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The Wild West Comes Alive at Old Tucson Studios

Where Old Tucson Studio's famed movie-making past lives on.

Old Tucson is the real deal for Western-lifestyle and film enthusiasts.

The movie studio turned tourist attraction was first coined Old Tucson Studios in 1939 when it served as a set for the movie “Arizona.” Produced by Columbia Pictures, the movie starred Jean Arthur and William Holden.

Over the years, the location has been featured in about 150 movies, 120 TV shows and numerous photo shoots for Western wear stores and CD covers. Any number of stars acted in the gritty streets and buildings, including Gene Autry, Ingrid Bergman, and John Wayne, who starred in four movies at Old Tucson.

Old Tucson Studios
Visitors to Old Tucson Studios tour the sets of old Western films. (©Russ Bishop/Alamy)

Through the Decades

Old Tucson Studios’ heyday took place in the ’50s and ’60s, when the location served as the backdrop to such classics as “Winchester ’73” with James Stewart, “Gunfight at the OK Corral” with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, and “Hombre” with Paul Newman.

In 1959, Robert Shelton formed Old Tucson Development Co. and morphed the somewhat dilapidated movie location into an Old West amusement park, complete with train rides, a mine adventure and other attractions. A 13,000-square-foot sound stage was built in 1968 to add to Old Tucson’s cachet as a movie-making venue.

Then in the ’80s and ’90s, the Western-movie genre regained popularity, and Old Tucson benefited. Hits such as “Three Amigos!” with Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short; “Tombstone” with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer; and “The Quick and the Dead” with Gene Hackman, Sharon Stone and Leonardo DiCaprio were filmed at the Tucson location.

Where the Old West Comes Alive

Nowadays, Old Tucson attracts mostly indie filmmakers rather than blockbuster movies, and instead is focused on being a must-see destination for tourists and those enthralled by the Old West and cowboy culture.

One of those people is Jimmy Pope, a 70-year-old former engineer who first visited Old Tucson in the 1970s.

“It’s one of those places where the Old West comes alive,” says Pope, who estimates he’s visited Old Tucson more than 30 times over the years. “Every family member or friend who visits me ends up going to Old Tucson with me—and they’re never disappointed.”

Pope recalls the devastating fire that blazed through Old Tucson Studios in 1995, which caused $10 million in damage and closed the park for almost two years. In the blaze, nearly 40 buildings burned across 70 acres of the 360-acre park. The arsonist was never caught.

 “That was a tough time,” Pope says. “I can’t believe someone would try to ruin something so special.”

When the park reopened in 1997, it boasted 16 new buildings, air conditioning and perhaps most importantly, sprinklers.

P.J. Lawton, a historian who has been with Old Tucson for about 15 years, remembers his first visit to the site in 1958. In 2008, he published a book called “Old Tucson Studios,” chock-full of black-and-white photos that serve as a timeline to Old Tucson’s rich history, a must-read for movie and history buffs.

Lawton said some people believe the fire destroyed everything at Old Tucson, and that the site is a shadow of its former self.

“Everything seems to be measured by that, but that is completely false,” he says.

He points out features that didn’t exist before the fire, such as the stagecoach, trail riding opportunities and various shows. Many more buildings were constructed, mostly two-story Victorian facades for movie sets.

Lawton touts the five living-history tours that Old Tucson offers to visitors, including ones that feature a chuckwagon, mercantile, courtroom and sheriff.

“You’ll get a good, full-day’s worth of fun,” says Lawton, who leads some of the tours and also takes care of Old Tucson’s photo and news archives. “The scenery from the park is awesome. It’s like no other place in Arizona.”

From 6 to 10 pm, Thursdays through Sundays in October, Old Tucson transforms into Nightfall. The annual event started in 1990 and fills Old Tucson with live shows, tricks and treats and other haunted happenings.

No matter what time of the year you go, “it’s a special place,” says Lawton.

He points out that Old Tucson sits in Tucson Mountain Park, so “you don’t have to worry about civilization moving in on us.”

Indeed, civilization is often the last thing on people’s minds when experiencing the site.

Wide-eyed grade-schoolers continue to be awed by the stunt shows, gunfights and carousel rides. Older visitors can fit in some shopping in a variety of old-time gift and general stores. Dining options include pizza, barbecue and ice cream, and there’s always a cold beer to be enjoyed in the saloon. For an additional fee, you can try your luck at panning for gold or dress up for an old-time photo.

It’s not often that you can absorb so much history while having so much fun. As you wander through Old Tucson’s dusty streets, you’ll be transformed to an earlier era while tracing the steps of some of the greatest Western movie stars.