The origins of Old Tucson, as told by the founder’s wife

Bob Shelton brought the spark of Hollywood to Old Tucson, where hundreds of movies have been filmed since 1939

Remembering Old Tucson

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Many Tucsonans are still reeling from the announcement that Old Tucson is shut down after the managing company revealed it was unable to survive the devastating economic effects of COVID-19. There’s one person, in particular, who says the news came like a punch to her gut.

Carolyn Shelton is the widow of the man who brought Hollywood to the Old Pueblo, “It’s history and now it’s gone and yeah, it hurt.” Like so many others, Carolyn feels a sense of loss after the iconic destination closed indefinitely, “I think a lot of people miss it, will miss it, and then I kept hearing this little voice, ‘no, you’ve got to get it back on its feet again. There’s work to be done!’”

Carolyn says, that’s the forge-ahead attitude her late-husband, Bob Shelton would have if he were still alive today, “He’d say ‘nothing is indefinite, let’s get up and go. Saddle up and away we go',” she added with a chuckle.

Carolyn enjoys sharing memories of the man that not only she loved, “he was my little fairytale, my love,” but so did everyone else who met Bob.

Affectionately called, “Mr. Old Tucson,” he moved here in the late 50′s to develop the movie set beyond the lights, camera and action. As Carolyn describes those early days, “He put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into building it up.”

During the 60′s, 70′s and 80′s, Bob turned Old Tucson into Arizona’s second largest tourist attraction, only to be beaten by the Grand Canyon, “He had to go to Hollywood, knock on doors, and get the business,” Carolyn says. “I mean, he had to sell. He didn’t just sit there and answer the phone. He put his heart into it.”

But she says his initial plans didn’t start out that way, “and just to hear him talk, ‘I really enjoy Knott’s Berry Farm and that’s what I kind of had in mind to do with Old Tucson to make it a family park.’ Who would have thunk we would have had Hollywood in the desert?”

Old Tucson was originally built in 1939 for the movie Arizona and then sat vacant for several years. Once Bob took over, things took off with more than 300 movies being filmed in the old western themed town.

John Wayne starred in four movies filmed at Old Tucson including Rio Bravo and Rio Lobo.

The mega movie star and Bob became close friends. Carolyn recalls when a group of astronauts requested to have dinner with the Duke, “and he called Bob and said ‘why would they want to go with me? I can’t do this alone. Will you go with me to Vegas? We can do this if you’re with me. Sure, yeah I guess. Why would they want to go with me?’ He said, ‘I don’t do anything. I read from scripts. I’m not smart like them.’ They went and had a ball and he (Bob) went all over with him (John Wayne).”

Bob passed away in 2016 at the age of 95 but Carolyn says she still feels his presence. When I asked her, “do you feel like he’s still with you?” Her face lit up with a smile, “oh, every day, every day. I mean, he enjoyed people and he wanted people to be happy. He liked smiles on people’s faces.”

With an uncertain future, Carolyn hopes someone will take up the torch and breathe new life into Old Tucson.

“It’s a changing of the guard. Somebody is going to come in. They know Old Tucson is very important to Tucson. That’s part of our history and life and keep moving. So I’ve gone from the really sad to we can do this,” and with a laugh said, “I’m the cock-eyed optimist!”

Pima County owns the land where Old Tucson is and county officials say they’ll have a better idea of what the future holds sometime next year.

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