Western author and historian Scott Dyke has spent a lot of time at Old Tucson. His last visit was in January 2019, for an interview with actress Angie Dickinson.
Old Tucson was the home to more than 100 films and filming site of many TV series, including the iconic "Little House on the Prairie.”
"Gunfight at the OK Corral,” "Rio Lobo,” "Monte Walsh,” "The Outlaw Josey Wales,” “Death Wish" and "Hombre" are on a token list of movies. Big stars converged on Tucson for productions: John Wayne, Paul Newman, Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster and Bob Mitchum, to name a few.
The origin of Old Tucson began in 1939, when the set for the movie "Arizona” was built. Over the years groups like the Jaycees leased it. In 1959, a real estate salesman with big dreams took it over. Bob Shelton came from Kansas City and the rest was history. Shelton went far and
wide seeking Western relics. The Southern Pacific Railroad gave him the leavings of an old depot. When the Western theme park opened, it was a smashing success. Up to 15,000 people swamped the park.
"We were throwing the money on the floor because we could not keep up,” Bob told me when I interviewed him in 2013.
Four years later, I interviewed Jane Loew Sharples. She had been married to Shelton during the early years of his ownership of Old Tucson. She was Hollywood royalty personified, given her grandfathers were early movie industry giants Marcus Loew and Adolph Zukor). When mentioning Bob, she smiled, then asked me if he had told me that she financed it all. Nope.
Shelton was not satisfied with Old Tucson just as an attraction, which in its heyday brought nearly 500,000 folks to the desert.
He started wooing the movies. John Wayne was so enamored with Old Tucson he arranged for additional buildings.
Shelton retired in 1985. Without the Barnum & Bailey-type promoter, things began to slide. In 1995, Old Tucson was dealt a serious, perhaps eventually fatal, blow. An arsonist set off a blaze that decimated the park. Much of the costumes, buildings and props were destroyed. That, coupled with cheaper opportunities in other venues, started the spiral downward.
Now, it lies fallow. I took my grandsons to Old Tucson several years ago. They rode the train and panned (sorta) for gold.
The movie history meant nothing to them, despite my touring monologue. At that moment I knew it was a ghost town.