I had set my sights on going to the town of Tombstone — site of the shootout at the OK Corral — on my most recent trip to visit family in southern Arizona. Turned out that I didn’t have the time so I decided on an alternative: a place that played Tombstone in the movies.
Old Tucson Studios started life as a set built in 1938 by Columbia Pictures for the movie Arizona (a film remarkable for its very strong heroine, a woman building a freight company in Tucson just before the start of the Civil War). In 1960, an enterprising businessman leased the property from the county, added a movie studio and a western theme park, and opened it to the public. It’s been the set for countless John Wayne movies and television shows like Little House on the Prairie and the High Chaparral. You might recognize the mission set, above, from its most recent outing in the Steve Martin film The Three Amigos.
It was almost noon when we — I dragged my 87-year-old father with me — got there and there were about 10 cars in the parking lot. “Are you Arizona residents?” asked one of the cheery ticket sellers inside their visitor center. My father is. “Then if you buy one ticket, you get a second ticket free. We’re trying to get more locals to come.”
When we stepped outside, I could see why. It was a ghost town – like the scene in a western right before the gunfight, when the only thing moving in the streets is dust. I could almost hear the thin whistle of an Elmer Bernstein theme song.
From the top of the street, we heard a voice bellow, “The next show is in 10 minutes in the Golden Palace Saloon. “
“Let’s go watch,” said my father. “The last time I was here, there was a guy singing and playing a guitar. He was really good.” “The last time” for him was about 20 years ago.
That’s where all the people were, in the Saloon, waiting for the show. This one wasn’t music but a comedy routine called Sir William Wiley’s Miracle Elixir Show, a riff on an old time medicine show. The performer was good and even much of material — corny, harmless jokes fit for a family friendly audience — would have been fine. Except. They dragged three people from the audience to be part of the show. One was put on a base drum and one on a tambourine and they were to strike their instruments whenever Sir William pointed at them. He would point at them unexpected times, they would be confused, and hilarity ensues. Not.
The third volunteer was Sir William’s assistant. She was from Montreal and French was her first language.
Sir William: “How do you spell silk?”
Woman: “S. E. L. K.”
Sir William: “S. I.”
Woman: “In French , I is pronounced E.”
After Sir William, there was a 15 minute presentation by an interpreter portraying the owner of the Saloon, telling us about …. I don’t know what he told us about. He lost me about 5 minutes in.
While he talked, I counted the people in the audience. Forty-six.
After the lecture came Miss Lillian Mae and her girls: three young women dressed in dance hall costumes as imagined by Hugh Hefner. They sat on the top of the bar and sang, “A kiss on the hand may be quite continental, but diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” My guess is that they’re theater majors from the University of Arizona.
My father and I looked at each other. “Let’s get out of here,” we both said, at exactly the same time.
Back outside, we wandered the deserted streets.
There are rides — a stage coach, horses for trail rides, a train that circumvents the park, underground mine cars, a carousel and a few other appropriately low tech offerings. And there are arcade games, like a shooting gallery and panning for gold. Each attendant look at us hopefully as we wandered by.
We didn’t do any of the games or rides and it took us about 30 minutes to take a slow saunter around the park. Many of the buildings are just facades but there are a few with film set interiors: a mercantile, a sheriff’s office, a school room, and a house.
We ended up at the courthouse, where a shoot-out was scheduled to happen at high noon. Performances seem to be the big thing: gunfights, movie stunt demonstrations, and the aforementioned medicine show/saloon girl musical revue.
The gunfight told the story — the true story, they’d like us to know — of James Levy, an Irish immigrant who became a gunfighter in the Old West. The truth: he met his end in Tucson when he ran afoul of a faro dealer, who ambushed and shot him dead outside of his Tucson hotel. The Old Tucson version did a little embellishing with a sheriff, a fist-fight, and a shoot-out.
I know that my write-up isn’t exactly encouraging, but I think that it actually could be a fun place for children or even adults with the right attitude. My father, a western film buff, loved the movie history exhibits (although I admit that he said, as we were leaving, “Well, I won’t need to go there for another 30 years.”). The shows, the rides, and the games could keep a visitor occupied for an entire day. Skip the living history lectures, though.
While we were there, a western called Hot Bath-Stiff Drink was filming. Don’t look for it at the Academy Awards anytime in the future.