Riding with the Times: Old Tucson celebrates 80th anniversary

Old Tucson was built as part filming of the 1940 film “Arizona.” (Photo courtesy Old Tucson Company)

By Laura Latzko

Films have helped to define and shape the Old West. A film studio and tourist destination, Old Tucson has been part of this history.

The privately owned Western attraction and filming location will commemorate its 80th anniversary this year with a weekend-long celebration on Saturday, April 13, and Sunday, April 14.

The anniversary weekend will have alumni stunt and musical performances, proclamations honoring key players in Old Tucson’s history, special entertainment from a local western band and a mariachi group and a screening of the 1940 film “Arizona” on Sunday evening.

Mary Davis, director of marketing, sales and communications for Old Tucson, says for current and former employees, the Western attraction is a special place to work.

“It’s very exciting to be part of something that has done so much for people for 80 years. I have, I think, one of the best jobs,” Davis says. “Somebody asked me one time, ‘Do you ever get tired of it, seeing the same old shows every day?’ And you don’t because the reactions are different, and you see different people enjoying themselves in a fresh, new way. So, no, I never get tired of being out here.”

At one point, Old Tucson was second only to the Grand Canyon as a popular tourist destination in Arizona. It continues to draw hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world who want a taste of the Old West.

Davis says Old Tucson continues to be a popular place to visit because of its film history and changing attractions.

“I think regardless of who has worked here and how far back, there’s always been a passion for preserving the west, that spirit of the West,” she says.

“I think that’s what we celebrate is how the park was founded, what the movie was about, that was first filmed here, the wagon train coming across the west and starting a new life. I think preserving that spirit has been a constant.”

Old Tucson was created in 1939 when Columbia Pictures wanted to recreate an authentic 1860s Western town, complete with a scenic desert backdrop, for its film “Arizona.”

Robert Shelton, the owner of Old Tucson from 1959 to 1985, was instrumental in growing the location as a tourist destination and filming location.

His friend Jack Young, a stuntman and actor in Hollywood, helped to create the stunt program in Old Tucson. Old Tucson has been the filming location for more than 400 films, TV shows, commercials and other projects, including four John Wayne films.

Notable movies and TV shows filmed at Old Tucson Studios include “3:10 to Yuma,” “Little House on the Prairie,” “Rio Bravo,” “El Dorado,” “The High Chaparral,” “The Three Amigos,” “Tombstone,” “Arizona Raiders,” “Gunsmoke,” ”Bonanza,” “The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold and “McLintock!”

Film crews continue to use Old Tucson for different purposes, including a a Western-themed video game and music videos for up-and-coming artists.

Davis says filmmakers working on smaller projects are often attracted to Old Tucson.

“It is just an ever-evolving industry, and we are trying to evolve with it and support that particular client that it is looking for the unique opportunities that we have,” Davis says. “There is no other place like Old Tucson. It is not Tombstone. We’ve very different from a Tombstone. We were built for one reason, and now we are such a unique location and experience on some many levels.”

The venue has changed significantly since it was used for the film “Arizona.” Around 45 percent of the attraction, including the sound stage and wardrobe warehouse, were lost in 1995 to a fire. Some thought Old Tucson would die after that. However, it came back strong. The attraction has been expanded on over the years with additions such as the Reno, an 1872 locomotive purchased from MGM.

Old Tucson offers activities for people of all ages, including antique car, train and trail rides; a saloon; a shootout area; historic tours; an old-fashioned carousel; mining and gold-panning activities and an Old-West stagecoach.

A laser-target-shooting zipline was recently added to the attraction. Davis says when adding new elements, it is important to maintain the integrity of Old Tucson.

“We recognize there are new things people want to do, but we still keep it within that theme that fits Old Tucson’s mission,” Davis says.

Many of the activities are included with the price of admission, while some have additional costs.

The biggest attractions are the gunfight and stunt shows, which change regularly; saloon musical with cancan and ballet folklorico dance; and musical revue dedicated to the town’s film history.

“(The stuntmen) are very good at what they do, and it’s exciting when you watch a cowboy fall off a 30-foot building,” Davis says.

Davis says many former employees have special memories attached to Old Tucson. Now, some children of alumni are working at the Western attraction.

“The vibe about Old Tucson is it really is like a family. People who worked here for years come back with their kids. There’s such an attachment to Old Tucson, from people who are here today and people who have been here in the past,” Davis says.

Each year, the attraction hosts a variety of events, including a Spirit of the West Fest, a western steampunk convention and a canine-themed weekend.

Old Tucson works with organizations such as the Buffalo Soldiers of Arizona, Ha:San Preparatory and Leadership School, the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center and the Mormon Battalion to present living history presentations. These presentations often highlight how different populations have shaped the Old West.

more info

What: Old Tucson 80th Anniversary Weekend Celebration

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, April 13, and Sunday, April 14 (anniversary celebration): 6 p.m. Sunday, April 14 (film screening)

Where: Old Tucson, 201 Kinney Road

Cost: $19.95 adult admission over 12, $10.95 admission for children 4 to 11, $17.95 for seniors and military, $16.95 for Pima County resident adult ticket, $8.95 for Pima county resident child ticket, $10 for alumni and families during alumni weekend, film screening only free to public.

Info: 883.0100, oldtucson.com