Clearly the most famous studio in the Santa Clarita Valley was the great Monogram western town that came to be known as Gene Autry's Melody Ranch.
Now, here is a question for trivia buffs. Who was the first singing cowboy in the movies?
No, it was not Gene Autry or Tex Ritter, but the Duke himself, John Wayne. Although he only mouthed the words while Smith Ballew did the actual singing, in the early 1930s Wayne played "Singin' Sandy," a character who would vocalize such memorable tunes as "Blood on the Saddle" just before he blew away the villain.
The Melody Ranch story begins in 1922, when Ernie Hickson rode into California and went to work as an assistant technical director for pioneer film maker Trem Carr. Hickson was a collector of all things Western, including buildings, which he imported from Nevada. In 1930 he created an entire Western town at Carr's Rancho Placeritos, just east of the modern-day Placerita Canyon Road exit off of State Route 14.
Carr was soon forced to sell the Placeritos. Hickson moved his western buildings to the intersection of Oak Creek and Placerita Canyon Road, west of the current highway, and leased the town to Carr's new employer, Monogram Pictures — the biggest producer of "B" Westerns in Hollywood. (In 1959 another motion picture company — Disney — would purchase the site of Carr's old Placeritos and rename it the Golden Oak Ranch.)
Just about every celluloid cowboy one could name rode through Ernie Hickson's town in the 1930s and '40s. Here could be found the silver-haired William Boyd, alias Hopalong Cassidy. Tall, slim Gary Cooper clumped down the boardwalk with his spurs jingling at each step. High Noon's immortal face-down played itself out on the dusty main street.
On the same street, Buck Jones, Ken Maynard, Bob Steele, Tom Tyler, Johnny Mack Brown and Harry Carey shot it out with the bad guys. The Latin figure of The Cisco Kid was represented in silver-trimmed bolero jacket by Gilbert Roland, Caesar Romero and later Duncan Renaldo. Even Errol Flynn was nearly lynched in a film called "The Santa Fe Trail" with Ronald Reagan and Olivia DeHavilland.
There, too, was the true Singing Cowboy himself, Gene Autry.
Ernie Hickson died on January 22, 1952. Later that year, Autry purchased his old stomping grounds, renamed them "Melody Ranch" and, for a short time, lived in a farm house that still stands on the property. Although Autry's weekly television series in the 1950s was not filmed at Melody Ranch, hundreds of other feature films and television programs were, including Gunsmoke, Sugarfoot and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.
And there was another side to the renowned movie ranch. It was the scene for the annual roundup of the Los Angeles Western Corral, and from 1949 to 1951 it hosted Newhall's Old West Fourth of July Celebration. During those long weekends it was called "Slippery Gulch," and just about everything that goes, went. There was even a battery of slot machines for the amusement of the locals.
The magic was not to last. On August 28, 1962, a violent firestorm swept through Placerita Canyon and engulfed most of the movie town's original Western structures. Elvis Presley, on location, helped battle the flames, but to little avail.
Signal editor Fred Trueblood, Jr. wrote the epitaph:
"The great illusion went up in a roaring inferno of fire and smoke, as did many of the frontier towns it modeled. It was one grand, heartbreaking show by a fine old trouper, and as the last glowing embers died away, the curtain fell on its final act."
Gene Autry remembered in 1995:
"What I lost could not be replaced or even measured. I had always planned to erect a Western museum there, but priceless Indian relics and a collection of rare guns, including a set used by Billy the Kid, went up in smoke. Thank God, the ranch hands and all fourteen of our horses were uninjured."
Autry's dream of a Western museum did come true, but not at Melody Ranch. The Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum opened in Griffith Park in November, 1988. Six years earlier, at the behest of Ruth Newhall, then co-editor (with husband Scott) of The Signal, Autry donated his turn-of-the-century Mogul 1629 steam locomotive to the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.
In the decades after the fire, Autry and his business manager — wife Jackie — sold off portions of the 110-acre Melody Ranch. The final ten acres, where the buildings had stood, went on the market in November, 1990. Brothers Renaud and Andre Veluzat, longtime Newhall residents and film industry executives, quickly purchased the parcel and restored the movie ranch to its former glory in 1991. In 1994 Melody Ranch became the setting for the City of Santa Clarita's annual Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival, opening its gates to the community as in days of yore.
Today, modern superstars like Bruce Willis, Jeff Bridges and Randy Travis are creating new legends at the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio as they mesmerize new movie-goers and television audiences with the timeless drama of the American West.
Chapter adapted in part from "Movie Magic at Melody Ranch" by Leon Worden, City of Santa Clarita Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival, 1997.
Editor's note: Some published accounts indicate Hickson started the movie ranch in Placerita Canyon in 1915. However, Hickson was traveling with a theatre troupe in 1915 and didn't arrive in California until 1922. He earned his first known film credit as a writer in 1924. Carr also arrived during or after 1922, when he left the construction trade in Illinois.