Saturday, April 24, 2010

High Noon at the Cowboy Festival

I've been looking forward to the Santa Clarita Cowboy festival for over a year. It's at the Melody Ranch where lots of famous Westerns were filmed, but it's only open one weekend a year.

We booked tickets online - our weekend pass was easy to get but the tours of the studio part of the ranch were sold out within the first hour. They only have places for 30 people. (Fix this, organizers!) We DID get tickets for the Movie Night. This is an outdoor showing of a classic Western at the end of main street, following dinner. Hmmm. What would that be like?

I booked us in to the La Quinta Inn, because they have a shuttle to and from the festival. Most people drive to a big car park behind the tracks on 13th Street in Newhall. It turns out that there is no shuttle from the hotel for the Friday Movie Night, but my iPhone tells me we can walk it in just under an hour. When I ask directions at the front desk the La Quinta Director of sales, Michelle Crawford, offers to drive us into Newhall. That's what I call service! It's just after 3.00pm and the weather is warm but not hot. California has been experiencing a cold snap. Michelle drives us to Newhall, which is a really boring name for this charming cowboy-flavored town. The William S. Hart ranch and park are here, plus a Cowboy Walk of Fame. The town should be called something more evocative like Coyote Flats or Buffalo Run. (There are some buffalo on the grounds of William S. Hart's estate).

Main Street is charming, with a very Mexican feel. Richard and I have a drink at the Trocadero, a new establishment among some older taquerias. Then we look for names we recognize on the Western Walk of Fame. Lots of names are unfamiliar but we know Powers Boothe from Deadwood, Bruce Boxleitner from Gods & Generals and Graham Greene from Dances with Wolves. While we are standing over this last plaque we get talking to a nice couple: he in cowboy hat, she in cowboy boots. We enthuse about Westerns for a while, then promise to look out for each other at the festival.

Richard and I wander down to peek into the William S. Hart park, just closing, then trek back to the shuttle pick-up spot for 6.30pm.

It is pretty easy to tell the other punters: most are wearing cowboy hats. I get chatting with Sampitch Kid, who has come all the way from Utah. Two Santa Clarita buses take about a hundred of us down some ranchy residential streets: Placerita Canyon, etc. Then through the gates of Melody Ranch, Spanish style of course, and here we are on the main street of a cowboy town. It looks great, with a bank, a jail, and plenty of saloons.

The sun is low in the sky. We line up to get our seat numbers, then bag a chair at our round, checkered tables and look around until movie time at 7.00. Merchants are already setting up. Pictures of horses, vintage wear, cowboy hats and a saddelry. Gary posed on one of his saddles. They are beautiful and they cost about $9000 a pop. Lots of work, leather and silver go into those.

Richard spots a buckskin dress and I can't resist trying it on. All right, I buyt it! I can do school events wearing it. They call us to dinner. This means getting in a long line but that is fine because you can get chatting to people. We met a fascinating journalist named Mark Bedor who was telling us all about his week learning to spend a week Custer's Cavalry. He also told us the best place to learn to ride a horse: White Stallion Dude Ranch, in Tucson, Arizona.

Food is a choice of chicken or beef, with nice yams, sauteed peppers and salad. Much nicer than any cowboy ever had on the range. The movie is High Noon, and it is introduced by Michael Blake, the son of Larry J Blake, in an uncredited role as the owner of the saloon where Gary Cooper punches a guy. He told us whenever he got bullied at school he would ride his bike home humming the theme to High Noon. It was one of the first films to use a theme throughout, and the famous ballad 'Do Not Forsake Me O My Darling' was in the charts even before the film came out.

(Here is a bit of trivia. Tex Ritter sang the song in the film but Frankie Lane had the hit.)

Everyone is quiet, almost reverent, as the film starts and although I saw about 30 frosted layer cakes for dessert, nobody makes a move to go and get a piece. We all want to watch the film. It is fun watching as people cheer and boo and everybody laughs at the end when a voice from one of the tables remarks 'You're supposed to clap and cheer at the end of a B Movie.'

We are all cold by now and hurry back down to the shuttle buses. Helpful volunteers wave the way with flashlights. Richard and I are the last ones to get on the first bus. 'Can anybody here give us a ride back to La Quinta Inn?' I say in a loud voice to the whole bus. I needn't have worried. Cowboys are all gentlemen.

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