The Old West Lives: Tourism’s Glory Days In Tombstone, Arizona


They ride high in the saddle in Tombstone. Cause a man’s gotta do, what a man’s gotta do. And what most men and a lot of the women in this historic Wild West town gotta do is dress up like cowboys, gunslingers, dancehall girls and regular town folk and party like it’s 1889.

Tombstone is a dot on the map of southern Arizona, about 40 kilometres off the 1-10 that runs through a sun-baked landscape that anybody who has ever watched a Hollywood cowboy movie would instantly recognise.

It’s a hot, dry, inhospitable landscape. You don’t come across Tombstone by accident. You have to be heading there and the attraction is its name – one of the best known of all the old Wild West towns. It’s redolent of outlaws and lawmen, the site of the O.K. Corral and its infamous gunfight. And it draws tourists from around the globe who find, once they reach this otherwise unprepossessing place, that it’s a lot better than they were expecting. And a lot more fun.

Tombstone was founded in 1879, quite late for an Old West town, and its fortunes were built on silver mining. From 1877 until 1890, local mines produced more than $US50 million in silver bullion. In the heady days of the 1880s, Tombstone had a population of 14,000 and proudly boasted four churches, a school and two banks. A little less proudly perhaps, it also had 110 saloons, 14 gambling halls and numerous brothels.

The miners and cowboys, who weren’t above regular cattle rustling forays into Mexico, kept the town jumping.

The glory days lasted for little more than a decade, however, when rising water levels in the mines made extraction unprofitable. By the late 1890s, Tombstone was virtually a ghost town.

It was tourism that uncovered the gold in thar hills. When the inhabitants began to leave Tombstone for more economically viable climes, much of the Old Town was boarded up and left undisturbed under the baking desert sun. Tourism began to take off in the mid-20th century; luckily, most of the main thoroughfare, Allen Street, remained intact.

Nowadays, some 500,000 tourists a year come to Tombstone, which has a population barely exceeding 1500 people. The Bird Cage Theatre is a favourite. In the 1880s, the saloon and gambling hall operated 24 hours a day; its name comes from the small mezzanine rooms overlooking the main hall where prostitutes plied their trade. Whiskey-fuelled brawls regularly took the place apart and gunfights barely raised an eyebrow but the main claim to fame was a poker game, with a minimum $US1,000 buy-in, that ran for eight years without a break.

When it was closed in 1889, the Bird Cage was boarded up with all its contents still in place and remained that way until it reopened in the 1930s. Most of the interior, from the wallpaper, light fittings and red velvet curtains to its magnificent cherrywood bar, is original.

It helps that the highway connecting the I-10 with areas to the south, skirts Allen Street; the dusty red dirt street is closed to regular traffic. Visitors dodge horses, carriages and stage coaches while the locals, dressed in character for the Wild West, provide Kodak moments.

Each day at 2pm, there is a re-enactment of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, where Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp and his brothers went up against a bunch of ornery outlaws in October 1881. Allen Street is lined with museums, saloons, restaurants with staff dressed as dancehall hostesses, and – inevitably – lots of gift shops.

Even the Boot Hill graveyard, which operated from 1879 until 1884, is carefully preserved and tourist-friendly.

It’s easy to get a little sniffy about this kind of pasteurised history, a Westworld where nothing goes wrong, where gunfighters have a jauntily self-mocking tone beneath their carefully-cultivated menace (so as not to scare the little kiddies), and the tourists play along with the joke. It’s a theme park to be sure but Tombstone has a careless charm that gets under the skin and gently eases away any niggling doubts about historical authenticity.

Tombstone, a town that would otherwise have quietly faded away, finds its fortune in acting out the past. In taking history out from under its bell jar, everybody goes home happy at the end of the day. Which is infinitely better than going home in a pine box.

Words and photos © David Latta

 

 

Universal Appeal: The VIP Experience At Universal Studios Hollywood


Amidst the theme park rides, thronging tourists and assorted hoopla, it’s easy to forget that Universal Studios in Los Angeles is a working film studio and has been since the earliest days of movie-making. In 1915, German immigrant Carl Laemmle, who had spun a career as a bookkeeper into a thriving nickelodeon and silent film distribution business, opened a film studio in Los Angeles.

Ever the self-promoter, Laemmle gathered a crowd of 15,000 to celebrate the event on 50 hectares of land he had purchased for $US165,000 in the San Fernando Valley, just beyond the Cahuenga Pass from Hollywood. So was born Universal Studios, which went on to produce some of the most iconic movies the world has ever seen. From the first days of operation, Universal invited fans onto their sets and it quickly became a must-see attraction.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and Universal Studios continues to give the star-struck public an insider’s view of the movie-making process. The modern period of tourism began in 1964, when pink and white tramcars whisked visitors through the backlots. To handle the increasing numbers, some years back Universal extended the general admission policy (which had begun to see long queues at the various rides and attractions), into a three-tier system.

The first is general admission, the second is general admission with front-of-line privileges which takes visitors to the front of any queues at any attraction and reserved seating at any show. The third is the VIP Experience. Current pricing from the Universal Studios website (and keep in mind that discounts on these packages are widely available) is: General Admission – $US74.00. Front Of Line – $US139.00. VIP Experience – $US259.00.

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The VIP Experience is the ultimate and is available to only a limited number of guests each day. During my recent visit, the  majority of customers were Australian, taking advantage of the Pacific Peso’s above-parity exchange rate. In the comfortably-appointed VIP Lounge, guests milled about waiting for their guide while drinks and snacks were served. The first half of the day was taken up with rides, shows and attractions then it was lunch at a private dining room before boarding a small trolley car for the backlot and studios tour.

You have to feel sorry for those with general admission tickets who only get a 45-minute dazzle through the backlot. The VIP Tour lasts two-and-a-half hours with, among other things, a visit to a working sound stage (on this day, it was the chance to wander through the house from the television’s Parenthood) and unhindered access to an outdoor set left over from the 2005 Steven Spielberg-directed remake of War Of The Worlds. It was bizarre to say the least to wander through the smoking remains of a massive 747 that had crashed (at least on film) into a suburban streetscape, crushing everything in its path. But, as they say in Hollywood, that’s showbiz!

The highlight for this committed film buff and widely-pitied celluloid bore, however, was time spent in the prop warehouse. Ranging over several floors, the collection has everything needed to dress any film set. From ordinary glass vases to 1930s food packets, from tiki trinkets to authentic-looking human skeletons, each and every item has a film provenance that most likely goes back decades.

As an active eBayer, I couldn’t help speculating what some of the smaller, more easily-transportable items might be worth with a Universal Studios imprimatur. Only my highly-refined sense of honour, along with the fear of getting busted, prevented me from finding out.

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So, at the end of a long day, is the VIP Experience worth $US259? The rule of thumb, when it comes to travel journalism, is – would I pay to do it again? In this case, I’d have to say yes.

Universal Studios in Hollywood isn’t just a do-it-once-and-never-have-to-do-it-again tourist trap. It changes on each visit and the VIP Experience is the best way to do it. And it sure is fun to by-pass the crowds to the head of the long queues just like you’re a close personal friend of Carl Laemmle himself.

NOTE: In the interests of tranparency, I flew to the US with Air Pacific via Fiji and stayed at the W Hotel Hollywood.

Words and photos © David Latta