Old Tucson Studios
Old Tucson is a movie studio and theme park just west of Tucson, Arizona, adjacent to the Tucson Mountains and close to the western portion of Saguaro National Park. Built in 1939 for the movie Arizona, it has been used for the filming of several movies and television westerns since then, such as Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Little House on the Prairie. It was opened to the public in 1960, and historical tours are offered about the movies filmed there, along with live cast entertainment featuring stunt shows and shootouts.
Old Tucson was originally built in 1938 by Columbia Pictures on a Pima County-owned site as a replica of 1860s Tucson for the movie Arizona, starring William Holden and Jean Arthur. Workers built more than 50 buildings in 40 days. Many of those structures are still standing.
After Arizona completed filming, the location lay dormant for several years, until the filming of The Bells of St. Mary's (1945), starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman. Other early movies filmed on this set included The Last Round-Up (1947) with Gene Autry and Winchester '73 (1950) with James Stewart and The Last Outpost with Ronald Reagan. The 1950s saw the filming of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958), Cimarron (1959) and Rio Bravo (1959) among others.
Open to the public
In 1959, entrepreneur Robert Shelton leased the property from Pima County and began to restore the aging facility. Old Tucson re-opened in 1960, as both a film studio and a theme park. The park grew building by building with each movie filmed on its dusty streets. John Wayne starred in four movies at Old Tucson. Rio Bravo (1959) added a saloon, bank building and doctor's office; McLintock! (1963) added the McLintock Hotel; El Dorado (1966) brought a renovation of the storefronts on Front Street; and with Rio Lobo (1970) came a cantina, a granite-lined creek, a jail and a ranch house.
In 1968, a 13,000 square foot (1,208 square meter) soundstage was built to give Old Tucson greater movie-making versatility. The first film to use the soundstage was Young Billy Young (1968), starring Robert Mitchum and Angie Dickinson.
The park also began adding tours, rides and shows for the entertainment of visitors, most notably gunfights staged in the "streets" by stunt performers. One of the rides is a 2 ft (610 mm) narrow gauge railroad powered by two Chance Rides C.P. Huntington train sets, which encircles most of the property.
Old Tucson served as an ideal location for shooting scenes for TV series like NBC's The High Chaparral (1967–1971) where the ranch house survived the 1995 fire: Little House on the Prairie, and later Father Murphy, featuring Merlin Olsen and "Petrocelli". Three Amigos was a popular comedy shot there in the 1980s, utilizing the church set. From 1989 to 1992, the show The Young Riders filmed here and at the Mescal, Arizona sister site. The main street appears prominently in 1990s westerns such as Tombstone. A partial mirror set exists at Mescal and is featured in The Quick and the Dead which filmed all of the town of Redemption scenes at the studios.
In 2013, Old Tucson and Mescal was featured in "A Hot Bath An' A Stiff Drink", an independent film that used many of the locals as extras. They are currently working on a sequel.
On April 25, 1995, a fire destroyed much of Old Tucson Studios. Buildings, costumes and memorabilia were lost in the blaze. Among the memorabilia destroyed was the wardrobe from Little House on the Prairie. Also lost in the blaze was the only copy of a short film about the history of Old Tucson Studios. This film included rare behind the scenes footage of stars, such as William Holden, John Wayne and Angie Dickinson. The Reno, a steam locomotive from the Virginia and Truckee Railroad on static display in the park, was also badly damaged.
According to the arson investigation, the fire originated inside building 74, which was a sign shop. This building backed up to an entertainment venue and was located on Kansas Street across from the sound stage. A show had just finished at this venue and the crowd was heading south on Front Street, being escorted by the actors from the show. Within minutes, flames were discovered inside the sign shop and security radioed the front gate. The front gate immediately called 911. In the mean time, someone pulled a fire hose from just north of this location (located outside the Rio Bravo Jail building). When it was discovered that the hose was not long enough, it was dropped and another hose was pulled from the area of Chinese Alley. However, the original hose was not turned off, which bled off the pressure to the second hose. 300 guests and employees were forced to evacuate the park. Tucson Estates Fire Department arrived in less than 10 minutes with one truck and two firemen. However, by this time the fire had progressed too quickly to be suppressed by this basic equipment. A multiple alarm call was put out to dispatch as many fire units as possible. This began the deployment of 100 pieces of equipment and over 200 firefighters from every fire department in the Tucson metro area, including Davis Monthan Air Force Base and the Arizona National Guard.
By this point, the wind was out of the west, pushing the fire into the sound stage and west along Kansas Street. Approaches to the fire were restricted by three propane tanks which had vented and were burning. The fire quickly turned into a firestorm with vortices of flames carrying burning shingles and wood throughout the park. Fire control efforts were hampered by high winds. Most of the buildings in the studio were classified as "Temporary Structures," meaning fire prevention devices such as sprinklers were not required. A large propane tank, stashes of black powder used in staging gunfights, and a diesel fuel tank demanded the attention of firefighters and much of the scarce water supply. So much water was used in the attempt to prevent an explosion that the surrounding areas became flooded, further impeding the firefighters as they attempted to wade through the mud. After four hours of firefighting, the flames were extinguished and hot spots located and put out. The loss included all of Kansas Street and Front street to the wash on the east side, the corner store on the west, and the sound stage. The Mission area was destroyed along with the Mission, the Greer Garson house, and the cantina from Rio Lobo. The south end of town and the Silverlake area were not affected. Damages were estimated to be in excess of $10 million ($15 million in 2013), with 25 buildings destroyed. Fortunately, there were no human casualties.
Using eye witness information, arson investigators narrowed down the location of the fire to the sign shop on Kansas street, just north of the sound stage. This building was used for the staging of a gunfight show and when not attended, the building could be entered by anyone. The remains of the building showed that the exact point of origin was in a trash can located in the building. Samples of items in the trash can and in the immediate area were collected and tested, and the tests were negative for any type of accelerant. There were no electrical lines or other sources of ignition in the immediate area. Also, based on the timeline from end of the show and the first flames being seen on the outside of the building, it was too short of a time span to have the been caused by a discarded cigarette. It was ruled that some person unknown had started the fire in the immediate area of the waste basket, and that the person had intentionally set the fire with some source of open flame (such as a match).
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives sent in a team of forensic accountants to look into a financial motive for the fire. It was determined that the owners and management of Old Tucson did not stand to get a financial benefit, but would lose a considerable amount of money due to the fire. These facts ruled the owners out of any conspiracy to set the fire. The employees were then questioned and their backgrounds checked; however nothing suspicious was found to implicate any employee in the fire. That left the motive as either revenge for some personal offense, or an amateur thrill arsonist. Because of where the fire started, it was felt that the person starting it must have some knowledge of the layout of Old Tucson. Employment records were checked and one individual was identified as having recently attempted to get a job at Old Tucson, but was turned down. This person became the primary suspect. The subject lived in the nearby area and frequented Old Tucson.
In the month following the Old Tucson fire, several other fires were started in the area of Tucson Estates, down the road from Old Tucson; this subject was identified as the primary suspect in those fires. He was located and questioned by detectives, and faced with the evidence from the Tucson Estates fires, at which point he confessed to having started those fires. However, before he could be questioned about the Old Tucson fire, he invoked his Miranda Rights, effectively stopping any further questioning. Not enough evidence could be collected to positively identify this suspect as the arsonist in the Old Tucson fire. No other information pointing to any other individual was ever found, and the case remains open to this day.
After 20 months of reconstruction, Old Tucson re-opened its doors on January 2, 1997. The sets that were lost were not recreated; instead, entirely new buildings were constructed, and the streets were widened. The Reno locomotive was cosmetically restored. The soundstage was not rebuilt. Film production at Old Tucson was seriously affected by the fire. In 2003, Old Tucson reduced its hours of operation, opening from 10am to 4pm. Focusing on seasonal events, Old Tucson hosts the popular Nightfall event for Halloween which runs through the month of October, Wednesday through Sunday nights.
In 2011, Old Tucson embarked on a project to build new movie-quality sets that fill out the park, and restore the pre-fire feel of close-together buildings, providing the look and depth of a genuine old west town circa 1865-1900. “After the rebuild of Old Tucson following the 1995 fire, the town just didn’t have the same look and feel,” says Old Tucson CEO and General Manager Pete Mangelsdorf. “We started discussions with Bob Shelton several years ago to develop a plan to fill the empty space in Town Square with movie quality sets that bring the magic back.”
The Heritage Square Project, a 5,000-square-foot spread with three new streets lined with 12 new buildings, was completed in November 2011 at an estimated cost of $300,000. The design and construction of the new sets was led by Production Designer Gene Rudolf, credited with creating sets for movies including Young Guns II, The Great Gatsby, The Right Stuff, Raging Bull, Marathon Man, and Three Days of the Condor. The project added dressmaker shops, a general store and a blacksmith, and are part of "living history" presentations. One of the goals of the Heritage Project was to add "more programs that have to do with the different cultural aspects, the Hispanic culture, the Chinese culture, the Native American culture," said Mangelsdorf. Along those lines, another new exhibit now open to the public features a Tohono O'odham village as it would have appeared in the 1860s. It includes traditional houses, a garden and other facets of village life.
Movies filmed at Old Tucson
Some scenes from the 1994 arcade game Lethal Enforcers II: Gunfighters from Konami were also shot at Old Tucson Studios along with Fast Draw Showdown and Shootout at Old Tucson by American Laser Games.
Many TV series and TV movies have had at least one episode filmed at Old Tucson in whole or in part including the following:
- 1962: Have Gun Will Travel
- 1963: Wagon Train
- 1966-1969: Death Valley Days
- 1966-1971: The High Chaparral
- 1966/1971-72: Bonanza
- 1967: Dundee and the Culhane
- 1971: Bearcats (either the TV movie title that started the series or at least one episode)
- 1972-1974: Gunsmoke
- 1974-1975: Petrocelli
- 1975-1976: The Young Pioneers
- 1977-1979: How The West Was Won
- 1977-1983: Little House on the Prairie
- 1978: The New Maverick (TV movie)
- 1980: The Gambler (TV movie)
- 1980: Hart to Hart
- 1984: Highway to Heaven
- 1984: Ripley's Believe it or Not
- 1984: Little House on the Prairie: Bless All the Dear Children (TV movie)
- 1985-1988: Webster
- 1987: Highway to Heaven (episode: Why Punish the Children)
- 1987: Reading Rainbow
- 1988-1991: The Young Riders
- 1988: One Life to Live
- 1989: America's Most Wanted
- 1990: Unsolved Mysteries
- 1998: Magnificent Seven
- Guide to Arizona's Miniature Railroads - The Old Tucson Miniature Railroad
- Nightfall Tucson. "Nightfall at Old Tucson Studios". Retrieved 2012-07-06.
- "Filmography". Tucson Film Office, Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau. 2007. Retrieved 2007-05-05.
- "History". Film Office. Old Tucson Studios. 2004. Archived from the original on 2007-04-24. Retrieved 2007-05-05.
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