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.
Over 400 productions were filmed here before the Western faded from popularity. Movies like John Wayne classics "Rio Lobo," Rio Bravo," "El Dorado," and "McClintock." Westerns like "Winchester '73," "Gunfight at O.K. Corral," "Cimarron," the original "3:10 to Yuma." "Tombstone," and "Hombre." Clint Eastwood came out twice, for "Joe Kidd," and "The Outlaw Josie Wales." In the golden age of TV westerns, shows such as "Bonanza," "Death Valley Days," "Have Gun, Will Travel," "Little House on the Prairie," and "High Chaparral" were filmed here as well. A real cinematic veteran, the 1872 steam locomotive "The Reno" is housed here, after having appeared in over 100 films and television shows.
In April 1995, a fire of mysterious origins broke out in a sign shop. The blaze quickly spread, forcing the evacuation of staff and 300 tourists. The dry wood buildings, limited water supply, and the desert winds combined to create a firestorm which consumed over half the town. Ironically, another old west town, Tombstone, Arizona, has over the years suffered several devastating fires of the same type. The subsequent investigation narrowed down to one individual who had also set fires to the homes in nearby Tucson Estates. While he confessed to those arsons, he stopped short of taking responsibility for the Old Tucson blaze.
Old Tucson reopened in 1997 after reconstruction, but the results of the fire had seriously hurt film production. The only part of the John Wayne movie, "Rio Lobo" that still remains is the small house where future 20th Century Fox head of studio Sherry Lansing first appeared in the second of her two only movies.
Walking the streets of Old Tucson today is to be immersed in deja vu. The faces of the buildings change as their used in movies, but as I strolled, my eyes were caught by certain buildings, the shape, if not the appearance, brought back memories of scenes in some of my favorite movies.
The building on the immediate left was featured prominently
in the comedy "The Three Amigos."
It was here that Jack Elam saved John Wayne's life
in Rio Lobo, by shooting a bad guy out of the hayloft door.
Once a barn, now a church.
The Old Mission appeared in the opening scenes of "Tombstone,"
when Powers Boothe, as Curly Bill Brocious, shot up a
Mexican wedding party. It now serves as the
frontispiece of the daily stunt show.
The ownership has taken great pains to recreate the wild west we came to know sitting in movie theaters and while there may be a separation between what was real and what was reel, there is nonetheless a sense of the authentic here, that if one could be transported back in time, a real old west town might look and feel like Old Tucson. Minus the flush toilets, of course. If anything, the brutal heat made the place even more authentic.
While much was destroyed in the fire, there is a small museum of sorts on the main street, holding a limited collection of photos and memorabilia from the town's storied past. At the Grand Palace, an oasis of air conditioning on a hot day, we enjoyed a classic burlesque show.
Old Tucson's remote location means that not just the buildings, but the landscape itself has been featured. The signature landform, Golden Gate Hill, is instantly recognizable.
A view from the train station.
The trackless desert.
We spent almost 4 hours at Old Tucson, basking in the memories. In recent days, I have pulled up several of those old westerns. The buildings are somewhat different, but the streets and the surrounding landscape is now very recognizable and familiar, a trip down a very dusty, very hot, but very sweet memory lane.