Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival 2014 stampedes into the world-famous Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio in Newhall on Saturday and Sunday, April 26-27, when an estimated 10,000 fans will celebrate Western music and cowboy culture in what everyone agrees is a perfect location.
But consider this: The first Santa Clarita Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival, as it was initially known, almost rolled into the Wm. S. Hart High School Auditorium instead back in March 1994.
In the fall of ’93, as city of Santa Clarita officials and staff prepared to produce the inaugural festival, Melody Ranch wasn’t even in the script.
Fact is, it took the deadly and destructive Northridge earthquake on Jan. 17 that year to bump the first festival from Hart High to Melody Ranch, just weeks before the first cowboy poets and Western musicians were scheduled to take the stage.
Today, after two eventful decades at Melody Ranch, not many of the fans fixin’ to whoop it up there this weekend — especially visitors from outside the Santa Clarita Valley and locals perhaps too young to remember — know about the Hart connection.
Melody Ranch is such a naturally perfect location for the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival, it’s flat-out inconceivable the festival could have taken place anywhere else.
Even longtime festival-goers find it hard to wrap their Stetsons around the idea of the festival at a high school auditorium — even one named after the famous Western film star who once lived nearby in that big white mansion just up the hill.
Some say it was just dumb luck, good timing and turning a bad situation good. Others say it was fate, meant to be. Still others have mentioned divine intervention.
The backstory of Melody Ranch riding to the rescue as the festival’s new and permanent venue in 1994 has become yet another fascinating chapter in the colorful history of both the storied studio and the Santa Clarita Valley.
KHTS News wanted to get the full low-down to share with our readers. We set up an exclusive interview with Mike Fleming, an Arts & Entertainment supervisor for the city of Santa Clarita and the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival’s trail boss for the past decade, and Renaud Veluzat, Melody Ranch’s co-owner (with his brother Andre).
Melody Ranch: Up on Main Street
Driving into Placerita Canyon toward Melody Ranch for our morning meetup last week gave this reporter a few minutes to reflect on the area’s natural beauty and the ranch’s 99-year history.
Tucked away among the huge California oaks in the north end of Placerita Canyon and closed to the public the rest of the year, the movie ranch opened for business as Placeritos Ranch in 1915 (it’s pictured left 20 years later).
Since then, under a succession of owners and banners, the studio has hosted filming and production of untold thousands of classic and obscure Westerns, war epics, TV series and commercials.
The Veluzat family bought Melody Ranch in 1990 from singing cowboy legend Gene Autry. The Veluzats reopened it as a working movie ranch and began to restore the vintage old-West Main Street set, which the 1962 Placerita Canyon wildfire had almost destroyed.
The ranch has been a closed set since the Placeritos years, like almost every other movie location. There are no tour buses, no paparazzi, and civilians can’t even get close to Main Street or one of the Melody Ranch’s massive indoor soundstages without an invitation and a special pass. Otherwise, it’s cast, crew and ranch staff only. Producers and actors alike appreciate the privacy.
The only time the ranch has been open to the public without invitation in the last 99 years is during the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival, and that’s just a week or so out of the year, and just since 1994.
Since then, when the festival gallops into Melody Ranch each spring, whatever top-secret production in progress at Melody Ranch just covers up or blocks off access to its exteriors and locks up its soundstage sets, until after the last festival-goer rides off into the sunset Sunday night. It’s no different this year.
In 1993, a posse of Santa Clarita city officials wrangled by then-Assistant City Manager Ken Pulskamp decided to produce a cowboy poetry gathering as a way to tap into the SCV’s Western history and attract fresh tourist dollars to the city. They scheduled the inaugural Santa Clarita Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival for the last weekend of March 1994 at Hart High.
By Jan. 17 that year, the performers were booked and contracts were signed. Headliners included cowboy poets Baxter Black and Waddie Mitchell, and cowboy music stars Michael Martin Murphy, the Sons of the San Joaquin and Don Edwards.
But at 4:31 that morning, a 6.7-magnitude earthquake centered in Northridge rocked Southern California, and the Hart auditorium was among the structures damaged in the nearby Santa Clarita Valley. Authorities declared the building unsafe and red-tagged it. There was no way the venue could host the Cowboy Festival.
What happened next was the focus of our exclusive interview with Fleming, who was a festival performer in ’94 with his own cowboy band, and still a decade away from segueing to the role of festival producer for the city in 2004, and Veluzat (pictured below).
We sat down in front of a weathered storefront just off Melody Ranch’s fabled Main Street, which was still not quite dressed yet for public view. They graciously took a few minutes from overseeing their respective crews’ final festival preparations (which carried on in the background as we spoke). Highlights from our Q&A follow (watch the whole interview here).
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Stephen K. Peeples: We’re on the brink of the 21st annual Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival. That’s pretty amazing.
Mike Fleming: I feel every year of it. How about you, [Renaud]?
Renaud Veluzat: It goes by fast. It doesn’t seem like that long.
Peeples: Whose idea was it? How did it get set up? From the city’s standpoint, Mike, set the stage for us.
Fleming: Ken Pulskamp had a good friend, Gary Brown, who introduced him to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., and I believe Ken went to that gathering. He was so impressed with the entertainment, the people and the whole cultural aspect of it that he thought it’d be great to do a similar event here in Santa Clarita.
So they put the tickets on sale, it was scheduled to happen at William S. Hart High School…
Peeples: And you guys had all the acts booked, all the paperwork signed, everything ready to go.
Fleming: And then Jan. 17 happened — the Northridge earthquake. The William S. Hart auditorium was put out of commission. So, you can imagine — at that time, the festival was at the end of March, so there was basically only two and a half months to get it all together. [Renaud], you probably remember what happened next.
Veluzat: I think Ken called us and wanted to know if we would be willing to do this, and we thought, “Well, gee.” I think it was in the middle of [filming] a show or something at the same time. We thought, “Yeah, we could do this. It would be great for the city and for all the people who live around here.”
Four years prior, we had just bought [Melody Ranch] and this place had never been open to the public. So we thought this would be a good time to show it off. That’s how we started. We thought, “This is a great thing for the city.”
Fleming: You bought it in ’90 and started rebuilding the whole street. How long did it take you to get that all done?
Veluzat: Well, we’re still working on the street… [laughs]. You never get done. But to actually get the buildings up took about 15 months, so we got that [restoration] well underway within those four years.
Peeples: That was after the fire in ’62, and Gene [Autry] had just let the ranch go until [his horse] Champion died [in 1990]. And Champion’s buried on the back 40 somewhere, right?
Veluzat: Well, we don’t know exactly. That’s a big mystery.
Peeples: Oh, OK. Like, where’s Jimmy Hoffa, right?
Veluzat: That’s right [laughs].
Fleming: But sometimes on a dark and stormy night, you can hear [Champion] runnin’ there in the back.
Peeples: So how did you pull off the first festival? There was no precedent; nobody really knew how to do it. What was the scramble like? And Mike, what were you doing at the time?
Fleming: I was a performer. I’d already been doing Western music for four years in another band. So, I came to that first festival [in 1994] — my first time at Melody Ranch, and it was much smaller then. [The audience] was really the people who were the loyal fans of the performers. Then there were people who just came to see Melody Ranch. But in the beginning, it was ticketed only for the shows. I don’t think there was even a general admission ticket, was there?
Veluzat: I can’t really remember if it was set up like that.
Peeples: It was mainly about the music and the performers.
Fleming: Right. Then there was a scramble to put all the vendors in the building. ‘Course, they weren’t arguing about that. They thought it was such a cool setting. The first shows were in the small sound stage here called the Sawmill.
Veluzat: It got its name after a show called “Tall Tale” with Patrick Swayze. They made a saw mill inside there and it had a big saw and water coming down through [a chute]. It had fake logs going through and it cut the logs. Burgess Meredith, I believe, was in the show…from “The Twilight Zone”… [referencing the famous “TZ” episode where Meredith the bookworm amasses all the world’s books, then accidentally breaks his eyeglasses and can’t read a word.] So from then on, it was called the Sawmill.
Fleming: [The festival] was a smaller footprint then, a smaller group of people. But boy, it caught on. And I’ve always believed this: The reason it caught on was because the Veluzats let us hold it here. No disrespect to Hart High School, I think the magnet [was] people being able to time-travel — to come out here and walk down this street where Matt Dillon [James Arness’s character in “Gunsmoke”], John Wayne and all these people walked.
[By 2004, Fleming was a supervisor on the city of Santa Clarita’s Arts & Entertainment staff, and has booked and coordinated the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival since then.]
Peeples: How many people do you think attended the first festival, and what’s the number now?
Veluzat: I don’t know what the number is now [about 10,000 for the weekend], but [the first] seemed like a couple thousand, maybe.
Fleming: Maybe a couple thousand.
Veluzat: And they dressed up. It was a good time. We still have a great time.
Peeples: Yeah. I think it’s really neat when some of the participants come in full regalia. It adds to the flavor.
Fleming: It’s like somebody has a motor home and only gets to take it out once a year. They have those clothes in their closet nine months out of the year and they’re ready to go. In the beginning, again, because it was a loyal fan base that was all about the performers, I would say most everybody was dressing the part.
It was just a celebration from the beginning. Over the years, it changed. We started doing the general admission. Now, we get a lot more walk-up traffic than pre-sales.
And we get people coming in for the first time — No. 1, to see Melody Ranch; No. 2, to figure out what this whole cowboy music thing is about; and No. 3, the peach cobbler.
Veluzat: Everybody remembers the peach cobbler.
Fleming: Yeah. You can tell somebody that so-and-so’s performing, and they go, “Ahh, I don’t know who that is…where’s the peach cobbler?” By the way, it’s Dutch oven peach cobbler. That’s what sets it apart.
Peeples: Right, and it’s baked by a special crew that comes in every year to do that.
Fleming: The crazy Cowboy Cultural Committee from Visalia are the peach cobbler guys (pictured at right below).
Peeples: Mike, I think you nailed it before. The festival really caught on because the ambiance and the set here is so tailor-made for a cowboy festival.
Fleming: It’s true…I’ve been to most of the gatherings around the western United States, and [the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival] is one of the three biggest, but the only one in this setting. That’s what sets it apart.
Peeples: Now, we’re coming up on the 100th anniversary of this film studio next year, right? 1915 to 2015. Placeritos Ranch…
Veluzat: And then it was Monogram, Republic, Melody.
Fleming: I forgot about the Republic transition. What was the acreage on the whole place when it was Republic?
Veluzat: A hundred and 10 acres. Now it’s 22. It’s retained its value. All the Western movies and things that were filmed here, you can hardly add [them] all up — it’s hundreds of movies.
Peeples: The year before last, Quentin Tarantino shot “Django Unchained” at Melody Ranch. In the last year, what else have you guys done here?
Veluzat: We did a lot of television shows and a lot of commercials: “The Mentalist,” two or three commercials for the Superbowl, different car commercials and things that are still airing right now.
Fleming: The Durango truck, right?
Veluzat: GMC truck…
Fleming: And what was the one with the guy with the pink cowboy hat?
Veluzat: T-Mobile. There’s all these bad guys, and one guy had a pink cowboy hat [laughs].
Fleming: But people remembered it.
Peeples: Back to this year’s festival, what kind of surprises might [there be]?
Fleming: It’s got a little bit of a different footprint. It’s just laid out differently than in the years past. The nice thing is we’ve still got all the entertainment stages and vendors we’ve always had. Everybody knows about Mercantile Row, where the [parking lot shuttle] buses come up and there’s all those period camp setups. Well, they’re moved to a different area closer to Main Street so they tie in with this whole motif.
Veluzat: Kind of changing it up.
Fleming: Yeah, give a little spin and do some different things. Actually, speaking of the peach cobbler, Cowboy Cultural Committee are going to be an island unto themselves.
Peeples: I bet they’ll like that.
Fleming: They’re like Texas — not a state, but a nation.
Peeples: You’d need a passport to get into there…
Fleming: [laughs] So they’re going to be set up on their own, separate from the food court, because the lines get long. That’ll be a surprise for people — but trust me, they’ll find the peach cobbler. There’ll be no problem there.
Peeples: Just follow the nose and follow the line.
Fleming: Exactly. And we’ve got some new acts coming in that have not been here before as well, plus the old favorites as usual.
[At press time, the 2014 Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival performer lineup features headliners Don Edwards, Sons of the San Joaquin and Waddie Mitchell, all veterans of that first festival in 1994.
Joining them are Dave Stamey, Cow Bop, Paul Zarzyski, Jon Chandler, Belinda Gail, the Tom Corbett Band, Allegretto & Espinosa, Mary Kaye, the Lucky Stars, the Band of the California Battalion, Dave Bourne, Joey Dillon, Pop Hayden, the Messick Family, Dave Thornbury, Dave Rainwater, Biskit Hatch, and the New Buffalo Soldiers.
Get more on the performers and all the related events by visiting the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival’s official website.]
Veluzat: It’s going to be fun.
Peeples: We’re definitely looking forward to it, and to at least another 21 years.
Fleming: I’ll be watching it from retirement…
Veluzat: Sitting on the porch.
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All photos by Stephen K. Peeples except Placeritos Ranch (courtesy SCVHistory.com).
Special thanks to Paul Veluzat for videography and Paige Hagen for video post-production and transcription.