The classic period of the American West, as it's romantically envisioned, lasted but a brief period. Barely a quarter-century elapsed between the end of the Civil War, when settlers began to move aggressively west, to that frigid day in December 1890 when 500 troopers of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry slaughtered more than 300 members of an exhausted band of Dakota Sioux at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, effectively ending the Indian Wars.
The mythology of the American West, however, has chugged on for more than a hundred years since then, and continues to shape our nation's cultural identity. When President George W. Bush stood on a pile of rubble and declared that Osama bin Laden was "wanted, dead or alive," he was quoting not Wyatt Earp or George Armstrong Custer, but Gary Cooper.
Many of the qualities associated with denizens of the Wild West -- quiet confidence, strong self-reliance, the stark delineation between good and evil -- were not necessarily common attributes among the pioneers who wandered the plains and deserts. The true American West was far more complicated and messy.
Instead, what sticks in our minds is the romanticized version of the frontier Hollywood glorified. From Edwin S. Porter's seminal 1903 film The Great Train Robbery (shot, interestingly, in the wilds of New Jersey) to HBO's outstanding television series Deadwood, the entertainment business has done far more to shape our mental and emotional image of the Wild West than anything that actually happened in the latter part of the 1800s. And nowhere was the myth of the American West crafted more assiduously than at the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio, just north of Los Angeles.
Over the past ninety years, more than 750 westerns were filmed here, starring Cooper and other classic cowpokes like Gene Autry, Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, and John Wayne. A fire took out a chunk of the set in 1962, but, like the plucky frontier settlers they use as inspiration, the studio folks rebuilt.
Today, Melody Ranch is still a working studio set that visitors can, with the right prep work, occasionally tour. If its dusty and bumpy Main Street and weatherworn shops seem vaguely familiar, it's because you've seen them dozens of times on the screen. That storefront? Gunsmoke. That schoolhouse? The alley? The Cisco Kid. That balcony? It's where Al Swearengen blends Shakespeare and sailor as he soliloquizes on Deadwood.
Today, Melody Ranch is a 22-acre complex with two large soundstages, more than sixty-five storefronts, and several complete interiors, including hotels, a bank, a church, and a jail. It was once surrounded by virgin hills, but the Los Angeles suburbs have crept around it, so that now long shots with distant hills require stretching a huge green screen across Main Street and then having the folks in special effects drop an image of distant mountains in later.
Hollywood producers regularly book the ranch for filming, but if you call ahead, a tour can be arranged. It ain't cheap ($40 a head), and, when I went, it was offered only one morning a week. This spring, though, there's another time to get a peek: Once a year (this time in late April), Melody Ranch hosts the fourteenth annual Santa Clarita Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival.
In these days of mind-numbing uncertainty, places such as Melody Ranch (and nearby Pioneertown, another classic movie set for westerns) recall a simpler time when we could all get behind a good guy with a white hat and a stern glance. Yes, it was myth making. Yes, it was one part fact to five parts fiction. But it also defined us as a nation: rough-and-tumble, and righteous. And that's an exaggeration we live with every day.