Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Old Tucson: where the West was filmed

Ricky "the Colorado Kid" Nelson drove
cattle down this street in Rio Bravo.
If you’re a fan of Western movies, you’re going to love Old Tucson, a movie studio and theme park, as more than 300 Western movies and television shows were filmed here. Over the decades, some of filmdom’s biggest names have walked the dusty streets: John Wayne, Paul Newman, Kirk Douglas, Michael Landon, Audie Murphy, Randolph Scott, James Stewart and Maureen O’Hara to name a few. Even today, the streets ring out with gunfire as staff re-enacts gunfights for visitors.

Re-enactment of a gun fight
between bank robbers
This is one attraction you’ll want to be there when the gates open and plan on staying until closing time. Even then you may not be able to take everything in. Programs allowing visitors to experience the Old West take place every 30 to 45 minutes during open hours. Besides gunfights, there’s can-can dancing at the Grand Palace Saloon, a man hawking his magical miracle elixir and a chance to learn about sheriffs from the days of yore, to name a few presentations.

The best way to start your visit here is with a free guided tour; your guide will walk you through the streets pointing out buildings that were featured in specific movies. You’ll learn such trivia as the night the wedding scene was shot for 1993’s Tombstone, the temperature was 92 degrees outside, yet Kurt Russell (Wyatt Earp) and Dana Delany (Josephine Marcus) were dancing in the snow. The “snow” was plastic.

Old Tucson got its start in 1939 with the Columbia Pictures’ filming of Arizona starring Jean Arthur and William Holden; 50  buildings simulating 1860s Tucson went up in 40 days.  A few more movies were made here over the next two decades, but it wasn’t until 1960 that Western movie making began here in earnest. More buildings were added for each movie, but tragedy struck in 1995 when an arson fire did $10 million in damages. Movie-making continued as replacement buildings went up.

John Wayne rules at Old Tucson. There’s McClintock! Mercantile, Big Jake’s BBQ, and you can see a 20-minute documentary on his association with Old Tucson down at Rosa’s Cantina. It’s almost as if the Duke were elevated to sainthood or, at the very least, crowned king of the Western movies. Wayne made 118 Western movies during his acting career, including four at Old Tucson: Rio Bravo, Rio Lobo, McClintock! and El Dorado.

One building was featured in the original 3:10 to Yuma, starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. Today, it houses the theme park’s movie museum and contains posters of movies shot here, costumes, news clippings and other Western movie memorabilia. A few non-Westerns, such as The Bells of St. Mary’s and Lilies of the Field also were shot here. One of the biggest shirts you may ever see is on display. It was worn by Dan Blocker who played Hoss Cartwright in Bonanza, one of the TV westerns that shot here a few times. In the same display case is a smaller shirt that was worn by Ben ‘Pa” Cartwright, who was played by Lorne Greene.

This building was used in McClintock!
Sets are often changed for each movie, so the buildings don’t look the same. The building that is now McClintock! Mercantile was once a barn. A porch was added for the filming of McClintock! Sometimes buildings are painted and others get new signs identifying the business within.

When your feet get tired, it’s time to hop a stage for a ride out to High Chaparral, the setting for a Western television series that was filmed here from 1966 to 1971.  Other TV series that were filmed her include Little House on the Prairie, Bonanza, Death Valley Days and Petrocelli. The Food Network even filmed five programs for one of its series.

Chinese Alley
Take time to wander off the man streets. You’ll be surprised at what you find: Chinese Alley: a narrow alley filled with laundry hung between the buildings; a miner’s sluice box where you can pan for gold and keep what you find, or a store selling produce.

More pictures of Old Tucson: where the West wasfilmed can be found on my Youtube channel.

Old Tucson is located at 201 S. Kinney Road in rural Tucson. It can be reached from I-19 by taking exit 99 west on Ajo Way and following the signs. A more scenic route is to take the Speedway exit off I-10 and high south through Tucson Mountain Park. Movies and TV shows are still filmed at Old Tucson; it remains open to the public when filming is taking place.

Old Tucson is closed during the summer months, and open Friday through Sunday during the fall months.
The fine print; The FTC requires me to tell you I received complementary admission to Old Tucson because I was researching for several travel articles. It's such a great place, we plan to return -- as paying customers.




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