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BULLEThistory archive
History Archive Photo
© Courtesy Old Tucson Studios

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John Wayne Was Here
Although it’s not as busy as it was in the heyday of Westerns, Old Tucson Studios is still a great place to get a taste of the Old West. Hollywood’s version, anyway.

By Sally Benford

Tucson In the heyday of Westerns, you could always spot the good guys. They usually wore white hats, and they always rode off into the sunset — alive and well after whatever gunfights might have occurred. Matt Dillon, Bret Maverick, the Lone Ranger ... they were among the good guys. And they were television heroes, too, made famous, in part, because of Old Tucson Studios.

With its endless blue skies, mountain landscapes and stately saguaros, Southern Arizona offered a perfect backdrop for Westerns, whether they appeared on television or the big screen. In 1939, Columbia Pictures became the first Hollywood studio to take advantage of the area when it built a replica of 1860s' Tucson for a movie called Arizona. Although the set sat empty for a few years after the film was finished, Hollywood eventually came back, and Old Tucson became a favorite filming location.

In the 1950s and '60s, Western film stars such as John Wayne, Glenn Ford, Jimmy Stewart and Kirk Douglas all walked the dusty streets of the studio's Southwestern town. And the list of movies filmed on the site is just as impressive: Rio Bravo, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Winchester '73, McLintock! and 3:10 to Yuma. On the small screen, those same sets served as stand-ins for Dodge City in Gunsmoke, Kansas Street in Little House on the Prairie and a cattle ranch in The High Chaparral. In all, from 1960 to 1995, 194 movies and television shows were filmed at Old Tucson.

Despite the success, Old Tucson's owner, Robert Shelton, saw the studio as something more than a Hollywood set, and in 1960 he opened it to the public as a tourist attraction. It was an inspired idea. At one point, Old Tucson was Arizona's second most popular tourist attraction — after the Grand Canyon. People would come from all over the world to see a romanticized version of the Wild West. That is, until 1995, when a devastating fire swept through the studio, destroying most of the buildings, costumes and memorabilia, including the hat worn by Hoss in Bonanza and a dress worn by Laura in Little House on the Prairie.

Undeterred, Shelton rebuilt the studio two years later, and today, the Old West lives on at Old Tucson — even if it is only make-believe.

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