Tombstone, Ariz. alive and well and worth a shot An Ok town

July 31, 1994|By Syd Kearney | Syd Kearney,Houston Chronicle

The gunfight at the O.K. Corral took less than half a minute, but its legend has sustained this dusty town for more than a century.

Founded in 1877 when a prospector named Ed Schieffelin staked a silver claim there, Tombstone -- billed as "the town too tough to die" -- is more like the cliche "too tough to kill."

Every dozen or so years, a Hollywood director offers his take on lawman Wyatt Earp, his brothers and his buddy Doc Holliday. "Wyatt Earp," featuring Kevin Costner in the title role, opened in theaters this summer. "Tombstone," with Kurt Russell, was last season's shootout.

A recent visit confirmed that Tombstone is just like the movies: You pay your money, you're amused for a few hours, and then you ride off into the beautiful Arizona sunset -- not enriched but certainly not disappointed.

There's no wrong time to visit Tombstone, a mining town that produced $28.4 million worth of silver, gold, lead and zinc between 1879 and 1907, but make plans to be here on the first or third Sunday of any month. That's when the Wild Bunch performs at the famous O.K. Corral.

Getting tickets to the 2 p.m. show should be your first priority when you hit town. A $3 ticket, available at the corral, covers the show and admission to the corral, where life-size figures mark the October 1881 positions of Wyatt Earp and company.

The shows sell out, and by 1:30 p.m. a line two blocks long has formed. Bring along a sack or towel to sit on. You'll want to claim a spot where you can sit; otherwise you'll have to stand and hope the tall folks will move to the back of the crowd. The show is campy, but most people seem to enjoy it. It starts with Hell's Belles (the troupe's women) performing a sappy story of a widow who turns to prostitution to survive. The "Angel of the Morning" soundtrack doesn't help.

That's followed by a snake oil salesman and tame stripper bit that is just plain silly.

When the action finally gets under way, the smell of gunpowder fills the air as a woman unloads a sawed-off shotgun at two harassers. Two more comedic shootouts follow.

Finally it's time for the big event. A few gruff words and finger-pointings are a prelude to the shootout. In just a few moments, it's over. White, smelly smoke hangs like a cloud over the corral. Seated spectators wipe off the not-so-fine coating of dust created by falling Clantons. A somber funeral turns into the photo opportunity of the day, complete with headstones and grieving widows.

Since the entire gunfight at the O.K. Corral took only 28 seconds, it is understandable that the Wild Bunch would have to pad the show to charge $3 a head.

Since its creation in 1971, the Wild Bunch has raised more than $40,000 for local charities in addition to entertaining tourists. The group's goal, according to the program, is to "preserve and promote a Western atmosphere in Tombstone." The troupe was founded by Ben T. Traywick, Tombstone historian and author of several interesting books on the mining town and its colorful residents.

His books -- and, it seems, every other tome written about the Southwest -- can be found at the Territorial Book Trader, just down historic Allen Street from the O.K. Corral. Owner and historian Jack Fiske can answer questions about the town and guide you to just the right book on the Old West.

While Allen Street is lined with shops and attractions, there are a few that qualify as "can't miss":

* The Bird Cage Theatre on Allen Street. This 113-year-old theater was once referred to in the New York Times as "the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast." That's quite a reputation, but you can get a feel for its character when you walk in. If you do nothing more than walk into the entry area, you'll be entertained.

Standing behind the custom-made cherry bar, a host shares fascinating facts about the honky-tonk and its heyday.

The Bird Cage was named for the compartments that hung over the saloon's casino. Ladies of the night worked behind red-draped "cages."

For $3.50, you can enter the casino area and view the compartments, Old West memorabilia and antiques. Don't miss the table where the longest poker game (eight years, five months and three days) took place.

* Tombstone Courthouse. A short walk from Allen Street on Toughnut, the courthouse features exhibits that set Tombstone's legendary record straight. With displays on Indian leaders such as Cochise and Geronimo, a tribute to Arizona's cattle barons and a turn-of-the-century post office, the courthouse offers plenty of history for a $2 admission charge. The courthouse gallows, where seven men died, are a popular -- albeit macabre -- spot for group photos.

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