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That's a wrap: Old Tucson closing; Pima County seeking new plan for 81-year-old film studio

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That's a wrap: Old Tucson closing; Pima County seeking new plan for 81-year-old film studio

Private manager cites COVID in closing; officials point to long-term downward trend in revenues

  • Stuntman Caleb Evans performs for Old Tucson's 80th anniversary last year.
    Old Tucson StudiosStuntman Caleb Evans performs for Old Tucson's 80th anniversary last year.

Old Tucson, the tourist attraction and Western film studio, will close indefinitely, as operator Old Tucson Studios is walking away and leaving the facility in the hands of Pima County.

The themed property, west of Tucson in Tucson Mountain Park, opened on a county-owned site in 1939, and has been the location of hundreds of movies and commercials.

Old Tucson Studios, the private company which has leased and operated the park from the county, pointed to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in closing up shop. County sources pointed to a years-long decline in attendance and revenues at the park.

"The decision... was made with a heavy heart. We know how important Old Tucson is to our community, guests and employees," said Terry Verhage, the company's general manager. "We did everything possible to keep our loyal fans safe when we were open, but the ongoing COVID-19 public health protocols and restrictions limited park attendance to the point where Old Tucson could no longer stay in business."

Early Tuesday, the company's website announced that "Old Tucson is closed until further notice." The private corporation then updated its site, redirecting to a message about the closure and impending government takeover, saying the property "will remain closed indefinitely."

Pima County will assume direct management of the shuttered 81-year-old attraction on September 14, and will begin working on a new plan for the park's future, officials said.

"Old Tucson is a cultural and historic icon, not only for Pima County and Arizona, but for the country. A huge part of our nation's film history is embedded in the land and scenic vistas of the Tucson Mountains," Pima County Board of Supervisors Chairman Ramón Valadez said in a news release. "Whatever the park's future may be, the county will endeavor to preserve and honor that history."

Old Tucson has been in financial decline for several years, with a waning number of tourists paying to enter, said sources at Pima County, who would would only agree to speak anonymously, citing the sensitivity of the developing story.

The operators are "walking away" from the lease for the property, one said, describing it as "an outdated attraction" that's been in a "downward spiral for at least seven years."

With Arizona having eliminated tax incentives for film production in the state, the number of movies being filmed here has fallen over the years, and being used as a set has been a foundation of Old Tucson's revenues. Few Western-themed films are being made at all, anywhere.

County officials said they will review the park's future to determine its "the highest and best use of the property that connects it with its historic past and the fragile desert ecosystem it resides in."

"Old Tucson was and has the potential to still be an important contributor to the regional tourist economy," said Diane Frisch, director of the Pima County Attractions and Tourism Office. She said the county will seek ideas from potential operators and lessors about what Old Tucson could be in the future.

Frisch said the county has a responsibility to maintain and protect the "valuable asset" and to conduct a "thoughtful process" about its future.

The county will hire some Old Tucson employees to maintain the property, but won't attempt to operate it as a tourist attraction without an outside manager, sources said. One high-level county source said there's likely little recourse available to the government as the private company abandons its lease.

From Pima County:

This is not the first time Old Tucson has been closed for an indefinite period or impacted by outside forces that reduced attendance. Much of Old Tucson was destroyed by fire in 1995 and remained closed until the park reconstruction was completed in 1997.

Old Tucson was impacted again when changes in state laws eliminated support for filming in Arizona and increased operational costs. Also, the Great Recession of 2008 created an extended decline in tourism, which impacted attendance at Old Tucson and all area attractions.

Recently, Old Tucson announced that its signature event, Nightfall 2020, with more than 34,000 in attendance in 2019, was cancelled due to COVID-19.  Each year, Nightfall helped to cover Old Tucson’s operational costs throughout the year.

Since 1939, when Universal Studios filmed the movie "Arizona," Old Tucson Studios has been a landmark in Pima County. More than 400 movies and commercial videos have been filmed there, with countless guests from around the world touring the movie studio and Western-theme park and attending special events each year.

The movie studio was constructed in the desert west of the Tucson Mountains in 1939, for the filming of "Arizona," starring Jean Arthur and William Holden.

The Western town set then was abandoned, until the filming of the 1945 Bing Crosby/Ingrid Bergman movie "The Bells of St. Mary's."

Many other Westerns were then filmed there, including "The Last Round-Up" with Gene Autry and "Winchester '73" with Jimmy Stewart. "The Last Outpost" starring Ronald Reagan, 1957's "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," and John Wayne's "Rio Bravo" were also filmed at Old Tucson.

The set was also used for "Little House on the Praire," the 1970s TV series, the movies "Three Amigos," Tombstone" and "The Quick and the Dead," and the TV series "The Young Riders."

The site was expanded during the 1960s by developer Robert Shelton, who leased the property from Pima County and expanded it as a tourist attraction as well as adding a soundstage and other movie-making facilities.

In 1995, a fire swept through the attraction, destroying many of the buildings and a large collection of movie memorabilia. The blaze was later determined to be arson.

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