Old Tucson came to life in 1939 when Columbia Pictures chose a Pima County-owned site on which to build a replica of 1860s Tucson for the movie “Arizona.” The $2.5 million film, starring William Holden and Jean Arthur, set a new standard of realism for Hollywood Westerns, spurring a move from studio backdrop movies to outdoor epics. Local technicians and carpenters built the town from scratch, erecting more than 50 buildings in 40 days. Descendants of the Tohono O’odham, among Arizona’s first inhabitants formerly known as the Papago, assisted in the set production. Without the convenience of running water, they made more than 350,000 adobe bricks from the desert dirt to create authentic structures for the film. Many of those structures still stand today although some have been altered through subsequent years.
After the filming of “Arizona,” Old Tucson lay dormant under the desert sun. Old Tucson was revived only briefly for the film “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945), starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman. Hollywood once again took notice of Old Tucson, which soon became a favorite filming location, hence the nickname “Hollywood in the Desert.” In 1947 Gene Autry starred in “The Last Roundup,” followed in 1950 by Jimmy Stewart in “Winchester ’73” and Ronald Reagan in “The Last Outpost.”
During the 1950s the Western movie era was in full swing nationwide. In that decade alone Western classics such as “Gunfight at the OK Corral” (1956) with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, “The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold” (1957) and “Cimarron” (1959) with Glenn Ford were filmed at Old Tucson.
A New Owner Welcomes a Western Film Legend
In 1959, entrepreneur Robert Shelton leased the property from Pima County and began to restore the aging facility. Old Tucson reopened in 1960 as both a film studio and a theme park. The park continued to grow, building by building, with each movie filmed on its dusty streets. Western film legend John Wayne, who soon became friends with studio owner Robert Shelton, starred in four movies at Old Tucson and each production added buildings to the town: “Rio Bravo” (1959) added a saloon, bank building and doctor’s office; from “McLintock!” (1963) came the McLintock Hotel; “El Dorado” (1967) left Old Tucson Studios with a facelift on Front Street; and from “Rio Lobo” (1970) came a cantina, a granite-lined creek, a jail and Phillip’s ranch house.
The stampede of movie productions during those early years include “The Deadly Companions” (1961) starring Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara; “Lilies of the Field” (1962) starring Sidney Poitier; “Have Gun Will Travel” (1962); “Arizona Raiders” (1964) starring World War II hero Audie Murphy, and “Hombre” (1966) with Paul Newman, and episodes of television series such as “Bonanza” (1966, ’71, ’72), “Death Valley Days” (1966-69) and “High Chaparral” (1966-’71).
Old Tucson became the premier privately-owned Western film location. In 1968, a 13,000-square-foot sound stage was built to give Old Tucson complete movie-making versatility. The first film to use the sound stage was “Young Billy Young” (1968) starring Robert Mitchum and Angie Dickenson. That year Shelton also purchased the Mescal property, Old Tucson’s second filming location just 40 miles southeast of Tucson.