Saturday, February 6, 2010

"Hollywood in the Desert"

Just a few miles from Tucson was the opportunity to step back to the Tucson of the 1860's.

Old Tucson Studios came to life in 1939 when Columbia Pictures built a replica of 1860’s Tucson for the movie Arizona. The film, starring William Holden and Jean Arthur, set a new standard of realism for Hollywood westerns, initiating the move away from studio backdrop movies to filming on location.

Local technicians and carpenters built the town from scratch, building more than 50 buildings in 40 days. This work consisted of making more than 350,000 adobe bricks from the desert dirt to create authentic structures for the film.

In spite of this construction effort, it wasn't until 1950 with Jimmy Stewart in Winchester ‘73 and Ronald Reagan in The Last Outpost that filming was revived. It would reach a level that warranted the title "Hollywood in the Desert."

Westerns reached their pinnacle in the 1950s, and dozens were filmed here, including Gunfight at the OK Corral.

John Wayne played a significant role in the growth of Tucson Studios and the life of Bisbee, AZ (but more on this latter role in a later entry). Four of his most famous Westerns were filmed at the Studios: Rio Bravo (1959), McClintock (1963), El Dorado (1967), and Rio Lobo (1970).

The Studios have been the site for more than 300 film and television projects over the past 70 years. In addition to Lilies of the Field (1962), Have Gun Will Travel (1962); and Hombre (1966), episodes of Bonanza (1966, ‘71, ‘72), Death Valley Days (1966-69), and High Chaparral (1966-’71) paved the way for use of the site in television shows.

The day that we visited the Studios, we appeared to have the site to ourselves. We were able to walk around the "town" without having present-day citizens appearing in photos of the 1860 town.

We met a few characters in the corral, the stagecoach boarding area, and in the shadows of the buildings (see photo above).

When we came upon this elixir salesman, we realized where all the visitors were. He must have been quite skilled because he was selling a cure for "scarlet fever, yellow fever, black fever, and cabin fever."

From 1970 to 1980 Old Tucson Studios and its nearby property hosted 77 film and television productions, including Little House on the Prairie (1977-1983), Gunsmoke (1972-74), The Mark of Zorro (1974), The New Maverick (1978), and The Gambler (1979), a made-for-TV movie.

Some of the more recent films shot here are: Three Amigos (1986), Tombstone (1993), Lightning Jack (1993), and The Quick and the Dead (1994).

Old Tucson Studios was the setting 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.

A gunfight was also part of the day's program at the Studios. The interesting aspect of this gunfight was that there was a story behind the shooting.

The encounter tells the story of how “Billy the Kid” and “Dirty” Dave Rudabaugh formed their notorious alliance and went on to terrorize New Mexico!

With a good sound system, good acting, and some convincing fights and falls from a roof, the story was told through dialogue that could be heard throught town.

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