History of Tucson Film Production
The history of Tucson film production is incredibly rich. Most of the classic and most successful Westerns were shot completely or partially in Tucson. However, 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 USA cities. This is the time when they started getting funding from financial institutions; thus, they began to expand into 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 known as Old Tucson Studios.
Old Tucson Studios
Columbia Studios decided to build a replica of the 1860’s Tucson for the film Arizona (1940). Built in 1939 for $150,000, it was the first western studio set that brought these types of films to life. It set a new standard for how they were shot. The film was directed by Wesly Ruggles and starred Jean Arthur, William Holden, and Warren William. Ironically, after the success of the film, Old Town Studios went forgotten. It was not used again until a new trend of western movies started about 5 years later. Between 1945 to 1959, over 30 movies were shot there. Those include titles such as The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), Winchester ’73 (1950), Broken Arrow (1950), 3:10 to Yuma (1957), and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957).
The Western Movie Golden Age
Then, in the year 1959, an entrepreneur by the name of Robert Shelton leased the property from Pima County and restored the aging facility of Old Tucson Studios. He reopened it as a film studio and theme park in 1960. He did a great job with 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), followed by McLintock! (1963), El Dorado (1966), and topped off the decade with Rio Lobo (1970). 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 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.
Off The Big Screen
The next way forward came from television. Tucson also served as the ideal location for shooting scenes for TV series; Gunsmoke (1955-1975) shot scenes there. Bonanza (1955-1975) also shot plenty of scenes in Tucson. It wasn’t until NBC’s The High Chaparral (1967-1971) that Tucson got its first regular television series, which was mostly shot in Old Tucson Studios. The studio served as the location of a town called Mankato (Minnesota) in Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983), while Petrocelli (1974-1976) 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) was entirely in and around the area of Old Tucson Studios. The Young Riders (1989-1992) was the most recent regular TV series shot at the studio.
The ’70s saw the more big-budget Western motion pictures, such as Clint Eastwood’s Joe Kid (1972) and Kirt Douglas’ Posse (1975). However, you finally started seeing more non-Western films produced, like the Action Adventure movie Moonfire (1972) and the Science-Fiction Horror film Night of the Lepus (1972). The biggest blockbuster of the decade Tucson had was the Action film Death Wish (1974) starring Charles Bronson. Tucson’s Death Wish scenes include Bear Down Gym at the University of Arizona, Tucson International Airport, Tucson Mountain Park Shooting Range, and, of course, Old Tucson Studios.
Not a Place for Just Westerns
The move to use Tucson as a great movie location, aside from for Westerns, continued during the 1980s. The best evidence for this is the college cult classic Revenge of the Nerds (1984). Revenge of the Nerds used the University of Arizona and areas around the campus, the Quaker meeting house on Fifth Avenue, and the Scottish Rite Temple downtown. Stir Crazy (1980), a Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder comedy, was the first out the gate in the ’80s. 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) and The Cannonball Run 2 (1983) both had scenes shot in the Tucson area.
Westerns Coming back Strong
There were still plenty of Westerns shot in Tucson in the 1980s and 1990s; Young Guns (1988) and Young Guns 2 (1990) for example. Both of these movies had scenes shot at Old Tucson Studios. Surprisingly, it was an Action/Comedy that helped to gave Old Tucson Studios’ most recognized building a facelift. Before the filming of Three Amigos (1986), the famous mission set was given a new facade. The mission is in many of the Three Amigo scenes, but, for many, the most memorable scene in front of that mission was the ugly slaughtering of the wedding party in Tombstone (1993). Tombstone was the most iconic Western movie of the 1990s and a box office hit.
The ’90s was also the home to the sexiest gunfighter ever (according to too many male Western movie fans), Ellen, played by Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead (1995). 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 another Western with all of those original Old Tucson Studio elements.
A Fiery End to Old Tucson Studios
On April 24, 1995, a large fire broke out inside Old Tucson Studios. About 40-percent of Old Town was burnt to the ground. Some of its most famous wooden structures, which were the magic that brought the Wild West to life, were completely lost. Three-quarters of the wooden buildings were destroyed or damaged, one-of-a-kind artifacts melted, and costumes were completely incinerated. The primary suspect was an individual who was looking for a job at the studios but was not hired. However, 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. Although new buildings went up, they were smaller and not intended to resemble the originals. The film business took a dive and, while Wild Wild West (1999) shot some scenes there, most of the production was in California. Many of the visitors that came after the fire describe Old Town Studios as a tourist trap.
Here is a link to Old Tucson Studios before it was burnt down.
A Better Build
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 and was built to scale, including 12 quality movie sets and three new street lines.
Tucson Film Production – Today
Today, Old Tucson Studios a great place to visit. You can watch a mini-play in front of the mission and there are saloon musicals like the Folklorico Dance and Original Can-Can. You can also grab a cold beer at one of the handfuls of watering holes and reminisce. That being said, movie-making at the Old Town Studios is just about dead; smaller independent filmmakers are the only 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’re just not hip. Maybe Old Town Studios needs a superhero? Comic book movies seem to be doing pretty well in the box office these days, but whatever it needs, Old Town Studios is not getting it. As the movies being made in Old Town Studios declines, so too does Tucson’s film industry.
Tucson Film Production – Outlook
It has been a remarkable run. You can currently find 442 TV shows and movie titles on IMDB that list Old Tucson – 201 S. Kinney Road, Tucson, Arizona, the USA as a filming location. That number will continue to grow as long as Old Tucson Studios doesn’t turn into a water park. For now, it seems like Hollywood has forgotten Old Tucson. It’s happened before, so it’s no surprise it’s happened again. The good news is that there’ll always be babies that’ll grow up wanting to be cowboys. And, just like vinyl records came back, so too will the big production motion picture companies be back. Blare Films Arizona and others in the industry will be here to provide support.
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’s 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 Trail Dust Town. It’s still in use today.
This article is written by Blare Films Arizona a Tucson Film Production Company