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Fire Ravages Old Tucson Film Studios : Blaze: Three-fourths of facility's wooden buildings, seen in hundreds of TV and movie Westerns, are destroyed or damaged. Priceless artifacts are also lost.

April 26, 1995|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A sizzling fire has gutted most of Arizona's famed Old Tucson Studios, which provided the ramshackle saloons, dusty hitching posts and glorious sunsets for countless Western movies and television shows.

The Monday evening blaze, so hot that it melted an antique fire engine, destroyed or damaged more than three-fourths of the park's wooden buildings, from an old-time barber shop to an adobe mission to a mock city hall. An elaborate sound stage also burned, increasing the damage estimate to at least $10 million, officials said.

Even more traumatic for Western fans, the fire consumed revered one-of-a-kind artifacts: the dress Laura wore in "Little House on the Prairie," the hat Hoss clapped on his head for "Bonanza," the set designed for the television series "Young Riders." A priceless doll collection, Michael Landon's wardrobe and stacks of old photos also vanished in the flames.

"The sad part," Tucson Fire Department spokesman Randy Ogden said, "is that much history and so many memories are gone."

By Tuesday afternoon, officials still had not determined the cause of the fire, which started about 6:30 p.m. Monday and rushed through the three-block main street, fueled by dry wood and stored paint.

More than 200 firefighters converged at the desert studio, a few miles west of the Tucson city limits, and quenched the blaze by 10 p.m. Monday.

Pasted against a stunning backdrop of spiky mountains and gnarled cacti, Old Tucson Studios has provided the setting for hundreds of television shows, movies and commercials over more than five decades, from Ronald Reagan's "The Last Outpost" to Kurt Russell's "Tombstone." In one of the more offbeat productions, Andy Warhol directed an X-rated version of "Romeo and Juliet"--in which nude actors paraded down Front Street on horseback.

Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Dennis Hopper commandeered the streets of Old Tucson for "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral." John Wayne stormed in for "Rio Bravo" and "McClintock." More recently, the studio welcomed Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short in "The Three Amigos."

Each successive production crew added a new building or a fresh paint job to the ever-changing set, which was built in 1939 for Columbia Pictures and remodeled for extensive use in the late 1950s.

"It's dear to my old heart," said actor Don Collier, who appeared in the television series "High Chaparral," filmed in Tucson from 1967 to 1971. "We had quite a good time out there."

Tourists, too, enjoyed the studios. Paying $12.95 apiece for tickets to the park, visitors watched live film shoots, hired stagecoaches to trot them through town and picked up leather cowboy boots. For children, the park offered a petting zoo and mock gunfights.

Amusement park rides, including a trip down a replica mine shaft, helped lure more than half a million visitors to Old Tucson Studios each year.

While full of plans to rebuild the park, Tucson City Manager Michael Brown acknowledged that the destruction will have a "significant impact" on the local economy. The movie-making side of Old Tucson brought in about $10 million a year, Brown said, and tourism added an enormous boost.

"Old Tucson was one of our stars," said Tom Hilderbrand, director of the Tucson Film Office.

Gamely, Hilderbrand tried to total up the losses. But after he listed the replica turn-of-the-century fire station and the antique wardrobe collection, he ran out of steam.

"It's all gone," he said grimly. "It's all gone."

Arizona's film industry will hobble on without Old Tucson, thanks to a smaller studio lot in the town of Mescal, 40 miles to the south.

Mescal traditionally handles only about a quarter of the state's movie filming, Hilderbrand said. But the major project now in Arizona, the television series "Legend," has been based there, and should ride out the fire without much trouble, officials said.

Still, Hilderbrand said he considered the blaze a "major, major loss." Like many residents, he focused not on the financial setback, but on the emotional toll of losing so much history.

"It's like a part of the family is missing now," casting director Holly Hire said.

A Los Angeles native, Hire has lived and worked in Tucson for 13 years, drawn by the "to die for" sunsets and the High Desert panorama.

Although tourists jostled with movie stars along the same narrow streets, Hire and her husband, Collier, said they loved working in Old Tucson. Far from obstructing film shoots, the camera-snapping visitors added a sense of intimacy and excitement, Collier said.

"It was kind of fun to have people watching," he said. "It loosened up the whole production."

In films, the Old Tucson Studios most often served as a generic Western cowpoke town, the site of gunfights and saloon brawls and damsels in distress. But a few directors transformed the park, once converting it into historic San Francisco and once into Denver.

The producers of "Legend," which airs on the United Paramount Network, rely on Old Tucson to re-create various Old West cities, spokeswoman Shari Kaufman said. Terming the fire "very sad," Kaufman said the "Legend" team "looks forward to Old Tucson's speedy reconstruction."

So do Tucson residents.

"We're going to try to rebuild it bigger and better," City Manager Brown promised. "That's always the spirit in Tucson."

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