When the heavy in the opening scenes of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood crashes through a saloon-porch roof in the parody TV western within the film, Bounty Law, he’s actually crashing through western history—and Tarantino’s. Half a century ago, the saloon belonged to Gunsmoke’s madam, Miss Kitty. And in Tarantino’s 2012 film, Django Unchained, actor Christoph Waltz blew away a sheriff in a memorable scene outside the saloon.
Tarantino shuns CGI, so to re-create late-1960s Los Angeles for Once Upon a Time, he rounded up almost 2,000 classic cars and built period-correct facades for sections of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards. For Bounty Law and Django, he didn’t need to re-create a thing. The Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio’s western main street, in the Santa Clarita neighborhood of Newhall, about 30 miles north of Hollywood, is where Anthony Quinn shot his way through Man from Del Rio in 1956 and where John Wayne trotted in on a white horse in 1934’s Blue Steel.
“This town really started in the Old West, complete with all the usual characters that you might see in a western movie,” says Dr. Alan Pollack, president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society. “Cowboys, Native Americans, range wars and gunfights, stagecoaches and saloons.” Later in Newhall’s history, Pollack says, “we became the epicenter of the movie Old West. Not only did we experience the real Old West, but we then put it onto celluloid.”
It isn’t easy to pinpoint the first western that was shot in the Santa Clarita Valley, though in 1910, four years before he directed The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith traveled to Rancho Camulos, a Piru cattle and citrus ranch, to film Mary Pickford in a screen version of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona. What is known—and there’s lively footage to prove it—is that in 1914, Cecil B. DeMille arrived on Newhall’s dusty Railroad Avenue to direct the first film adaptation of Owen Wister’s classic cowboy novel The Virginian. The next year, producer Jesse L. Lasky rented the entire town for DeMille’s use in the comedy Chimmie Fadden Out West.
If movie fans view Lone Pine in the Owens Valley, with its otherworldly Alabama Hills and Museum of Western Film History, as the mecca for historic Hollywood westerns, here in the Santa Clarita Valley, movie history is alive and continues to be created.
This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
The popular view of the area is of a pretty but bland bedroom community with good schools, verdant walking and biking trails, and the Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park. But away from the look-alike houses of Santa Clarita’s Newhall, Canyon Country, Saugus, and Valencia neighborhoods—as well as those of Castaic and Stevenson Ranch—canyons dotted with movie ranches still offer rugged backdrops for contemporary TV and movies, as they did for the thundering-hooves shoot-’em-ups of the 1910s, ’20s, and ’30s.
This year’s HBO thriller The Little Things saw Denzel Washington pursue serial killer Jared Leto through Santa Clarita Valley’s streets and canyons. On just one day last November, 11 productions were filming around the valley. By spring 2021, FX’s Mayans M.C. drama was winding up, NCIS and S.W.A.T. were here, and Melody Ranch, its main street familiar not only from Gunsmoke but also from Deadwood, the Magnificent Seven TV series, and Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, was in production for season 4 of HBO’s dystopian Westworld.
The layers of illusion, with an imitation western past standing in for a speculative western future, are not lost on Renaud Veluzat, who owns Melody with his brother, Andre.
“Here we are in reality,” Veluzat says. “And then you walk down the street and you’re back in the Old West. It’s strange sometimes.”
Melody’s re-creation of the West began in the 1930s, when Monogram Pictures cofounder Trem Carr leased land in Placerita Canyon, on the northwest flank of the San Gabriel Mountains. There, set designer E.R. Hickson created a convincing western town, complete with wooden sidewalks, a saloon, and a jail, as a location for the company’s hundreds of largely potboiler westerns.
“They knocked out a show in three or four days,” Veluzat marvels. “They did just chuck them up.”
Then Monogram lost its lease.
“In 1936, they moved—picked up their facades, their movie buildings, trucked them down the street to this piece of property that Ernie Hickson had purchased,” says Leon Worden, vice president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, whose extensive research helps fill the organization’s remarkable archives.
An update of The Virginian, starring Joel McCrea, and High Noon, with Gary Cooper, were shot on Hickson’s Rancho Placeritos. Then, after Hickson died in 1952, singing cowboy Gene Autry bought the acreage, renaming it Melody Ranch. He filmed his television series, The Gene Autry Show, there and leased the location to productions of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, The Lone Ranger, Annie Oakley, The Cisco Kid, Have Gun—Will Travel, and Gunsmoke until 1962, when fire swept down Placerita Canyon.
The blaze destroyed Autry’s antique car collection, his memorabilia, and much of the western town. Still, Autry maintained the ranch for his horses. By 1990, when his famous Champion III died, the Autry Museum of the American West was open in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park, and he was ready to sell.
The Veluzat brothers had grown up on their father’s Saugus cattle and movie ranch. Their plan was to restore Melody’s burned-out main street.
They worked meticulously from Gunsmoke stills to reproduce the ruined buildings and used John Wayne’s height to scale them. By 1991, the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio was back in the moviemaking business. Since then, the Veluzats have constructed alleys, cross streets, and a train track, using their 750-acre Saugus space as a back lot.
“Gene told us that if we built it back, everybody would come to film it,” Veluzat says. “And he was right.”
HOME ON THE RANCH
A hundred or so years ago, Newhall kids might have spotted Clara Bow riding a horse or movie cowboys waging fake gun battles on the street. Now, anyone driving into nearby canyons is transported into a countryside as wild as it was then. Off these side roads, among 10 ranches specifically geared toward filmmaking, is Sand Canyon’s 400-acre Rancho Maria and Sable Ranch, whose waterfalls, grasslands, and peaks have provided settings for TV’s Bret Maverick, 24, and The A-Team. In neighboring Placerita Canyon, Rancho Deluxe has its own Wild West exteriors and other sets, where The Young Pope, The Orville, and Transparent have filmed. At the canyon’s base, Walt Disney Studios’ Golden Oak Ranch, once home to The Mickey Mouse Club’s Spin and Marty series, occupies a vast 890 acres of meadowland, lakes, bridges, and barns as well as mock suburban streets and a business district.
The studio bought its first land there in 1959, but according to lore in the Frank Evans Walker family, their patriarch refused a $1 million offer from Walt Disney himself to buy Walker’s Placerita Canyon spread.
“A lot of his decisions didn’t seem to be the best,” Walker’s grandson Frank “Bob” Walker says. “I heard he was worried his kids would be driving around in Cadillacs.”
The land the elder Walker homesteaded, after moving to Placerita Canyon in 1905, had been home to the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians and in 1842 had seen California’s first gold discovery, which predated the Sutter’s Mill find by six years. Walker himself prospected, driving an occasional nugget into Los Angeles in his Model T, powered by oil that bubbled from his ground, as it did across the valley in Mentryville, a ghost town now but in the 1880s the site of the first successful oil well in the West.
By 1928, Walker was striking a different kind of lode by collecting $5 a day—$75 in 2021—for lending his ranch to Joseph P. Kennedy’s FBO movie studio; later, he did the same with Republic, Great Western, and Monogram. Walker’s chaparral-studded hillsides, visited by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, presented the perfect terrain for cowboy chases and shoot-outs. When beautiful actresses dabbled their feet in Walker’s creek, says Debra Lynn Walker Bush, her prudish grandfather sent his sons off to haul rocks.
Bob Walker believes that when his grandfather finally sold his land to the state (in 1949 and 1959 transactions that totaled $200,000), it was to preserve its natural beauty; in Placerita Canyon State Park, a Walker family cabin, where Wayne shot at a pursuing posse in 1935’s The Desert Trail, stands restored.
Love of this untamed landscape spurred cowboy stars Harry Carey and William S. Hart to stake out their own ranches. Carey homesteaded his in 1916. But in 1928, the St. Francis Dam ruptured, flooding his fields. His wooden farmhouse was spared, only to burn down four years later.
Carey rebuilt, this time a Spanish revival adobe house, which sits behind feathery trees in Valencia’s Tesoro Adobe Historic Park, tucked into a real estate development. The house and outbuildings—as well as the stables, which were built for a 1925 Universal Studios film and withstood both disasters—are another reminder of the valley’s place in western movie history.
The legendary director John Ford, the artist Charles Russell, and the humorist Will Rogers visited the Carey family—as did Hart—and Ford made at least one western, Straight Shooting, on their property. Film historian Marc Wanamaker of Bison Archives uncovered nitrate negatives of shots taken during filming, and prints are on view at the park.
“Both of them studied the West and studied how people dressed, how people acted. It gave their films a lot of authenticity,” Wanamaker says of Carey and Hart. “They knew all the old-timers. William S. Hart even knew Wyatt Earp.”
The gimlet-eyed Hart, a successful New York stage actor, had arrived in Hollywood in 1914. “Once a man crossed the Missouri, the West got into his blood,” he wrote in his memoir, My Life East and West. In the films he came to write, direct, and star in, he often played the villainous cowboy redeemed by a soft heart.
“When he was doing it, it was fresh. He invented a lot of the clichés,” says E.J. Stephens, who with his wife, Kimi Stephens, leads local movie-site tours. With L.A. County, the City of Santa Clarita, and the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles, he created the Newhallywood Silent Film Festival in 2020.
In 1926, after Hart retired, he commissioned a Spanish colonial–style mansion to be built on his 254 Newhall acres, describing his view as “mountain tops that rippled away in the distance like a wind-blown sea.” He died in 1946, having willed his estate to the people of Los Angeles. Visitors to William S. Hart Regional Park can explore his sprawling home, with its collection of art, costumes, books, and Native American artifacts. On the hillsides below, bison laze, the original herd a 1962 gift to the park from Walt Disney.
A BIG LEAP
By the time the silent star and onetime Wild West show performer Tom Mix began filming in the Santa Clarita Valley, it was 1916, the same year he created his Mixville movie studio in Los Angeles. Today, on Old Town Newhall’s tree-lined, gentrifying Main Street, one of two clapboard cottages believed to have been Mixville dressing rooms has become the quirky Kranium Stylez barbershop. A short walk from neighboring craft breweries, wine-tasting bars, and lingering check-cashing and pawnbroker shops is the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society’s Heritage Junction. The old Saugus train station, featured in Charlie Chaplin’s 1923 silent The Pilgrim and later in Frank Sinatra’s 1954 assassination thriller, Suddenly, is located there with other historic buildings.
A daredevil in film and life, Mix showed up in April 1920 at a Newhall courthouse—actually an office in the judge’s home—to pay a then-whopping $50 fine for reckless driving. A few miles away, with his equally famous horse, Tony, Mix would appear in the 1923 John Ford–directed Three Jumps Ahead leaping across Beale’s Cut, a 90-foot slash in the mountains, first carved to allow wagons and stagecoaches to pass. Whether trick photography, Mix, or a stunt double was actually responsible for the notorious leap is in dispute. Whatever the truth, Ford returned to Beale’s Cut to direct his 1939 Oscar-nominated Stagecoach, starring John Wayne, in which the coach thunders through the cut pursued by movie Apaches. Now Beale’s Cut erodes near the Antelope Valley Freeway.
Mix’s recklessness proved prophetic. In 1940, barreling through Arizona, he rolled his convertible Cord phaeton and died, his neck broken by a piece of luggage that flew from the back seat.
Many of the silent stars died penniless, Stephens says, adding, of Mix’s fateful suitcase: “It was full of money, and jewels, and traveler’s checks.”
Embedded in the Main Street sidewalk, a plaque bears Mix’s name: just one among Newhall’s Walk of Western Stars.
“These were the most famous guys in the world a century ago,” Stephens says. “We just hate the fact that a lot of these guys have been forgotten.”•