Tucson, AZ, Part III: Old Tucson Studios
Yet another attraction that was right up the road from the campground is Old Tucson Studios. Old Tucson Studios is a historic movie studio that is a combination of an active movie studio and amusement park with old-west-themed rides, games and shows. The studio has tours only (no rides or shows) on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at a reduced price. Since we aren't into rides and since most of the rides are for kids anyway, we chose to go on a Tuesday just for the tour. The entrance to the studio is shown below.
The guided tour was excellent. The guide was well acquainted with Old Tucson Studios having first visited when he was only 10 years old. After retiring from military service, he returned as a special effects technician in explosives and has appeared as an extra in a couple of films. His knowledge about Arizona history and about the studio made the tour especially interesting.
The studio was built in 1939 by Columbia Pictures on land leased from Pima County. The original studio was a replica of the town of Tucson in the 1860s for the film Arizona starring William Holden. The studio lay dormant for several years after that first movie until it was revived 1n 1945 for the filming of The Bells of St. Mary's starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman. It was also used for several additional movies after that. For a time, the county leased the studios to the Junior Chamber of Commerce for $1 a year. The Jaycees would open up the studios on weekends for picnics as a fundraiser.
In 1959, entrepreneur Robert Shelton worked out a deal with the county whereby he could lease the studios, revive the aging facility, and open it to the public as a theme park while maintaining it as an active film studio.
The studio has been used for over 300 movies including Rio Bravo, McClintock, El Dorado, Rio Lobo (all starring John Wayne), the 1986 filming of The Three Amigos, the 1993 filming of Geronimo. About 150 TV programs including later episodes of Little House on the Prairie were also filmed there. The studio has also been used for many music videos, TV commercials and photo shoots for print advertisements.
Inside one building there were sets for a courtroom, a bank, and a general store. There was also a video documenting the 71 years of actors, actresses, and movies/TV shows that were filmed here that was a lot of fun to watch...especially those done in our lifetime.
Another building had photos, posters, memorabilia and costumes from various movies and TV shows. The outfit on the left in the composite photo below was worn by Loren Greene (Ben Cartwright) and the shirt and hat were worn by Dan Blocker (Hoss Cartwright) in Bonanza. Notice how big Hoss' shirt is. The dresses in the center are from Little House on the Prairie, and the dresses on the right were worn by Barbara Stanwix in Big Valley.
Unfortunately, a fire destroyed much of the north end of Old Tucson Studios in 1995. Buildings, costumes, memorabilia and about 25 buildings (including the multi-million dollar sound stage) were lost. The fire was made worse by high winds and lack of water. On top of that, rather than concentrate their efforts on saving buildings, firefighters had to protect propane and gunpowder that were stored near the fire area.
The next photo illustrates how hot the fire got. The squiggle on the wall is what is left of one of the lamp posts from the burned area. The fire was so hot it melted the aluminum.
Rather than recreate old sets after the fire, entirely new buildings were constructed in place of those that were damaged or destroyed. This was done to try to make the new buildings more useful for new movies and to also make the studio a better tourist attraction. Some buildings were not replaced at all. The photo below shows some of the new buildings. The streets in this area were widened to make more room for spectators and gunfight reenactments.
After our guided tour, we were invited to a presentation by a snake oil salesman. At the beginning, he asked for a volunteer. Paul tried to play with his camera and to not make eye contact, but it was no use. He was chosen to bang on the drum every time the salesman pointed to him.
Actually, Paul kind of had fun with it. As a reward, he was given a bottle of 'Miracle Elixir' which surprisingly tasted like root beer. Afterward, we went to the corner saloon to watch a documentary on John Wayne.
In the saloon, Paul used his root beer to try out the bar.
After the tour, the snake oil show and the documentary on John Wayne, we wandered around the set on our own to get a closer look at the things we saw on the tour. The next photo is a small railroad station that is portable. It has been moved to numerous locations, including off-site.
Then there was the old mission. While most of the buildings are three-dimensional and many have rooms inside that can be used for filming, the mission is a false front and is only about 10 feet deep. They had photos displayed from several movies showing how the mission has changed in appearance. The mission is used for a stunt show on full-schedule days, but it can easily be reverted back to a movie set. The mountain in the background is part of the Tucson Mountains and has appeared in many movies.
We stopped for a fun photo by the rest rooms. They are disguised as an old west bath house, and Margery is pretending to hang up her bloomers. A sign on the building says, "We use fresh creek water."
Speaking of fun photos, we found a place for another silly one.
There is an artificial river on the set. When making a movie, they used to let water out of a large reservoir only when they were filming a river scene. When the director yelled, "Cut", they would turn off the river and pump water back into the reservoir between takes. Now there is a high volume pump that circulates water continuously so the tourists can enjoy the river all the time. A blooming prickly cactus adds to the ambiance.
On our way out of the studio, we stopped at the larger, permanent railroad station. It was nicely framed by a couple of large saguaro cacti.
We really enjoyed visiting Old Tucson Studios. It has whetted our appetite to watch some old westerns that were filmed here. In fact, we just recorded Geronimo for future viewing.
We still have some more sightseeing here in Tucson, so stay tuned.