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.
During the Western movie boom of the 1950s, many of the stars stayed at the nearby Flamingo Hotel, built in 1952. Now renovated, The Flamingo Hotel has on display hundreds of rare and original movie posters, lobby cards and photographs from nearly all of the over 70 films shot at Old Tucson.
More Films and Our Own “Silent” Movie Star
In the decade that followed, Old Tucson experienced tremendous growth. In 1970-71 alone it hosted 15 film productions including “Dirty Dingus Magee” (1970) with Frank Sinatra and Joe Kidd (1971) starring Clint Eastwood, who later returned to Mescal for “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976). Paul Newman visited Mescal as well and returned to Old Tucson for “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” (1972). Other films shot at Old Tucson during this period include “Death Wish” (1974) starring Charles Bronson, “The Last Hard Men” (1975) with Charleton Heston and James Coburn, “The Villain” (1978), which starred Kirk Douglas and Ann Margaret, and “The Frisco Kid” (1979) starring Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford, fresh from his stint as Han Solo in “Star Wars.”
From 1970 to 1980 Old Tucson and its Mescal property hosted 77 film and television productions. “Little House on the Prairie” (1977-1983), starring Michael Landon, Melissa Gilbert and Karen Grassel, was among the memorable television productions that called Old Tucson and Mescal home, as were “Gunsmoke (1972-74)” with James Arness, “The Mark of Zorr”o (1974) featuring Ricardo Montalban, “The New Maverick” (1978) with James Garner, and “The Gambler” (1979), a made-for-TV movie starring Kenny Rogers and Bruce Boxleitner.
Park expansion included the Silverlake Park area, with an antique carousel, a new train depot and narrow-gauge train, the C.P. Huntington, and antique-car rides. Perhaps the most exciting acquisition during this time was the 1872 steam locomotive The Reno. Shelton bought the authentic train from MGM and brought it to Old Tucson in 1970. The Reno has since been featured in hundreds of films and television shows, becoming Old Tucson’s very own “silent” movie star.
Old Tucson remained a popular location for film and television executives as well as visitors. Annual park attendance was nearing the half-million mark just as Old Tucson became part of the made-for-television movie trend of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The studio hosted productions such as CBS-TV’s “Poker Alice” starring Elizabeth Taylor and TNT’s “Geronimo,” “Buffalo Soldiers” and “Billy the Kid.” The 1980s saw major films as well, most notably “Three Amigos” (1986) starring Chevy Chase, Steve Martin and Martin Short.
The 1990s brought their share of movie stars to Old Tucson and Mescal to follow in the famous footsteps of their predecessors. Some of the films became classics and some, well, didn’t. But Young Guns II (1990) with Emilio Estevez, Lou Diamond Phillips, Kiefer Sutherland and Christian Slater, “Tombstone”(1993) with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, “Lightning Jack” (1993) starring Paul Hogan and Cuba Gooding Jr., and “The Quick and the Dead” (1994) with Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, proved that Westerns were popular again. This was in part thanks to television productions like the Old Tucson and Mescal-based “The Young Riders” (1989-91), whose ensemble cast of young actors helped bring the Western genre to a new generation of viewers. Old Tucson and Mescal continue to play host to Hollywood productions, including the 2002 shoot of “Ghost Rock” with Gary Busey, Jeff Fahey and rising stars Jenya Lano and Michael Worth.
Not your typical Western, “Treasure of the Seven Mummies” (2004), was filmed at Mescal. Pretty Dangerous Films and Talmarc Productions co-produced the film starring Cerina Vincent (“Cabin Fever,” 2002) and Matt Schulze (“Torque,” 2004), an action/horror crossover based on a script by Thadd Turner. The storyline follows six misfit convicts who escape across the Arizona desert. Learning of the legend of the Tumacacori, a 16th century treasure of buried gold once guarded by seven Jesuit priests, the men find themselves lured to a ghost town from which no treasure hunter has escaped alive.
“Mad, Mad Wagon Party” (2008), a Western spoof and independent feature film, was produced by Delta Films at Old Tucson.
“To Kill A Memory” (2011), produced by Freewill Films, stars Kix Brooks and Ernie Hudson and was directed by Dustin Rikert. Set in the 1920s, the film tells the story of a young newspaper journalist’s (Andrew Walker) quest for the truth behind one of the most notorious bank heists in Western history, “The Mid-Day Massacre” and its infamous ringleader, Duke Donovan (Kix Brooks), a legendary lawman gone bad. “To Kill A Memory” was produced by Dustin Rikert and William Shockley.
History Channel – Old Tucson and Mescal were the settings for a History Channel shoot for the series “Investigating History.” The one-hour episode was a special on Wyatt Earp and the legendary shootout at the O.K. Corral.
AMC (American Movie Classics) was at Mescal for a commercial shoot promoting the Western genre in a series of imaging spots. The shoot featured High Chaparral star Don Collier and Old Tucson icon Bob Shelton.
Commercial Projects – Over the years a number of commercial and music video shoots have taken place at Old Tucson and Mescal. Some of these included:
Ralph’s, a regional grocery retailer, was at Mescal for a commercial shoot. A Mescal building interior was stocked full of colorful food and merchandise to replicate an 1800s General Store
Yellawood Lumber – Commercial shoot by Dill Productions for pressure-treated pine company in the Southeast.
Taco Time – Commercial shoot by Leonard Creative for Mexican food restaurants in the Northwest United States.
Cinque – Music video for rap artist Cinque by Marz-In-Motion Productions.
Discoteka Avariya “4 Guys” – Music video for Russian techno group Discoteka Avariya by Pantera Productions.
Photo Shoots – Old Tucson and Mescal are a favorite backdrop for a variety of photo projects including:
Wynton Marsalis/Willie Nelson – CD cover shot for their CD “Two Men with the Blues.”
Carter Allen Photography – High-end door company photos.
Rod’s Western Palace – Westernwear company based in Columbus, Ohio.
Today, after seven decades, hundreds of films and a devastating fire, the award-winning movie location continues to reign as America’s “Hollywood in the Desert.”