As Newhall teen-agers enchanted by the world of make-believe, Renaud and Andre Veluzat spent hours peeking through a fence at Gene Autry's Melody Ranch to spot their Wild West idols making movies and TV shows--James Arness, Roy Rogers, John Wayne.
"We always loved this place," Renaud Veluzat, 43, said. "It was a big part of our youth."
And upon buying the ranch for $975,000 in November, they guaranteed it would become a big part of their adulthood.
"It was a real Western town," Renaud said, pointing to the facades of pink concrete that time has eroded. "It's going to come back to life," promised Andre Veluzat, 48.
They bought the ranch in a matter of hours. Renaud woke up on a Sunday morning and read an advertisement he couldn't believe in a local newspaper: Melody Ranch for sale.
"I never thought Autry would sell it," he said. With Andre at church, Renaud quickly phoned the selling agent and finalized the deal within three hours, not waiting for his brother's approval.
"If we had waited till Monday," Renaud said, "we wouldn't have gotten the place, and I knew he'd be interested. We found out that a lot of people called about buying it."
In church, Andre had heard the Autry ranch was for sale and couldn't wait to get home. "I was going to call my brother, but he had already bought it. When he told me, I almost fell over."
Within a couple of weeks, the Veluzats got to work on Melody Ranch. They started assembling the cantina in their Mexican village, which also will include a two-story hotel facade. Within the next eight months, they plan to construct a Wild West town, a 1950s city and a military compound. They hope to be ready for filming by late fall.
Little filming has been done at the site since a 1962 fire destroyed many of the sets, leaving only a few buildings. The ranch had been used by Autry for his television cowboy specials, for movie and TV Westerns starring Roy Rogers, and for the first few years of "Gunsmoke," which aired from 1955-75.
After the fire, Autry lost interest in the property, using it primarily for his horse, Champion, who died last spring. When the place was put up for sale, Henry Crowell, the ranch manager since 1947, expected the worst. "See those condos up the hill," said Crowell. "That's what would have been here."
The Veluzats are familiar with assembling a movie ranch. In the late 1950s and early '60s, they gradually turned their Saugus cattle ranch into a movie location. "The cattle business wasn't doing too good," said their father, Paul Veluzat, 92. Paul Veluzat, who produced the first movie shot at their ranch in 1961--the little-known "Sundown at Devil's Flats"--saw it as an opportunity to help his sons' budding acting careers. Renaud had a contract at Disney; Andre appeared in small parts on "Lassie," "Death Valley Days" and other shows.
The brothers became TV- and movie-industry entrepreneurs. In the early 1970s, they bought military equipment from private parties and the U.S. government--mostly tanks--which they later rented to production companies and studios.
Slowly, they collected a diverse arsenal of military hardware, often designing and building it themselves.
"We've done a lot of research," Renaud said, "and made most of this equipment from scratch."
They supplied tanks for the Rambo movies, "Red Dawn" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Today, dozens of their tanks and military supply vehicles are kept on a field near their Saugus ranch.
As their tank business grew, so did Veluzat Ranch. Over the years, the 750-acre site has served as the location for many television shows and for films such as "Extreme Prejudice," "El Diablo" and "White Stallion." Most recently, "Hard to Kill" starring Steven Seagal was shot there.
"See that lake over there," said Rene Veluzat, 50, a third brother who manages the ranch. "That's where Jason came out of," he said, referring to the killer in "Friday the 13th, Part III."
As locations, Veluzat Ranch already offers a Mexican village, a 1950s town, military barracks and forest cabins. But they plan to construct each of these sets again at Melody Ranch, because often, several sites at their Saugus facility are used simultaneously.
That may not be possible at Melody Ranch. With only 10.5 acres, the ranch isn't as versatile as the Saugus lot.
But the brothers say that Melody Ranch's accessibility, less than a mile from the Antelope Valley Freeway, and its rich history should make it attractive to film and television companies.
"We really expect to use it mostly for commercials," Renaud said. "They are in and out so fast." Earlier in the day, a location scout for CBS' "Murder, She Wrote" had taken a look at the ranch. The brothers say others have inquired about the ranch's availability.