McLennan County Commissioner Kelly Snell got wind of rumors that the honky-tonk of his younger days, Melody Ranch, had outlived its usefulness as a venue for boot-scootin’ and bingo.
He found it as appealing as a budget deficit to picture the iconic Ranch falling to make room for parking or a hotel on U.S. Highway 77, just off Waco’s traffic circle. It is showing its age, he concedes, but remains filled with memories and potential. Willie Nelson played there, as did Garth Brooks, Alabama, Rodney Carrington, Merle Haggard and George Strait.
With its massive floor space and 1,400-person capacity, owners over the years dubbed it Central Texas’ largest dance hall.
The Ranch became popular with students on Thursday “college nights” back in the ’70s and ’80s. Latin bands pumped out Tejano music during its “El Rancho” phase, and worthy causes found the Ranch a soft touch. Bands galore have raised money there to cover mounting medical bills or to support disaster victims, including those touched by the West fertilizer explosion in 2013.
Snell, 60, and Waco attorney Gerald Villarrial, 55, whose parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at Melody Ranch, started swapping stories about their exposure to the Ranch after they heard it was up for sale. They took the plunge, and now own the property, closing a deal Friday before last. Bryan Jenkins with Bentwood Realty quoted a $1.7 million asking price, but no one revealed the sales price.
Financing has been secured, Snell said.
“We heard the talk that they were going to tear it down, maybe put a hotel there,” said Snell, a commissioner going on 10 years. “An idea started spinning around as we met for lunch a few times. We actually have been talking about this since June and decided we could not let this place be destroyed. It was too much a part of our lives, of other people’s lives. We kept hearing that more and more as word got out about our plans.”
The team is wasting no time. Crews likely will start repairing the pock-marked parking lot on Monday, weather permitting, with Snell calling the surface “crater city.” He plans both gravel and asphalt in varied locations, and new or repaired parking lot lighting is also a priority.
Plumbers will prowl the 46-year-old structure on a troubleshooting tour. The dance floor, the soul of any self-respecting honky-tonk, will get plenty of attention, Snell said.
“We have 12 air-conditioners, and six of them work,” he said. “We’re going to redo the pool tables, carpet and stage, make electrical modifications and energy efficiency modifications.”
Snell also owns Texas Electric Energy Savers and managed the service center for a local car dealership in the early 1980s, when quitting time often found him unwinding at Melody Ranch.
His term on the commissioners court expires in two years, and he will not run for re-election to represent Precinct 1, in which Melody Ranch is located.
Snell said he has established no timeline for completing the upgrades. He said crews must work around the bingo games still held at Melody Ranch seven days a week. Some days, players start arriving at 9:30 or 10 a.m., and have a good time for hours, usually departing the premises by 3 p.m.
“The groups sponsoring the bingo games still have two years left on the lease they signed with the previous owners,” Snell said. “We can’t be in there when they are in there, which means this process may last a little longer.”
Friday and Saturday nights still bring live bands and deejays to Melody Ranch, but Snell and Villarrial believe there is more potential to be tapped.
Snell envisions a reprise of college nights, as well as wrestling matches, country-and-western dance lessons, open-mic nights and more benefits.
“This Saturday, there will be nine bands here for an Angel Tree program,” Snell said, referencing a ministry that provides Christmas gifts for youngsters with parents serving prison sentences.
Down the road, probably in a year, a beer garden and yard games may materialize, he said.
Villarrial, a Baylor University graduate and a partner in the Dunnam & Dunnam law firm, said he honed his musicianship at Melody Ranch, playing drums, bass and guitar in bands that performed there.
“This is a great opportunity to become part of something iconic, uniquely Waco, and that’s Melody Ranch. … We will focus on remodeling the building inside and outside, but not with the idea of changing what makes it special,” Villarrial said. “Its proximity to Magnolia Table is a plus, but that did not enter into our decision to buy.”
Magnolia Table, Chip and Joanna Gaines’ popular restaurant on the traffic circle, also prompted the city to start a free trolley connecting the area to downtown.
Villarrial said he never really knew until he bought Melody Ranch that it held so many memories for so many people living in Waco.
“They say, ‘Oh, I met my husband at Melody Ranch,’ or, ‘I was one of the Baylor kids who went there every Thursday night,’ or, ‘I spent my youth there.’ I’ve been hearing all those things the last few weeks,” he said.
Villarrial said he and Snell are “hands-on people,” and they and family members will keep close tabs on their investment.
“We will be involved in running Melody Ranch. You will see us there,” he said.
Snell said his appearances likely will be limited to Fridays and Saturdays, when his obligations as a county commissioner are minimal.
“It’s not like I’m going to be there open to close,” Snell said. “I want to finish my term working for the people, and then I’ll move on. I don’t think a political position is a lifetime job. I think the court has accomplished a lot of good stuff, saved a lot of money, and I would hope I’ve brought some fresh ideas. I’ve tried to stay in touch with the people, see what they need.”
McLennan County Judge Scott Felton briefly found himself at a loss for words when told of Snell’s recent purchase. “Are you kidding me?” he said.
Jokingly asked if he invested in the club, Felton said, “No, sir, I did not invest, but I might consume some of their product.”
“Commissioner Snell takes real good care of his precinct, and I doubt anything he’s doing would change that,” Felton said. “The commissioners are elected officials, and I have no control over them. It’s up to the voters to decide what is and is not acceptable. The nature of his business is not my concern.”
Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Jones said he wishes Snell and Villarrial the best and that he has no issues with their ownership of Melody Ranch.
“I was one of those Baylor students who spent time there on Thursday nights,” Jones said.