Sunday, January 3, 2021

Old Tucson: The Go-To Locale for the O.K. Corral

By Christopher Robinson

The wild days of western yesteryear could be credibly relived every time a camera crew set up in the ruby glow of the Arizona sun in that ever-faithful western movie town known as Old Tucson.

As the shooting location for more than 300 westerns, the fabled studio and soundstage brought Hollywood’s biggest stars and directors to Tucson Mountain Park to shoot some of the finest western movies and television shows. In more recent years it served as a popular theme park and tourist attraction until a devastating fire destroyed much of its property and buildings.

Until the day Old Tucson prospers once more, those films and memories produced there will have to suffice for the countless fans who thrilled to its timeless cowboy movie magic.

In 1939, Old Tucson was built by Paramount Pictures as a temporary movie set for the shooting of Arizona starring Jean Arthur and William Holden. After a consistently impressive roster of westerns had been shot at the studio, including Winchester 73, Last Train From Gun Hill and 3:10 to Yuma, Old Tucson opened to the pubic in 1960.

Henceforth, fans could get a firsthand gander at how these genre films were created and what went into their unique process. During these bustling years when Old Tucson doubled as a working studio and theme park, it helped churn out western classics like Hombre(Paul Newman), El Dorado(John Wayne) and The Outlaw Josey Wales(Clint Eastwood). It also became the premier location of choice for nearly anything related to Tombstone, Arizona and the life of the notorious frontier marshal Wyatt Earp.

Another trademark feature of many Old Tucson westerns is the saguaro cacti, known for peppering the neighboring Sonoran Desert landscape.

As subsequent productions necessitated specialized buildings, the studios were expanded and improved upon, resulting in arrays of streets, saloons, banks, shops and hotels for producers and directors to freely choose from.

The carpenters and workers who initially built the first 50 buildings which formed the backdrop of Old Tucson Studios included people of the Tohono O’odham, an original tribe of the Sonoran Desert. 

The Flamingo Hotel, built in 1952, hosted multitudes of cast and crew members who participated in the studios’ productions. It later became a museum displaying countless movie posters and memorabilia from those same films. 

By 1959, restorations were required and it was during this period of reopening that the expansions occurred with the inclusion of a
theme park. Gaining its gradual status as a significant tourist site, Old Tucson would eventually attract 500,000 visitors a year. 

In 1968 the park was augmented by a 13,000-foot sound stage built for usage in the film Young Billy Young starring Robert Mitchum. 

Another feature of the park was a recurring gunfight reenactment with typical gunplay, fisticuffs and stunts performed live for enthusiastic crowds. One such exhibition is presented during a scene from Death Wish starring Charles Bronson, where a marshal and his deputies thwart a group of outlaws who are violently attempting to rob a bank.

Further expansion saw a train depot, antique automobile rides and an 1872 steam locomotive. With enthusiasm for the west and  westerns never in true decline, the vast Arizona sky seemed to be Old Tucson’s only limit. The studio and park continued to grow and improve on itself every year as it passed into legend itself.

All of that changed, however, in April of 1995 when a fire destroyed 40 of Old Tucson’s buildings costing $10 million dollars in damage. The devastating fire which was attributed to arson, forced the studios out of business for a two year hiatus during which time major renovations and rebuilding took place.

After reopening in 1997, the studios experienced an economic slump due to the national recession as well as a loss of state film funding.

Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an indefinite closing of Old Tucson and a county committee made up of tourism officials and movie industry executives currently plans to determine its future.

Hopeful that new prospects will come forward to take over Old Tucson’s lease, the committee projects a possible reopening in the fall. They are also in talks with the family of Robert Shelton who originally leased Old Tucson from Pima County in 1959 and reopened it as a refurbished studio and park.

Until a decisive deal goes through, it seems, ‘Hollywood in the Desert’ will be standing by, waiting for the stage line to barrel ‘round the corner, the batwing doors to swing open, the horses to trot through its dusty streets and the film crews to converge and set up their gear once again.

Happy New Year!

About the Author

Western Magazine Digest Senior Editor Christopher Robinson is a writer, filmmaker and musician in New Jersey who has contributed to several magazines and websites.

Robinson also worked as a cameraman, videographer, cable access TV host, teacher and producer. He scripted and produced commercial videos as well as cable television programs for local consumption.

For more info about Christopher, click here.

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