Walking onto the grounds of the 320-acre Old Tucson Studios meant immediate immersion into movie and TV history, and that for me included recollections of my childhood crush, the Lone Ranger, riding to the “William Tell Overture” with his sidekick, Tonto. We spent a few minutes soaking in the surroundings: our guide gave us a historical narration of days gone by, and then we were on our own exploring America’s “Hollywood in the Desert.”
Old Tucson Studios is not just a movie studio tucked into Arizona’s western Tucson Mountains, but also a theme park where you can enjoy everything from riding the stagecoach to singing along with Miss Kitty’s Can-Can Revue. We appreciated entertainment by live actors in rough and tumble stunt shows, and then we realized the same cast members were shooting their way out of all of the precarious situations from falling from rooftops to facing the bad guys in vigorous hand-to-hand fighting.
The studios originated with the filming of the movie, Arizona, in 1939. For the film, which starred William Holden and Jean Arthur, Columbia Pictures required the construction in Tucson of 50 buildings in 40 days to duplicate 1860s Tucson. For the authenticity of this project, descendants of the Tohono O’odham natives molded more than 350,000 adobe bricks from dusty desert dirt.
By building and using a real working location with Golden Gate Peak in the background, Arizona established a new standard for filming westerns (and other movies). Location filming became a trend, but the Arizona set was not used again until The Bells of St. Mary’s with Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman was filmed there in 1945, followed by The Last Roundup with Gene Autry in 1947, Winchester ‘73 with Jimmy Stewart in 1950 and The Last Outpost with Ronald Reagan, also in 1950.
The popularity of westerns during the 1950s brought Gunfight at the OK Corral with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold with Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, and Cimarron with Glenn Ford.
From then on, sets at the Old Tucson Studios became more elaborate as producers insisted on the real McCoy. If there was no river, create one; if a railroad didn’t exist, build one; if a new mission was required, begin construction; if a second story was needed, add it.
With the foresight of entrepreneur Robert Shelton, Old Tucson Studios revamped, expanded and added a family fun park in 1960. This dusty-street renovation included a hotel, saloon, cantina, granite-lined creek, jail, and doctor’s office for four movies, Rio Bravo in 1959, McLintock in 1963, El Dorado in 1967 and Rio Lobo in 1970, all starring, yeah you guessed it, cowboy legend John Wayne.
Producers continued to use the studios for movies, including The Deadly Companions with Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara in 1961, Lilies of the Field with Sidney Poitier in 1963, and Hombre in 1966 and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean in 1972, both with Paul Newman.
In 1968, Shelton purchased 80 acres for a second filming location called the Mescal property, 40 miles southeast of Tucson. Between the two locations, his filming empire grew to include commercials, episodes of television shows such as Bonanza, Death Valley Days and High Chaparral and some movies that were not quite westerns like Treasure of the Seven Mummies.
Other television shows that filmed episodes at the studios include Little House on the Prairie, Father Murphy, Gunsmoke, Zorro and Maverick.
The Three Amigos featuring Chevy Chase, Steve Martin and Martin Short was filmed there in 1986, and in the 1990s there were movies such as Tombstone with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, The Quick and the Dead with Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman and Buffalo Soldiers with Danny Glover. There were other movies, too, over the years with such stars as Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Charlton Heston, Harrison Ford, Frank Sinatra, Lee Marvin, Leonardo DiCaprio and Elizabeth Taylor. And though I wouldn’t have associated her with a western set, Marie Osmond starred in a made-for-TV movie called I Married Wyatt Earp.
The origin of a fire at the Old Tucson Studios in April of 1995 is still not known, although arson is suspected. High winds fanned the flames and with the buildings classified as temporary structures and sprinklers not required by fire codes, the outcome was sad. Three hundred guests, employees, and the petting zoo animals were safely evacuated but many buildings, and irreplaceable costumes and memorabilia were destroyed. Old Tucson re-opened its doors in January 1997 to wider streets and new buildings.
They are still filming movies at the Old Tucson Studios, including one last year called To Kill a Memory. The studios have also become the home of an 1872 steam locomotive, The Reno, which has been seen in hundreds of films and TV episodes.
The Silverlake Family Fun Park provides an antique carousel, miniature antique car rides, narrow-gauge train rides, trail rides, and a haunted mine tour. You can find souvenirs at Olsen’s Mercantile, but be careful—you might run into Mrs. Olsen!
Musical revues and comedies will entertain you and you won’t go hungry or thirsty. Eating places abound, including Big Jake’s Bar-B-Q and Phoebe’s Wagon Wheel Pizza. The Big Scoop Ice Cream Shop was a good place to sit and watch the western world go by…and eat ice cream. Don’t miss the Grand Palace Saloon, but if you’re shy, don’t sit at the front tables while you watch Miss Kitty and her dancers. They kidnap unsuspecting cowboys from the audience to dance or sing with the girls. Those captured were red-faced but very good sports.
If I were to live the day of my visit over again, I would buy a book, Old Tucson Studios by Paul J. Lawton (2008), ahead of time. It is a treasure. Filled with photographs, it gives a great overview and explanation of the people, productions and changes at the studios.
There were a lot of famous names I had forgotten, and many I wouldn’t have connected with these southern Arizona filming sets.
Shhhh. Did you hear that? “Git-um up, Scout! Hey Kemo Sabe.”
“Who was that masked man, anyway?”
(For directions, admission prices and other information on Old Tucson Studios, visit oldtucsonstudios.com.)
Autographed copies of 2009 fourth edition RVing Alaska and Canada ($19.95) and
Adventures with the Silver Gypsy ($14.95) are available through Sharlene Minshall, Box 1040, Congress, AZ 85332-1040, or at Amazon.com. Follow Sharlene Minshall’s column, “Silver, Single and Solo,” and her blog, “The Silver Gypsy,” at rvlife.com.