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Mescal: Old West film site sets stage for nearly 50 years

Tour guide Frank Brown chats with visitors on March 1, in Mescal, Ariz. Many people are unaware of Mescal’s historical significance before participating in Frank’s tour. (Photo by: Hailey Freeman/ Arizona Sonora News Service)

MESCAL — For those touring this dusty main street lined with a jail, saloon and “cowboy cafe,” it’s easy to envision western film greats propped up against one of the worn structures, rehearsing lines or taking cues from a director.

Tour guide Frank Brown, 81, looks like he just walked off a movie set. He wears pinstriped trousers and a paisley-printed shirt tucked beneath a button-up vest. A coal-black bandana wraps around his neck and a beige, low-crowned cowboy hat sits atop his head. A gun holster, sheriff’s badge and circular eyeglasses are his outfit’s finishing touches.

Frank Brown poses for a photo on a porch on March 1, in Mescal, Ariz. Brown has been cast as an extra in many projects filmed at Mescal. (Photo by: Hailey Freeman/Arizona Sonora News Service)

As he answers questions from the tour group’s film buffs, Brown informs that he has appeared in quite a few movies shot at this location, just west of Benson off Interstate 10. His appreciation for the place is apparent.

“It’s become a thing that I have this affection for the Mescal set,” Brown says. “I’ve had it ever since I saw it in ’97.”

Mescal, otherwise known as Old Tucson’s sister studio, was originally constructed in 1968 for the film “Monte Walsh.” The movie centers on a pair of aging cowboys who lose their jobs on a ranch and have to adjust to the changing landscape of the West.

Since then,  Mescal has served as the setting for several Hollywood films. Yet this area, roughly 40 miles southeast of Tucson, is largely unknown to the general public.

But the set has hosted the likes of Paul Newman, Kevin Costner, Danny Glover, Raquel Welch, Maureen O’Hara and Jane Russell.

Mescal also saw Frank Sinatra as the title outlaw in the 1970 film “Dirty Dingus Magee.” (The production tagline was: “It’s kind of a western. He’s sort of a cowboy.”); Clint Eastwood in “The Outlaw Josey Wales(1976), playing the title character, a Civil War-era Missouri farmer; and Steve McQueen in “Tom Horn (1980), a legendary outlaw, gunfighter and lawman.

A number of television shows, including “The Young Riders and “Little House on the Prairie were filmed in Mescal. The History Channel, BBC and Fox News have used this location.

Rob Jensen, director of entertainment for Old Tucson and stunt coordinator, argued that Mescal is just as historically important as Old Tucson.

“A lot of people don’t realize what it’s been used for, which stars have been out there and the films made there over the years,” Jensen said. “I think people are surprised to learn about this extension of Old Tucson and the additional history of filmmaking practically in their own backyards.”

Mescal’s structures are in varying states of repair. “The wind has taken care of this one pretty well,” Frank Brown said. (Photo by: Hailey Freeman/Arizona Sonora News Service)

Jensen said Mescal’s buildings, made mostly from wood and faux brick, were not meant to stand the test of time. Some of the edifices were built for a particular production, then torn down and replaced once filming wrapped. Many structures used solely for exterior shots don’t even have concrete foundations.

“We’ve always had to put a lot of work into the buildings to keep them stable over the years,” Jensen said. “And for some, it was a lost cause because they just weren’t built to last.”

Upkeep includes preventing the roofs from leaking, jacking up wooden foundations and realigning the structures’ various components. The buildings are not up to code, and there are no utilities or electricity.

“It’s pretty much like the old West, I suppose,” Jensen said.

Both Old Tucson Studios and Mescal have mountain backdrops. The landscape surrounding Old Tucson is filled with saguaros and rocky outcroppings typical of the Sonoran Desert, while Mescal’s rolling grasslands can easily pass for the High Plains region, Jensen noted.

Mescal’s year-round sunshine “gave filmmakers the ability to film movies that happened just about everywhere in the west,” according to P.J. Lawton. (Photo by: Hailey Freeman/Arizona Sonora News Service)

Since the 1960s, Old Tucson has doubled as a movie studio and tourist attraction. Mescal is a closed set that’s only open select weekends from February to April, which might explain why it doesn’t attract as many visitors.

“I guess it’s not as big a draw,” Jensen said. “There’s nothing to see in Mescal but the town, whereas you’ve got a day full of entertainment at Old Tucson.”

But that doesn’t mean folks should dismiss Mescal’s historical significance.

One of the most recognizable scenes filmed in Mescal is seen in the 1993 flick “Tombstone.” It stars Val Kilmer, Kurt Russell, Sam Elliott and Bill Paxton as Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers walking toward the gunfight behind the O.K. Corral.

This saloon played a role in the movie “The Quick and the Dead.” (Photo by: Hailey Freeman/Arizona Sonora News Service)

The 1995 version of “The Quick and the Dead” with Gene Hackman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe and Sharon Stone, was one of the last major westerns filmed at Mescal. The town of Redemption took place entirely in Mescal, and the saloon hotel survives as a dominating feature of the current movie set.

Another film shot at Mescal was “The Three Amigos,” starring Saturday Night Live veterans Martin Short, Chevy Chase and Steve Martin.

In addition to the blockbuster hits, more obscure niche films have used the Mescal set.

“Night of the Lepus” (1972) introduces the audience to giant, mutant rabbits that hunt people. “Ghost Town” (1988) is a horror film in which a sheriff searches for a missing woman in a town filled with dead residents.

“In that film, Mescal looked like the quintessential ghost town you see in your brain when you think of the Old West,” Jensen said.

Frank Brown said a structure could double as a different building by repositioning a staircase, adding extra window panes or changing the arch in a door. Simple changes could transform a schoolhouse into a town hall, and vice versa. (Photo by: Hailey Freeman/Arizona Sonora News Service)

“Ghost Rock” (2003), starring Gary Busey, was another lesser-known production that filmed a few scenes at Mescal. Old Tucson chief historian P.J. Lawton worked as pyrotechnician on this movie, among others.

Lawton mentioned how since many movies were shot at both Mescal and Old Tucson Studios, not many filmmakers wanted to book Mescal after a 1995 fire wiped out much of the latter’s set.

“There was also a period of time when westerns became unfashionable,” Lawton said.

Two films for an upcoming trilogy, “Hot Bath an’ a Stiff Drink” and “Hot Bath, Stiff Drink, an’ a Close Shave” recently finished filming at Mescal.

Lili DeBarbieri is a librarian, film location assistant and author of a nonfiction book on Arizona film culture. She said the time she spent on the “Hot Bath an’ a Stiff Drink” set will always “hold a special place in [her] heart.” DeBarbieri cites interacting with actors, directors and stunt people, watching square dance scenes and having the “cold clear air and spectacular purple and blue mountains in the distance” as her favorite memories of Mescal.

Frank Brown doesn’t take visitors up to this building because rattlesnakes inhabit it. “If they’re gonna shoot up there, they call me up and I gather them and turn ’em loose about three-quarters of a mile away,” Brown said of the snakes. (Photo by: Hailey Freeman/Arizona Sonora News Service)

“As a traveler, I love visiting film locations,” DeBarbieri said. “The tourism potential is wonderful.”

Originally from Philadelphia, DeBarbieri found out about Mescal while conducting research for her book “Location Filming in Arizona: The Screen Legacy of the Grand Canyon State.”

Mescal has been a significant film set throughout the decades, but DeBarbieri said Mescal was an especially crucial site for “the Renaissance of filmmakers making westerns as major motion pictures and TV series in the 1990s and early 2000s.”

“It’s a complement to the look that Old Tucson provides filmmakers,” DeBarbieri said of Mescal. “It’s smaller than Old Tucson Studios but has its own special charm and authenticity, in my eyes, as a replica of your typical western town in the 1800s.”

For more information about Mescal tours, visit http://oldtucson.com/visit-ots/

 

Hailey Freeman is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at haileyfreeman@email.arizona.edu. 

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