplicated the whole place as it was (before the fire).
“We’re still restoring, so that’s…24 years now,” he said. “But we’ve still got time to finish. (laughs) Eventually we’ll finish.”
“It’s funny, at the festival, just watching it and seeing it,” Paul said. “On Saturday it’s neat to see everybody dressed up in hats and boots and dress the part, but it’s also funny to see the same person you saw on Saturday, you see them on Sunday limping because their new boots tore up their feet, and now they have a pair of Nikes and shorts. But you know what, they’re back at it again, coming out to enjoy that music. I tell folks who never really got into country or that type of festival, ‘I don’t care where you live, how you were brought up or raised, what music you’re into. You come to the Cowboy Festival, you will have a good time.’ You can’t help it. It’s just a great experience for everybody.”
“We’ll see them there,” Renaud said.
As to what will be going on next at Melody Ranch in the 51 weeks until the 21st Cowboy Festival in 2014, stay tuned.
“A lot of times we keep it on the down-low ’till it gets released, so keep tuning in, and I guarantee, if you watch television every night, you’ll see either Melody Ranch or Veluzat Ranch, either on a commercial or in a video or on the news,” Paul said.
“How many times did you see it on the news the other night?” he asked his uncle.
“Five times,” Renaud laughed.