Hearts of the West
July 16, 2000
Hearts of the West
By Jim Purdy
A sweat-soaked cowpoke meanders along the winding trail through Gates Pass and down the western
crags of the Tucson Mountains.
The man squints, trying to make out what could be a mirage in the distance, but looks more like a town
nestled down in the valley below. It is.
They'd better have whiskey - and maybe a good cancan show, he says to himself.
Hell of a welcome
Angry shouts come from within the Grand Palace Hotel & Saloon. Glass breaks. Furniture scrapes the
saloon's wooden floor.
The stranger frowns as he approaches the front steps.
A fishnet-stockinged cancan girl bursts forth from the swinging saloon doors. The red plumes in her long
blonde hair flutter in the breeze.
"Johnny's got a tequila-soaked burr under his saddle again," Marie Pearce mutters as she hurriedly strides
along the dusty street. Her blue eyes dart until finally spotting good cover behind a splintery water barrel.
Black-hatted Johnny shoulders open the swinging doors and stalks menacingly out into the blazing heat.
Johnny staggers down the wooden steps and comes nose-to-nose with the stranger.
"They done throwed me out! And whud are you lookin' at?" Johnny slurs at the stranger.
"I . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . ," the stranger stammers.
Not liking his look, Johnny slugs the stranger in the stomach - oooomph! - and the lonesome wanderer
falls in a heap on the sandy ground.
The nameless cowpoke draws his six-shooter, but Johnny fires first, blasting plumes of smoke into the air.
Hell of a way to welcome a stranger to town. It happens every day at Old Tucson Studios.
"Where else can you beat up your friends every day?"
"Isn't this fun? It's live-action theater," says chief stunt actor
Preston Gamblin, who, as Johnny, had just roughed up the lonesome stranger.
"Where else can you beat up your friends every day?" stunt actor John Hall says.
The physical demands of the job include being able to take a punch.
"When we hit each other, we hit for real," Hall says.
Standing nearby, stunt actor Paul Mausert nods knowingly.
"My favorite's the chin drop. It's hard and it's loud and it's fun," he says.
On cue, Hall delivers what seems to be a bone-jarring right-cross to Mausert's chin. Thwack!
Fistful of dollars
West Tucson's famous Old West theme park rose from the desert 60 years ago for the Hollywood
production "Arizona," a 1940 Wesley Ruggles film starring Jean Arthur and William Holden.
Old Tucson has served as a movie set and theme park since then - until an arsonist tried to return it to the
Old Tucson reeled when it lost 38 historic buildings to the unsolved arson fire of April 1995. Now the theme
park is trying to rebuild its fan base as it rebuilds itself.
Old Tucson charges about 30 stunt actors, cancan dancers and technicians with breathing life into the
venerable studio's daily activities. They perform five or six shows a day, sometimes six days a week. At
about $300 a week, the actors probably aren't in it for the money.
The quick and the deadpan
Old Tucson's gunslingers must be quick on the draw.
"It really is the art of improvisation," stunt actor Gamblin says. "You have to adapt to what's going on."
He tells of a bank robbery sequence when the spectacular, scripted dynamite explosion didn't go off as
"We yelled, 'Get down, it's going to blow!' - and then nothing happened. Of course we had the problem of
where are we going to take this now?
"But we made it through the show - everybody knows to improv."
"I'm getting kind of old for this line of work"
Dusty from an 8-foot roll off an Old Tucson roof that morning, Jim Storrs still aches a bit from the day before.
"Some days I wake up really, really sore, and today's one of those days," says the 25-year-old Storrs as he
gingerly stretches his arms over his cowboy hat.
To make matters worse, Storrs sports a jagged red scar down the side of his face. He's able to wash off
that convincing makeup, though.
Flipping, falling and fighting four or five times a day can brutalize the body.
Stunt actor Bobby Stevens broke his femur and suffered a spiral fracture of his hipbone when a backflip in
practice went horribly wrong.
"I'm 25, so I'm getting kind of old for this line of work," Stevens says from his light duty post in the wardrobe
Even though he can't flip, fall or jump at the moment, Stevens still gets dressed up every day in his Old
"I walk around the street and greet people," he says. "When the doctor feels I can go back and do whatever,
I'll go back in a heartbeat."
Not participating in the action gnaws at Stevens' vitals, as it does all the stunt actors who rotate in and out
of the shows.
"I hate not being in the shows," Gamblin says.
Lights, action, more ammo!
The Old West experience gets pumped up explosively by Old Tucson's technicians.
The stunt actors look to head technician Cory Keeran to give their performances the proper explosive edge.
"I make sure things go OK," Keeran says humbly.
He's actually a critical cog in the actors' art.
"Technicians are our lifeline, and we owe a lot of the excitement factor to them." Storrs says. "And they do
all the stuff blind, which is pretty incredible. They really have to know the shows."
Nozzles filled with dirt blast compressed air out of hidden recesses in the sets, convincingly simulating
stray bullets ripping into the dusty Old Tucson faades.
In between shows, Gamblin calls for more ammunition. Soon a plastic bag of black-powder-filled
cartridges plops down in front of him at the employees picnic area, courtesy of a vigilant tech.
"Let's light him on fire first."
Over at the Mission Santa Maria, the cornerstone of Old Tucson's mock Mexican village, John Hall jumps at
a request to leap off the tall tower.
With no tourists in the bleachers out front, this is a just-for-fun stunt.
"We've got to call for an EMT first," Hall says as he radios the paramedic team. "We have to do that before
we can do any stunts."
"Let's light him on fire first," Storrs says eagerly.
"Aw, John," Gamblin says, "you get all the good jumps."
Prodded by his fellow stuntmen, Hall excitedly scrambles up steep metal stairs to a thin gangplank high
above the ground. Hesitating for just a moment, Hall leaps far away from the precipice, flailing his arms
and legs wildly.
He front-flips over to land squarely on his back with a loud thud.
"Oh my God, John, you almost flipped off the mat," Storrs exclaims admiringly.
Stunt folks like playing close to the edge.
Storrs scrambles up the stairs to try a leap of his own.
"I had a bad feeling about this."
During the Mission show about 20 minutes later, the stunt actors pick folks out of the audience to partake
in the fun. The actors usher the chosen ones backstage for a costume change.
Adam Bonosky of Rochester, N.Y., emerges from backstage dressed in a schoolmarm's frock and bonnet.
"I had a bad feeling about this from the beginning," he says.
During the show, stunt actors Hall and Aaron Howell joust, knocking their thick wooden staffs together with
a resounding whack, whack, whack, whack - thunk!
The two stuntmen wince when an errant blow raps Hall on his knuckles, tearing open a grisly wound.
They pause momentarily, but Hall swallows hard - then ferociously fights on.
Just another blow-'em-up
Hall enjoys some measure of revenge when Howell throws mock dynamite into a shed on the set. Flames
and smoke belch out of the shed, nipping at the boots of the airborne Howell who's catapulted away from
the blast via a hidden springboard.
Ham in a white hat
Backstage, Storrs and Hall argue about who got to wear the white hat and who's going to lose the shootout.
"Me and Jim have been going back and forth for years," Hall says.
The stunt actors take pride in their Old West skills and work hard to perfect them. Hall practices gun twirling
at home with the help of an instructional video.
"You cheater!" Storrs says.
Biting the dirt
Stunt actress Michele Acosta spends the Mission show punching, flipping, kicking and gunning down her
Before blasting shotguns, firing six-shooters and swooping down on a rope from the top of the Mission on
a daily basis, Acosta studied political science and played softball at Stanford University. She answered an
Old Tucson ad after graduation.
"I guess we get our educations wherever we can," says Paul Mausert, a stunt actor whose area of expertise
lies in having fun with all the enthralled, inquisitive kids who line the Old Tucson streets while he performs.
After dying in the bank robbery skit, Mausert patiently allows a ring of kids to "give him a proper burial."
They all vigorously kick dirt on his perfectly still body, although he does slyly move his hat over his face for
Interacting with the kids can be painful, not just dirty.
"We're wearing pads, but we try not to let kids take advantage, because they will," Mausert says, noting that
a dropped six-shooter will quickly get snapped up by curious, Old West-crazed kids.
"Oh, man, I've got to go to wardrobe - I've got a hole in my pants," Mausert says, fingering the wide tear in
his dirt-encrusted trousers.
Mourning The Duke's duds
Outfitter Kathy Murphy hangs out with her sewing machine in a warehouse filled with rows and rows of
boots, cowboy hats, Western shirts, pants and bandannas.
She's got a lot of material to take care if, but almost weeps as she speaks of the fire destroying hundreds
of irreplaceable Old West costumes, some worn by John Wayne himself in 1959's "Rio Bravo," 1963's
"McLintock!," 1967's "El Dorado" and 1970's "Rio Lobo."
"We lost most of the costumes in the fire, including a whole warehouse full of Michael Landon's 'Little
House on the Prairie' clothes," Murphy says sadly.
The good, the bad and the nasty
Back at the showers, the dirt-coated Mausert gears up for his next Old West incarnation.
He scoops a ladle full of blood-red goop from a bucket in the sink and pours the corn syrup into a cupped
piece of cellophane in his hand.
"We load up the blood bags," he says, "when we feel like getting nasty."
Mr. Yuck Mouth
A freshly showered Mausert shows up at a pre-routine gathering dressed as a crusty old prospector,
replete with an upturned hat.
"I fell down and lost my teeth," he says as he smiled an unsettling gap-toothed smile. He turns to nearby
technician Jason Corbett.
"Do we have any yellow tooth decay?" Corbett runs off looking for the icky mouth makeup.
Professed perfectionist Rob Jensen oversees all Old Tucson's programs as the theme park's stunt and
He writes the shows, dreams up stunts and plans for the future. "I always want to make the shows bigger
and better," he says. "I'm always looking for more gaspers."
Shows of old were entirely pre-recorded, so all the stunt actors had to do was lip-sync and tumble. To beef
up the realism, Jensen insists that actors act while narration and mood music play on a soundtrack.
"Before the fire, you didn't need to have people who could act," he says. "Now we need people who can act
and pull off the stunts."
He's a tough critic.
"The sound's too hot - THE SOUND'S TOO HOT," a seething Jensen says in a low voice into his headset
microphone during the "High Chaparral" show. Jensen seems angry, as if he'd enjoy burying the hapless
soundman up to his neck in the sand for the buzzards to pick upon.
He turns his attention to the actors. "What I hate most of all is when they don't stick to the script," Jensen
says as he makes a mental note of another point to bring up at the impromptu powwow session he's
"It's important to give feedback as much as possible."
Road to Hollywood
Some of the actors at Old Tucson do it for the money, but others have plans to take the acting thing to
"We have a mixture of people who get experience and move on and do well for themselves and others who
are just looking for a paycheck," Jensen says.
Stunt actor Gamblin tends toward the former. "We're just waiting to get our big break," he says. His claim to
Hollywood fame was a 3-second appearance in "The Karate Kid."
Sage of the sagebrush
Real cowboys - the wranglers who take care of the horses at Old Tucson - look in at the gunfighters from
over by the horse stables and stagecoach barn.
Dale Osteen sits high atop the Old Tucson stagecoach, patiently waiting for visitors to take rides around
the property. He passes the time by reading a Louis L'Amour book and scolding Bud and Kate, two
muscular horses rigged to the stagecoach, when they bite each other.
"I get the best job in the place because wind breezes through the barn," he says. "I hose down the wood in
the morning and it's like my own personal air-conditioning system all day long."
A cowboy's horse sense always prevails in the Old West.
Photos by David Sanders: And Action!: Stunt actor Aaron Howell is lucky to escape an explosion after he
tosses "dynamite" into a building at Old Tucson Studios. The stunt actors, along with technical experts,
combine their talents to choreograph scenes such as this and make them appear like the real thing.
Stunt actor Preston Gamblin sprinkles Star reporter Jim Purdy with just the right amount of "Fuller's Earth"
powder. This way Purdy, like any good cowboy, looks as if he's spent the last few years on a dusty trail.
An Old Tucson Studios visitor is kind enough to give stunt actor John Hall a good dusting. Not only does
the powder dirty up the cowboys, it's also a good visual tool as it helps to spotlight punches during fight
A seven-year-old cowpoke doesn't seem too impressed with Jim Purdy's six-shooter during a recent
inspection at Old Tucson Studios. But no matter, the kids decided to let the ol' cowboy live just the same.
Purdy, on the ground, scrambles to get a good shot at Preston Gamblin before it's too late. The two put on
a shootout for the crowd in front of the saloon, helping Purdy realize his dream of being a cowboy for a day.
Stunt actor Jim Storrs leaps off the Mission tower at Old Tucson Studios. He's doing what he and his kind
do best: something dangerous. An enthusiastic jump can sometimes lead to the stuntman falling near the
edge of the pad.
Reporter Jim Purdy takes a
much-needed break from
playing cowboy to empty the
uncomfortable gravel from his
boots. This, as Purdy has
learned, is one of the hazards of
working as a stuntman for a day
at Old Tucson Studios.
Photo by David Sanders
One of the ladies at the Grand
Hotel/Saloon, and an entertainer in the
"Great Cancan Calamity" show, Teresa
Michael snuggles up to Jim Purdy. Not a
bad way to end a day of explosions,
shootouts and dusty trails.
Photo by David Sanders