TOMBSTONE, ARIZ. — Marshal Larry Talvy's phone rang. There was trouble in town. A bunch of men in black dusters with guns were walking down Allen Street. Again.
Talvy bolted uphill to the town's main drag, strode toward the armed men and laid down the law, New West style. Show me your permit, he said, or you'll be ticketed for an illegal street performance.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, April 04, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Tombstone, Ariz.: An article in Wednesday's Section A about restrictions on groups presenting reenactments of gunfights in Tombstone, Ariz., said that the restaurant Six-Gun City stages the famous shootout of the O.K. Corral. Actually, it reenacts other shootouts from Tombstone history. Also, the last name of the McLaury brothers, participants in the original O.K. Corral showdown, was misspelled as McLourie.
It's been 127 years since Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp fought the Clantons and McLouries at the O.K. Corral here, and Tombstone is still trying to get a handle on its gunslinger problem. Only the desperadoes are no longer brawling over cards or horses. They're fighting for tourist dollars.
The O.K. Corral gunfight has long been celebrated by Hollywood, from classics such as John Ford's "My Darling Clementine" to the 1994 film "Wyatt Earp." And for decades, local entrepreneurs and retirees indulging their western fetishes have put on their 19th century duds and re-created it along Tombstone streets. Between performances, gunmen from the various shows and the occasional black-garbed freelancer would mingle with tourists on the three blocks of Allen Street, which is closed to traffic and lined with raised wooden sidewalks, saloons and trinket shops.
Then, three years ago, a stranger rode in and vowed to shake up what he considered a moribund tourist trap. A showdown ensued between Tombstone residents who wanted to keep the streets as calm as possible and thespians with higher aspirations.
Stephen Keith, a onetime regular at Renaissance fairs who can hold forth on the similarities between the 1993 movie "Tombstone" and Wagner's "Ring" cycle of operas, founded the Tombstone Huckleberry Players. They were not content to simply re-create the shootout under a tented space inside the O.K. Corral. Instead, hoping to build a crowd for a new late afternoon show, the actors would walk down Allen Street, performing skits in character and leading tourists to the performance space.
Keith acknowledged there was resistance. Locals, he said, with no theater experience didn't like seasoned actors taking their favorite roles.
"Every old guy who retires and ties his white ponytail back and puts his name on his pickup truck comes here to be Wyatt Earp," said Keith, 49, who plays Doc Holliday. "I know how to work a crowd. I've been in theater for 32 years. This is what I do."
For more than a year, this town of 1,500 allowed the Huckleberry Players to do their act. But in November, a new mayor was elected, and he appointed Talvy to enforce the letter of the law.
Mayor Dusty Escapule said complaints were coming in from merchants at one end of Allen Street whose customers were being swept up by Keith's troupe, and from rival gunfighter groups, who said the Huckleberry actors were pulling customers away from their shows.
So the City Council invoked a 1973 law that required a permit for street performances, and promptly turned down Keith's application. In January, Talvy issued his first citation. Four of the players faced misdemeanor charges that could lead to a maximum $600 fine and two years in jail.
Talvy faced off with the Huckleberry players again last month as they posed for photographs on Allen Street for Arizona Highways magazine. He threatened to cite them before eventually backing down.
Keith says that he's stopped doing formal street performances and that now the law is simply out to get him. Talvy says he's just doing his job. Most Tombstone residents don't want to get between the two.
Ask a question about the issue at a local saloon or trinket shop and the place is likely to go silent.
"You know, small-town politics," one local woman finally said apologetically before reverting to character as a 19th century showgirl. Many cite the curse an Indian is said to have placed on the settlement more than 100 years ago -- that there will never be two white men who live together here in peace. "It looks," Escapule said, "like the curse is still in effect."
It is the most famous showdown in western history. On Oct. 26, 1881, the three Earp brothers -- one of whom, Virgil, was the town marshal -- and gambler Doc Holliday fought two pairs of brothers who were part of a gang of local rustlers. Three rustlers died, and it sparked a feud that is believed to have led to Morgan Earp's shooting death shortly thereafter. The O.K. Corral shootout made Tombstone a legend and the place where people came to experience a bygone era -- and sometimes to re-create it.
"Every man in the United States born between 1942 and 1957 wanted to be a cowboy," said Mike Christie, 37, a computer consultant who plays Wyatt Earp in Keith's show. "When they retired from IBM or GE or wherever, they realized, 'I can do this.' And they moved here."
Skirmishes between different groups of reenactors were not unheard of, Escapule said. That's why the town passed the law requiring a permit. "We knew something had to be done to keep the peace in this town," he said.