By April Bourie –
John Wayne Handshake Seals the Deal
“I have an old pocket knife, an old Cadillac and a wife who plays a good game of bridge.” Those were the first words that Robert “Bob” Shelton uttered to John Wayne.
Shelton was somewhat shocked to find his movie idol standing in the middle of his western theme park in the early 1960s. “We want to put a building up over there, enlarge this one and wipe out this one to film the movie ‘McClintock,’ ” said Wayne. “What are you going to do for me in return?”
Thus came Shelton’s response. Wayne gave that big smile he is known for and shook hands with Shelton. They had a deal.
Though a few films were made at Old Tucson after Shelton purchased the site in 1959, he didn’t have plans to resurrect it for movies. His original idea was to build western theme parks at each end of the Santa Fe Trail. “I have always had a fascination with the Santa Fe Trail and with Knott’s Berry Farm,” Shelton said. “One day I asked to meet with the owner of Knott’s Berry Farm. He agreed to see me and became a mentor of mine.” From then on, Bob knew he wanted to build his own theme park.
He was no stranger to development. He owned a company that built country clubs all over the nation. “All of these World War II veterans were returning home from the war, and they needed a place to socialize with their families and friends,” Shelton said. His hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, already had several country clubs at the time, but their memberships were full. After building his first club, he expanded, building clubs in cities all over the nation.
He always kept the dream of building his Santa Fe Trail theme parks in the back of his mind. However, rather than traveling to Santa Fe, he kept traveling to Tucson to visit Jack Goodman, founder of the Mountain Oyster Club and a friend he enjoyed playing polo with. During one of those visits, he had lunch with Arthur Pack, owner of Ghost Ranch and co-founder of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. After lunch, Pack took Shelton to see the site of Old Tucson, which had originally been built for the movie “Arizona” two decades earlier. Pack suggested that he develop it as a theme park, rather than start from scratch in Santa Fe. Several movies had been filmed on the lot. When Shelton visited, it hadn’t been used for quite a while and had fallen into disrepair. Yet there was something fascinating about the site, Shelton said. “As I walked around in the rubble, I felt a spirit that said ‘do it.’”
Old Tucson opened on Jan. 1, 1960. Shelton had invested a half-million dollars to refurbish the buildings and add a narrow-gauge train, a carousel and a haunted mine to entertain the kids. “The place was overrun with people – and the families loved it,” said Shelton.
Because movies had been filmed at Old Tucson previously, it seemed to have its own draw to production companies. In February 1960, Shelton was approached by Brian Keith, who wanted to film “Deadly Companions” there, starring Maureen O’Hara. “I rented the park to him for $25 per day,” he said. “I didn’t realize at the time that I should have been getting $500 to $1,000 per day.”
Although Shelton may not have been movie savvy initially, he did notice that Old Tucson’s attendance increased whenever filming occurred there. He decided to take a more aggressive stance with the production companies. He took regular trips to Hollywood to host receptions promoting Old Tucson.
Shelton would also fulfill special requests from actors and producers who had filmed there. “I would get calls from people who had developed a love for some of the local foods they had enjoyed while filming here. I sent Lerua’s tamales all over the country and around the world.”
His efforts paid off. Old Tucson became the second most-visited attraction in the state behind the Grand Canyon. It was also the third-most popular onsite filming location in the nation behind Hollywood and New York City.
When asked if he ever started the second theme park at the other end of the Santa Fe Trail, he smiled and said, “Are you kidding? I didn’t have time with everything going so well at Old Tucson.”
In addition to building this movie empire, Shelton befriended many famous actors, directors and producers. Maureen O’Hara, John Wayne and Paul Newman were just a few of the actors that Shelton called friends. It’s hard to believe that his offer of a knife, a car and a wife playing bridge were the beginning of his legacy at Old Tucson.
When his stockholders sold the park to a group of local investors in 1985, Shelton retired. He stayed on for a while to assist with the transition to the new management.
By then, he had created a vast collection of movie memorabilia given to him by actors and directors of the movies filmed at Old Tucson. This includes the hat worn by James Garner in “Maverick” and the stone tablets used in “The Ten Commandments.”
There is a possibility that the entire collection will be displayed at Old Tucson in the future. “This would be a big addition to Old Tucson and an amazing display for the public,” said Larry Dempster, director of the Arizona Western Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit established to promote western television shows and their heritage. Shelton is currently president of the foundation board.
In December 2015, Old Tucson held a “Bob Shelton Day” to recognize his contributions and thank him for all his efforts. “Bob Shelton is the reason that Old Tucson exists,” said Joe Camarillo, community outreach and special projects manager for the Arizona Sonora Western Heritage Foundation. The nonprofit organization was created to develop multicultural interpretive public education experiences at Old Tucson. “We wanted to honor and acknowledge him for his contributions to Old Tucson and the whole state.”
Everyone who meets Shelton seems to feel he is a gem. “There were a few silent films produced in Tucson in the early 1900s, but Bob virtually created the Tucson film industry,” said Shelli Hall, Tucson Film Office director. “The legacy he built is incredible.”
Joan Liess, former Old Tucson marketing director and owner of Joan Liess Marketing Services, said, “His spirit and love of the movies were apparent in his creative ideas to make things better for guests and employees. I don’t know anyone that has ever said a bad thing about Bob Shelton.”