Telling tales of life in the Wild West was all in a day’s work for the folks behind the Mescal Movie Set east of Tucson.
The filming location, a lot of 27 structures that, until recently, served as an extension of Old Tucson, played host to more than 80 Western movies and television shows over the course of five decades.
Actors like Lee Marvin in “Monte Walsh,” Mel Gibson in “Maverick” and Steve McQueen in “Tom Horn” brought gunfights, poker games and cattle rustling to the silver screen on the 70-acre lot, about 4 miles north of Interstate 10.
Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp faced off against red-sashed cowboys with his brothers Virgil, played by Sam Elliott, and Morgan, played by Bill Paxton, in the 1993 classic “Tombstone.”
In the modern Western, “The Quick and the Dead,” Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, went toe-to-toe in Mescal, participating in a quick-draw contest to determine the fastest gun in the West.
Mark Sankey, spokesman for the set, can tell you where any movie star who played cowboy on the property took their last breath.
“Leonardo died right on that spot,” said Sankey, pointing to a patch of dirt amid the saloons, brothels and trade shops, where DiCaprio, as “The Kid” caught a slug during a duel with Hackman.
As an alternate film set to Old Tucson, Mescal produced a long list of iconic films about the West.
Now, thanks to a local ranching family, that tradition will continue.
In February, Kartchner Ventures, owned and operated by the Kartchners, a fifth-generation ranching family in Cochise County for which Kartchner Caverns is named, acquired the property in an effort to keep the set from being torn down.
The owners of Old Tucson and the Mescal set shuttered Old Tucson in September of 2020, citing the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown as the culprit.
Mescal, which had fallen into disrepair and in recent years had only been used in smaller productions, was slated to be demolished if a buyer did not materialize.
Sankey said the Kartchners weren’t looking to get into the movie business, but felt preserving the set was important.
“The Western genre has always appealed to broad audiences and will for generations to come,” J.J. Kartchner, speaking for the family, said in an email statement. “At its base, the Western stories are about good guys against bad guys, overcoming struggles and living by a code. As ranchers, we felt the need to keep the West alive and share it with the world.”
The Kartchners plan to revitalize the set to make it appealing to film productions, both great and small. They also plan to open the lot up for guided tours by reservation as early as Labor Day, Sankey said.
To do any of that, a lot of work still needs to be done.
Some of the buildings, like the saloon erected during the making of “The Quick and the Dead,” are still in relatively good shape.
“We call it the saloon that Sharon Stone built,” Sankey said. “She was a producer on that movie.”
Others, like the building that was used as the courthouse in the Paul Newman classic, “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean,” are near collapse.
At one point, the Mescal Movie Set had 45 structures, many of which were built to be moved around to change the town’s look.
Of the structures that remain — including the buildings along the main thoroughfare, an out-of-town ranch house to the west, and a nearby cavalry fort, built for the 1997 television movie, “Buffalo Soldiers,” — “every one of the roofs leak,” Sankey said. “Our biggest concern right now is safety, stabilizing the buildings, the flooring, getting the roofing done.”
For that, the movie set has recruited a small army of volunteers who have been working nonstop since early April to get the property back up to snuff.
Cindy Kuhn, office manager for the operation, said she has a running list of about 300 volunteers who have expressed a willingness to help.
Right now, while the summer heat is on and the monsoon is still active, organizers are only tapping the talents of their skilled volunteers, people with backgrounds in fields like carpentry and architecture, to come out.
“Our volunteers have been amazing,” Kuhn said. “They come from all walks of life, all ages, with different skill sets, but with the same passion.”
Sankey said, in addition to rehabilitating the aging structures that exist, the goal is to eventually create more, constructing buildings that have fallen down or were never there to begin with, like a blacksmith shop, a stage depot, a café and a church.
“We are going to put in a couple more houses,” Sankey said. “We are investigating what other movie sets have and don’t have. Our advisers have strongly urged us to put in more homes.”
Sankey said when the renovations are complete, they hope to draw, at first, midlevel film productions and smaller projects, such as commercials and music videos.
The set will also be available for weddings, reunions and corporate events.
Sankey said the goal is to complement, not compete against places like the real Tombstone, located about 40 minutes southeast of Mescal.
“We see this as a stopover on the way to Tombstone from Tucson,” he said. “Stop here for a tour, enjoy it, and then head down the road for lunch and a beer. We are networking with the local towns and cities to show that we aren’t competing for their tourism dollars.”
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