Originally built in 1939 by Columbia Pictures on the Pima County owned site as a replica of 1860’s Tucson for the epic Western movie Arizona, starring William Holden and Jean Arthur.
A crew of local Papago Indians were enlisted to help build, using historical blueprints, the adobe and wooden buildings that would constitute an authentic replica of early Tucson.
More than 100 structures were built, some of which are still standing today .
Following completion of filming, Columbia Pictures donated the Old Tucson set to Pima County.
The quality and authenticity of the venue easily led to other productions over the ensuing years, with some buildings and sets constructed for these projects remaining as permanent additions to the attraction .
Bob Shelton, a successful entrepreneur, leased the property from Pima County and began to restore the aging facility
Shelton, in addition to carrying on an active movie and television filming business, opened the location to the public in 1960 as an Old West theme attraction.
Adding shows such as mock gunfights, rodeos, and saloon revues, along with gift shops and food outlets installed in the various buildings, the public attraction soon became a leading Arizona tourist destination.
In the 1980’s the attraction was 2nd in Arizona visitation only to the Grand Canyon, but the Grand Canyon has been there longer!
Cinematic and television filming continued at the attraction, with the visiting public allowed as close to the action as possible without interfering with the production.
Shelton’s interest was acquired by Westworld, a publicly held company of which Shelton also held an interest. Subsequently, the lease was acquired by its present owners in 1989, who expanded the entertainment offering and made substantial improvements to many physical structures.
Feature films, television movies, and television series episodes are still made at Old Tucson and a sister facility dedicated to the production side of the business is located in Mescal, Arizona, but has never been open to the public.
With the decline of the “oater” as a Hollywood staple and advances in filming technology that obviate the need for extensive location shooting, Old Tucson has in recent years mainly been used for documentaries, television commercials, music videos, and fashion magazine spreads as well as catalog shoots.
These projects – often involving famous singers, models and actors – have great public appeal by virtue of offering an intimate glimpse into the fascinating production process.
The attraction grew building by building with each movie filmed on its dusty streets .
John Wayne starred in four movies at Old Tucson Studios:
- Rio Bravo (1959) added a saloon, bank building and doctor’s office
- McLintock! (1963) added the McLintock Hotel
- El Dorado (1967) brought a renovation of the storefronts on Front Street
- Rio Lobo (1970) added a cantina, a granite-lined creek, a jail and a ranch house
In 1968, a 13,000 square foot soundstage was built to give Old Tucson Studios greater moviemaking versatility.
The first film to use the soundstage was Young Bill Young (1968), starring Robert Mitchum and Angie Dickinson.
The attraction also began adding tours, rides and shows for the entertainment of visitors, most notably gunfights staged in the “streets” by stunt performers.
Old Tucson Studios served as an ideal location for shooting scenes for TV series:
- High Chaparral (1967-1971)
- Little House on the Prairie
- Father Murphy, featuring Merlin Olsen
- Three Amigos was a popular comedy shot there in the 80’s utilizing the church set