Bob Shelton, a land developer from Kansas City, headed west in 1959 looking for a place to start an "Old West" tourist attraction and found what he was looking for after seeing the Old Tucson film set. He formed the Old Tucson Company and took over the lease from the Jaycees. Shelton invested about a half million dollars of his own money on the buildings and an amusement area. On opening day about 15,000 people showed up to see Dale Robertson shoot through a ribbon and complete the miniature railroad by driving in a copper spike. By 1995, the number of visitors at the park topped 500,000 and was second only to the Grand Canyon in Arizona as a tourist destination.
Shelton and his wife, Jane, (whose family was part of the founders of the Lowe's Theatre chain that eventually became Paramount Studios) were very successful in attracting production companies to use Old Tucson as a filming location. One hundred ninety films and television programs were filmed at Old Tucson or Mescal from the time Shelton acquired the site in 1960 until it burned down in 1995.
BACK IN THE DAY, Robert Shelton was Tucson's movie man, a charismatic, energetic sort who befriended John Wayne (who became a partner in Old Tucson), Elizabeth Taylor and scores of other movie and television actors, producers and directors. He single-handedly lured movie after movie to Tucson.
He loves--without boasting--to tell the story about how he once had five production companies working at Old Tucson at one time. He had Wayne, Burt Lancaster, Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin simultaneously working on films. Shelton could configure five or six sets at Old Tucson, he says.
Shelton had a knack with movie folks. Eastwood built Old Tucson's courthouse. Paul Newman built the boarding house for Hombre. Shelton got the Reno, the oldest operating locomotive, from MGM.
In Shelton Tucson found its most active impresario.
Shelton is credited today by many in the industry for single-handedly making Tucson, for a time, a major film location. When Tucson's film industry was at its peak, between the 1960s and the early 1990s, the community was doing $20-25 million in film business per year, according to Shelton.
"It grew very substantially to the point where, at the peak of our prosperity, we could field three full film crews out of Tucson, and that was attractive to the industry," Shelton said.
"There was a time when I had John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster all working on films at Old Tucson at the same time."