History of Tucson Film Production
The History of Tucson film production is incredibly rich. Most of the classic and biggest Westerns where shot completely or partially in Tucson. It did take a bit for those train robbing scenes to find their way to Tucson. In the early 1920s, major film companies wanted to secure places in the USA cities. This is a time they started getting funding from financial institutions; thus they began to expand in different cities in the USA. Most movie companies moved to New York City and Hollywood. Other producers decided to settle in Tucson Arizona. They wanted to take advantage of the weather of the area and the diverse scenery that would be used for video production. One of them was a desert area 11 miles east of Tucson which became know as Old Tucson Studios.
Old Tucson Studios
Columbia Studios decided to build a replica of 1860’s Tucson for Arizona (1940 Film). Built in1939 for $150,000 it was the first western studio set that brought these types of films to life. It set a new standard of how they were shot. The film was directed by Wesly Ruggles and stared Jean Arthur, William Holden, and Warren William. Ironically, after the success of the film the Old Town Studios went forgotten. It was not used until a new trend of western movies started about 5 years later. Between 1945 to 1959 over 30 movies where shot. Those include titles such as The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945 Film), Winchester ’73 (1950 Film), Broken Arrow (1950 Film), 3:10 to Yuma (1957 Film), and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957 Film).
Then in the year 1959, an entrepreneur by the name Robert Shelton leased the property from Pima County and restored the aging facility of Old Tucson Studios. He reopened it in 1960, as a film studio and theme park. He did a great job luring the big Hollywood stars of the day. “The Duke” John Wayne was like a permanent fixture in Old Tucson in the ’60s. It started with Rio Bravo (1959 Film), followed by McLintock! (1963 Film), El Dorado (1966 Film) and topped off the decade with Rio Lobo (1970 Film). Other big names followed like Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, Ronald Reagan, and Paul Newman.
In addition to revolutionizing video production, Old Tucson Studios brought tourism to Tucson. The park added tours, rides, and shows to entertain the visitors. Many film production companies in Tucson would go to this theme park for gunfights. Thus, the fans who wanted to capture a glimpse of their favorite stars came in flocks.
The next way came from television. Tucson also served as the ideal location for shooting scenes for TV series. Gunsmoke (1955-1975 TV Series) shot scenes in Tucson. Bonanza (1955-1975 TV Series) also shot plenty of scenes in Tucson. It wasn’t until NBC’s The High Chaparral (1967-1971 TV Series) that Tucson got its first regular television series. It was mostly shot in the Old Tucson Studios. The studio served as the location of a town called Mankato (Minnesota) in Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983 TV Series). Petrocelli (1974-1976 TV Series) also shot a lot of content inside the studio, however, it used the Pima County Consolidated Justice Court, the Tucson Mountains and other areas inside the city of Tucson. Father Murphy (1981-1983 TV Series) was entirely in and area Old Tucson Studios. The Young Riders (1989-1992 TV Series) the most resent regular TV series shot at the studio.
The 70’s saw the more big budget Western motion pictures such as, Clint Eastwood’s Joe Kid (1972 Film) and Kirt Douglas’ Posse (1975 Film). However, you finally started seeing more Non-Western Films produced. Films like Action Adventure movie Moonfire (1972 Film) and Science Fiction Horror film Night of the Lepus (1972 Film). The biggest blockbuster of the decade had to action film Death Wish (1974 Film) staring Charles Bronson. Tucson Death Wish Scenes include Bear Down Gym at University of Arizona, Tucson International Airport, Tucson Mountain Park Shooting Range, and of course Old Tucson Studios.
The move to use Tucson as a great movie location, aside from Westerns, continued in the 1980’s. The best evidence college cult classic Revenge of the Nerds (1984 Film). Revenge of the Nerds used University of Arizona and areas around the campus, Quaker meeting house on Fifth Avenue, and the Scottish Rite Temple downtown. Stir Crazy (1980 Film) a Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder comedy was actually the first out the gate in the 80’s. Stir crazy was shot mostly all over Tucson, but also included the Florence, Arizona prison and parts of New York, Texas and California. The Cannonball Run (1981 Film) and The Cannonball Run 2 (1983 Film) both had scenes shot in the Tucson area.
There were still plenty of Westerns shot in Tucson in the 1980s and 1990’s, Young Guns (1988 Film) and Young Guns 2 (1990) for example. Both of those movies had scenes shot at Old Tucson Studios. Surprisingly, it was an Action/Comedy that help that gave Old Tucson Studios’ most recognized building a facelift. Before the filming of Three Amigos (1986 Film) the famous mission set was given a new facade. The mission is in many the Three Amigo scenes but the most memorable scene in front of that mission for many was the ugly slaughtering of the wedding party in Tombstone (1993 Film). Tombstone was the most iconic Western movie of the 1990s and a box office hit. The 90’s was also the home to the sexiest gunfighter ever (according too many male Western movie fans) Ellen played by Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead (1995 Film). Now the Quick and the Dead may not have been a mega box office like Tombstone but it was a joy to watch. Sadly you’ll never see a Western with all of those original Old Tucson Studio elements.
A Fiery End to Old Tucson Studios
In April 24, 1995 a large fire broke out inside Old Tucson Studios. About 40-percent of Old Town was burnt to the ground. Lost were some of its most famous wooden structures and that magic the brought the Wild West to life. Three-quarters of the wooden buildings were destroyed or damaged. one-of-a-kind artifacts melted, costumes completely incinerated. The main primary suspect was an individual who was looking for a job at the studios but was not hired. Not enough evidence could be collected to be able to convict the suspect of the arson.
A reconstruction project was started and after 20 months Old Tucson Studios reopened on January 2, 1997. Those looking to see the studio completely restored were disappointed. New buildings went up but where smaller and not intended to resemble the original building. The film business took a dive. Wild Wild West (1999 Film) shot some scenes there but most of the production was in California. Many of the visitor that came after the fire describe Old Town Studios a tourist trap.
Here is a link to Old Tucson Studios before it was burnt down.
In 2011, The Heritage Square Project took root. It was an attempt to bring back Old Tucson Studios’ magic and allure. The area took up a 5,000 square foot spread. The area was built to scale and includes 12 movie quality sets and three new street lines.
Today Old Tucson Studios a great place to visit. You can watch a mini play in front of the mission. There are also saloon musicals like the Folklorico Dance and Original CanCan. You can also grab a cold beer at one of the handful of watering holes and reminisce. Though, movie making at the Old Town Studios is just about dead. Smaller independent filmmakers are the ones producing films at Old Tucson Studios since the completion of The Heritage Square Project. Perhaps, Western movies are taking the same direction as jazz and rock-n-roll. They are just not hip. Maybe Old Town Studios needs a super hero? Comic book movies seem to be doing pretty well in the box office these days. Whatever it needs Old Town Studios is not getting it. As the movies being made in Old Town Studios declines so does Tucson’s film industry.
It has been a remarkable run. You can currently find 442 TV show and movie titles on IMDB that list Old Tucson – 201 S. Kinney Road, Tucson, Arizona, USA as a filming location. That number will continue to grow as long as Old Tucson Studios does’t turn into a water park. For now it seems like Hollywood has forgotten Old Tucson. It’s happened before so no surprised it happened again. The good news is that, they’ll always be babies that’ll grow up wanting to be cowboys. You can guarantee that the big production motion picture companies will be back. We they do Blare Films Arizona and others in the industry will be here to provide support.
Fun fact, Old Tucson Studios was not the only set to be built in Tucson for a Western film. In 1951 a move set just outside the Tucson city limits was built for a Glenn Ford movie. The movie itself was never completed. A few years later the site was rebuilt into an outdoor shopping mall, theater and restaurant complex called the Trail Dust Town. It is still in use today.
This article is written by Blare Films Arizona a Tucson Film Production Company