Robert Shelton, founder of Old Tucson Studios and a advocate for Western films and the Southern Arizona movie industry, has died at the age of 95.
Shelton died Thursday. The cause of death was not released, and services are pending, Old Tucson said.
Old Tucson said the Wild West theme park has draped several areas in black and white bunting to honor Shelton, including a museum named in his honor.
“Bob Shelton was a charismatic visionary who turned Tucson into ‘Hollywood in the Desert,’ ” said Old Tucson General Manager Terry Verhage. “He wasn’t boastful, but he did like to tell the story of how he once had John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster all working on films at the same time.”
Shelton founded Old Tucson Co. in 1959, 20 years after Columbia Pictures built the town as a set for “Arizona,” an epic Western film starring Jean Arthur and William Holden.
Previously a land developer in Kansas City, Shelton invested about a half million dollars of his own money in the buildings and an amusement area.
Nearly 15,000 people showed up on opening day in January 1960. By 1995 the number of visitors at the park topped 500,000, second only to the Grand Canyon in Arizona as a tourist destination, according to Old Tucson.
Shelton was involved in the production of more than 300 movies and television shows between 1959 and 1985, when he sold Old Tucson.
In 1968, a 13,000-square-foot soundstage was built, which launched Old Tucson into a frenzy of moviemaking. The first film to use the soundstage was “Young Billy Young,” with Robert Mitchum and Angie Dickinson.
Also in 1968, Shelton acquired Mescal, a second Western town set near Benson built by CBS for a movie. It was used to film the TV shows “The Young Riders” and Michael Landon’s “House on the Prairie.” Other movies followed, including Clint Eastwood’s “The Outlaw Josie Wales” and in the 1995 release ”The Quick and the Dead,” the last major movie to be filmed at Old Tucson or Mescal.
Over the years, Shelton who became a lifelong friend of John Wayne and many other Western movie stars, as well as a tireless promoter of the genre and Tucson as a filming location.
“Bob was devoted to the preservation of our region’s Western film legacy,” Verhage said, noting that Shelton had just visited Old Tucson on Dec. 3 to celebrate the second annual Bob Shelton Day.
In 2013, Shelton was honored with a Lofty Lifetime Achievement Award at the Loft Film Fest for his contributions to the local film industry.
“I’m sad that he has passed away, but he created quite a legacy for film in Arizona,” said Shelli Hall, director of the Tucson Film Office. “He put Tucson on the map in the film industry.”
On April 25, 1995, a fire raced through Old Tucson, destroying the soundstage and much of the historic movie sets. An investigation pointed to arson, though the case was never solved.
The blaze destroyed nearly 40 buildings in the 360-acre park, causing an estimated $10 million in damage. The park, which is owned by Pima County, is 12 miles west of Tucson at 201 S. Kinney Road, on the western edge of the Tucson Mountains.
Much of the town, including the soundstage, was never rebuilt.
In the 2011 interview, Shelton said Old Tucson was never the same.
“We lost about 50 percent of Old Tucson,” an emotional Shelton said at the time. “We lost our entire wardrobe department, old movie stock, cameras and lots of equipment. They came out and interviewed me that night, and I could look out to the west and see the glow.”
Tom Moulton, who managed Old Tucson from 1997 to 2001 and is now director of attractions and tourism for Pima County, said Shelton kept active in the local film industry up to about four years ago, offering his connections and wisdom.
“Bob has been an integral part of our industry, our mentorship, our enthusiasm,” said Moulton, recalling how he was on a first-name basis with actors including Robert Wagner.
He recalled how after Old Tucson reopened following the fire, Shelton learned that Warner Brothers was looking for an authentic steam locomotive it could blow up for the movie “Wild Wild West,” starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline.
Moulton said Shelton offered an 1870s locomotive he had acquired from MGM — and got Warner to agree to fully restore the locomotive. The movie company restored it, blew it up, restored it again and returned it to Old Tucson where it still sits today.
Moulton also recalled a story about how Shelton lured John Wayne in as an investor, but when Wayne visited Old Tucson he objected to the paved streets. Sheltion had them torn out in favor of more authentic dirt.
Over the years, Shelton wore many hats, even appearing in front of the camera a few times.
Shelton had a fairly prominent, if uncredited, role as an outlaw in 1965’s ”Arizona Raiders,” one of three movies war hero Audie Murphy made at Old Tucson.
Shelton also tried his hand at screenwriting with “A Knife for the Ladies,” which starred Jack Elam as a Wild West Jack the Ripper and was released in 1974.