Old West Spirit Lives On At Old Tucson

By  Stina Sieg
Published: Thursday, January 5, 2017 - 5:00am
Updated: Wednesday, January 11, 2017 - 2:12pm

(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Cass Anaya says the shows he and his stunt buddies put on is pure entertainment, the kind that transcends genres. Sure, they're cowboys, but even if they were playing astronauts this would still be fun and crowd-pleasing.

In a time when the top movies seem to be all about superheroes and space warriors, it might be hard to believe that cowboys used to be America’s biggest box stars. Film buffs tend to agree that the heyday for Western film ended in the 1960s. But there’s one spot in the southern Arizona desert where Westerns are still king.

Even if you’ve never been to Old Tucson Studios, if you recognize this quote, you probably kind of have: “I’m looking at a tin star with a drunk pinned on it.”

That’s John Wayne trying to scare some sobriety into a sheriff played by Robert Mitchum in “El Dorado.” It’s one of the hundreds of movies and TV shows that have been filmed at Old Tucson Studios, including “McClintock,” “Tombstone” and “Little House on the Prairie.”

And yeah, those big hits were decades ago, but that didn’t seem to matter to the delighted-looking audience at one of Old Tucson’s many live stunt shows. They squealed and clapped as guys in full cowboy regalia dove off buildings, ran from and dramatically expired.

“When we’re putting on a really great show, that’s the person’s expectation of what they would want to see cool cowboys do — times 10,” said stuntman Cass Anaya, fake blood soaked into his white shirt. Anaya feels he and his stunt buddies are celebrating cowboy culture — by exaggerating it. That’s how he sees Western movies, too.

Westerns don’t show us how the Wild West really was, he said, but how it should have been.

“It’s a part of legitimate, awesome storytelling, and decidedly, extremely American,” he said, “When we talk to, especially Germans and Japanese, it’s so huge.”

But these days, Old Tucson’s crowds are not as huge as they used to be.

It was a Saturday, but only a handful of people were on the toy train that winds through the park. That image would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago, when Old Tucson was the second most-popular tourist attraction in the whole state,  only falling behind the Grand Canyon. Its wide, dusty streets and ramshackle buildings were originally constructed for the 1940 flick Arizona, but Old Tucson really sprang to life in 1960. That’s when land developer Bob Shelton opened it as a combination theme park and working studio lot.

Park spokeswoman Mary Davis said it was a winning recipe for years.

“And then in 1995, there was a devastating fire that took about 40 percent of the property down,” she said.

Old Tucson has been forced to remake itself at a time when Westerns just aren’t pulling their weight like they used to, Davis said. You can probably remember a few from the last 20 years, but probably only a few.

“That’s our biggest problem,” park historian PJ Lawton said, “is that Western genre, as a whole, has fallen off.” 

Lawton worries that could mean we’re losing touch with history, too.

“If we lose that, if leaves you kind of drifting, not knowing who you are or where you came from,” he said.

But maybe Lawton shouldn’t fear. To the person, the people strolling Old Tucson streets seemed delighted, like Jan Tilley, a Baby Boomer visiting with her 98-year-old mother.

“You know, I walk around, and I think of what it would really be like,” Tilley said her eyes wide, “not as a set, but what these people really went through, that really lived this life.”

At 14, Salma Aldulaimi had a similar sense of wonder. She was there with her whole family  — all originally from Iraq.

“It shows us the old culture and how they live,” Aldulaimi said, “and it’s really cool.”

Teresa Nielsen, another park historian, loves to hear that from kids. Brandishing a big smile and an even larger pistol, she described her favorite, tiny, visitor of the day.

“Couldn’t have been only 4 years old, and he walked in, and he saw that standy in there of John Wayne, and he’s like, ‘Look! It’s John Wayne!’” she said. “And he was so excited.”

And Nielsen was excited, too, because she hopes that one day that little kid will teach his own little kid to love the cowboy spirit, too. And just maybe, it won’t ride off into the sunset.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The story has been modified to clarify that the sheriff was played by Robert Mitchum in "El Dorado."

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