Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
I grew up watching the west. Not so much the actual place, although I did travel there with my father several times. No, this was the west that was shown to me through the magic of films and television. It was a land of cruel, if antiseptic violence, but a place where heroes could be found, and where right almost always triumphed.
It was not a day for the faint of heart. The temperatures were well into triple digits, and some 6 visitors had already been taken away for medical treatment by the time we arrived. After being cautioned to "water up frequently" by our guide, Sheriff Jack, we headed through the gates and into the past.
In 1939, Columbia Studios needed a set for their upcoming movie "Arizona." Not finding a suitable location in Southern California, they traveled to Tucson, Arizona. Already a place where several films had been done, the flat desert, relieved by the sudden uplift of isolated mountains, and decorated by sage brush and giant Saguaro cacti was a filmmaker's delight. The company decided on a site just west of the Tucson Mountains off a winding dirt road which had serviced camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and a tuberculosis preventorium. In a month, the company sunk a well, built a power plant, and constructed an exact replica of Tucson, circa 1862. When filming was completed in June, the movie folks packed up and went back to Hollywood, leaving the set to become a ghost town. Then, in 1946, the Junior Chamber of Commerce opened the set on weekends, setting up some concessions, and put on some recreations. Some people did come, braving the 10 miles of twisting, dusty dirt road to arrive 100 years in the past. During their tenancy, the JayCees made some rough repairs to the building and managed to sub-lease the set for the production of 22 movies. Each production added new buildings and renovated old ones, according to their needs.
In 1959, a Kansas City promoter and entrepreneur name Robert Shelton assumed the lease and turned what was called "Old Tucson" into a tourist destination. The dusty streets were lined with restaurants and stores, and Shelton added realistic gunfight shows. Old Tucson in short order became the most visited tourist site in Arizona, after the Grand Canyon. Shelton was a born salesman, and that talent, plus his contacts in Hollywood, brought the filming of some 112 movies, 48 TV shows, and also a lot of commercials. Another set town, named "Mescal," a remote set 30 miles out into the trackless desert was also built. While Old Tucson remains open to the public, Mescal is only accessible by special invitation.