Historic sets lost in Old Tucson fire

TUCSON (AP) A hunk of virtual history vanished as flames devoured about 40 percent of Old Tucson Studios, a famed wooden outdoor movie set and tourist attraction where actors have gunned each other down for decades.

''It is a major, major loss,'' said Tom Hilderbrand, director of the Tucson Film Office.

Authorities originally estimated that 75 percent of the studio was destroyed in the fire, but downsized it to 40 percent after taking a closer look at the damage today.

About 300 guests and employees were inside the 80-acre park when the blaze began Monday evening, but only two people were injured both security guards at Old Tucson.

One, a 20-year-old woman, suffered smoke inhalation and was treated at St. Mary's Hospital and later released, a hospital nursing supervisor said today. Sgt. Michael O'Connor, a spokesman for the Pima County sheriff's office, said the other male guard was treated at the scene for minor burns on his hand.

Seventy horses, ponies and the animals making up a petting zoo were taken out safely, officials said.

The blaze began in the northern end of the complex. Cause was undetermined. It was contained after about four hours. Witnesses said flames shot 70 feet into the air.

Firefighters initially were hampered by lack of fire hydrants, water mains and a sprinkler system, but water was shuttled in with assistance from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and the Arizona Air National Guard.

Firefighters succeeded in keeping the blaze from reaching a large propane tank, stashes of black powder used in staging gunfights and a diesel fuel tank, said Roger Dougherty, a Rural-Metro Corp. spokesman.

The set, built in 1939 by Columbia Pictures as a full-scale replica of Tucson circa 1860s, was used to film nearly 400 movies, television shows and commercials, former owner Robert Shelton said.

Among actors who used its facilities were Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Michael Landon. Reagan made the movie ''The Last Outpost'' there in 1951.

Landon filmed episodes for his television series ''Little House on the Prairie'' at the set, west of the Tucson Mountains.

A current television series, ''Legend,'' also had been filming at Old Tucson as well as at the studio's Mescal set about 50 miles to the east.

Authorities said building fronts covering the equivalent of more than a city block vanished in flames fueled by dry lumber and paint.

Russ McGregor, a tourist from Maine, said he and his family saw smoke pouring out of a building as they walked down a street and first thought it was part of an act.

''When we saw some flames we knew it was pretty serious,'' he said.

Rosalie Waldraff, visiting from Bethlehem, Pa., told The Arizona Daily Star she heard ''a big boom. Then I saw this big cloud of smoke.''

Bobby Dancha, a concessions employee, told the Star he applied a fire extinguisher to the early blaze ''but it was just too much.''

Fire engines passed buses carrying about 200 life insurance agents en route to the park for dinner and a show.

Freddy Engel and martin Sprengard of Contwing, Germany, said they thought the smoke was from a barbecue but had to run for exists as a set showing a Mexican plaza was engulfed by flames.

Other facilities destroyed included the studio's sound stage, a mission church, courthouse, Kansas Street, the train depot and fire station. Also lost was the wardrobe department that dated from 1939.

''We have a lot of history, tradition and memories. Like anyone's house, you can never replace everything,'' said Kenniston, adding that he was unable to put a dollar figure to the loss.

''Like the Phoenix, we will rise again,'' he said.

The setting was created for the movie ''Arizona'' starring William Holden and Jean Arthur.

It was not used again until the 1950s, when it was rebuilt.

Shelton opened the complex to the public in 1960 and it now draws nearly 500,000 visitors a year, he said.

''The cost to replace Old Tucson will be enormous,'' Shelton said. ''You will never replace the history and the architecture.''

Wayne's films at Old Tucson included ''Rio Bravo'' and ''McLintock.''

The television series ''High Chaparral'' also was filmed at the set.

Other movies filmed at the set include ''Tombstone,'' ''Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,'' ''Hombre,'' and ''The Three Amigos.''

The sets also often served as backdrops for magazine illustrations and fashion catalogs.

''It's just such a major factor in our film business here,'' a multimillion-dollar industry, Hilderbrand told the Star. ''It will be more difficult for us to sell Tucson now.''

Read Next Article