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A Movieland Ghost Town Beckons in Santa Clarita

June 03, 2001|AL RIDENOUR

Gene Autry's ranch finally has its own museum. Film's beloved "singing cowboy" had planned to house his Western artifacts at Melody Ranch in Placerita Canyon, but the Autry Museum of Western Heritage ended up at Griffith Park after a wildfire ravaged the ranch and its movie set "town" in 1962.

Mere natural disaster can't deter a devoted film buff, however. Current owners Andre and Renaud Veluzat began restoring the historic Western town after buying the property from Autry in 1990. The tour the brothers inaugurated in March displays a modest collection of Western memorabilia and numerous four-wheeled action props from their film industry gig as period-vehicle suppliers. But its highlight is the ghostly set town assembled at the ranch starting in 1915. Its 65 original, donated and re-created structures include the gallows from "High Noon" and Autry's own guest house, which served as a location in "My Little Chickadee." (One of the few structures to escape fire damage, it was saved by a bucket brigade that included Elvis Presley, who was on hand for a publicity shoot.)

"This place was special to Gene," Renaud says. "His first big picture was shot here in 1934." Autry bought the ranch in 1952 and retained the site as pasture for his beloved horse, Champion III, after the 1962 fire. When Champ died, it went up for sale, and the Veluzats rushed over to seal the deal Old West style on a handshake. "I don't think we'd have gotten the place if we'd planned on slapping up 18 condos," Andre says. "Gene was happy knowing it would be treated as history."

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Melody Ranch, (661) 286-1188.

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