Our drive down to Tombstone from Tucson was really beautiful. The change in terrain was particularly interesting, as the saguaro gave way to more yuccas, and in the San Pedro river area, lusher vegetation. Sally identified these as Soaptree yuccas.
Pretty but deadly!
I was fascinated by a low bush with trumpetlike blooms that, upon further research turned out to be deadly nightshade. I now think of this as a portent of the day to come….
We pulled into Tombstone in high anticipation; the historical characters of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Ike Clanton, and the others who fought at the OK Corral would soon be portrayed by real-life figures in an exciting tableau…………..NOT!!!
1882 Cochise County Courthouse
Fortunately, before we descended into the travesty that is Tombstone Historama, we checked out the historical 1882 Cochise County (yes, that Cochise!) Courthouse. The building is now a museum containing lots of artifacts related to the early history of Tombstone and the surrounding county, of which Tombstone was the seat until 1929.
In the walled courtyard a replica gallows stands, with a plaque commemorating the 7 men who were hanged there between 1882 and 1900. Inside are the depictions of a few men who were hanged elsewhere without benefit of due process, not to mention the 1200 “Communist sympathizers and agitators” (read: union miners and organizers) who were legally DEPORTED to New Mexico shortly after the turn of the century. There is no word as to how the citizens of the Territory of New Mexico felt about becoming the recipients of Arizona’s human refuse. But, I digress…
Thirsty passengers arriving at Kate's
The next stop, and the one at which we should have spent more time had we known what was coming, was Big-Nosed Kate’s Saloon. Big-Nosed Kate’s is a real saloon (at least to the extent that anything in Tombstone is real) located in the original Grand Hotel building, which was, in the 1880’s, occupied by various notables including the Earps, Doc Holliday, Kate herself, and many others. Today, it is quite changed from its former respectability, and consequently is a lot more fun. Stained glass windows portray Wyatt, Doc, and Kate, looking considerably better than they did in real life. Live music, provided this day by Joe Barr, contributed to the atmosphere. The food (burgers smothered in green chiles, fries, and sarsaparilla in my case) was excellent, and a good time was had by all. If you plan to come to Tombstone, I highly recommend Big-Nosed Kate’s. In fact, if you come here, you probably shouldn’t go any where else. Just have a burger and a beer and head on home.
I forgot the sunscreen!
I didn’t have the advantage of the above advice, so we headed down the street, which is filled with touristy attractions designed to separate you from your money. Here’s what Doc Holliday really looked like!
At Sally’s insistence (gotta make sure she takes the blame for this!), we proceeded to the Tombstone Historama, which is a complex that includes a museum, a theatre with a diorama and movie presentation (narrated by Vincent Price) that has to be seen to be believed.
Truthfully, at this point, I wasn’t too bothered by the experience, since the diorama alone is worth the 9 bucks it costs to get in. The diorama was apparently constructed sometime in the mid-60’s, and it looks as though it has been neither cleaned nor maintained in the intervening 40 years or so. When Morgan Earp gets shot, the legs of his little figure collapse beneath him, but the string that is intended to pull him backwards doesn’t work, so he simply sits down with his knees bent in two different directions. Apparently there were a lot of Morgan Earp fans in the audience, because I was the only one who laughed when he went down….
After the theatre presentation ended, we were herded into the OK Corral. I’m not kidding about that. We were HERDED into the outdoor “museum” consisting of a few buggies and a hearse, plus a single room containing an elaborate tribute to the Michigan lawyer who bought the entire property in the early 60’s and “restored” it to its currently decrepit state. At this point in time, around 1:30 pm, we had 30 minutes to kill before the live-action gunfight took place, and there was absolutely no shade to be found. We stood around in the blazing sun, sand beneath our feet reflecting the UV rays into our faces, as the walled yard slowly filled up with more and more bewildered tourists. The outdoor theatre in which the gunfight was to take place was closed off by two large doors. These doors were to open at 1:45, at which point we would at least be in the shade.
But the doors did not open at 1:45. In fact, the entire crowd stood out in the blazing sun for 30 full minutes before the doors finally opened. Now, 30 minutes in the sun is not usually a big deal, but standing on sand in Tombstone at 1:30 in the afternoon will put a hurt on you in a hurry if you’re not adequately protected. I was not. Many of the others were not either. So a few of us got nice sunburn to go with the show, which I assure you is not worth the 9 bucks admission charge, even without the sunburn.
Wyatt, Doc, Virgil, Morgan and the gang trapped inside a wrought-iron fence
While broiling in the midday sun awaiting deliverance, we were treated to an animatronic portrayal of the famous gunfight on the actual site of its occurrence. Six manniquins, dressed in long dusters, wide-brimmed hats, and boots dried out in the sun until their toes pointed skyward, stood on the very spot the fight took place. Unfortunately, the animatronics of 1965 aren’t very impressive. In fact, until I waked right up to them, I didn’t think they were moving at all. But upon closer inspection, and during the fifth or sixth repetition of this engaging display, I noticed that when Wyatt spoke, his head moved slightly. And when the fight took place, the figures’ gun hands moved slo-o-o-o-w-ly into position before the sounds of the shots were heard. Since no one actually fell when shot, it wasn’t very exciting.
But finally the doors opened and we were freed from the glare of the sun. Seated on bleachers beneath the shade of a canopy, we awaited the dramatic real-life portrayal of the event.
Doc recites Shakespeare while drunk
If your idea of living history is Doc Holliday introducing the scene with a Shakespearean soliloquy, Wyatt and Virgil portrayed as a pair of brutal, uncaring louts, and the whole event viewed as a murderous assault on a family of unassuming cattle ranchers, then you may like this little play.
The Earps mercilessly murder the innocent cowboys
However, it’s a bit too politically correct for my taste, and I’m sure most of the 5 to 8 year-olds in the audience had a rough time figuring out why the men wearing the badges were murdering the good guys. At least that’s the way it looked to me.
If I were running a tourist attraction dedicated to the events of 100+ years ago, I think I’d try to at least portray the principal figures in a more sympathetic light. Yes, I know that Wyatt Earp was not lily-white. In fact, he was primarily a professional gambler, and wasn’t really interested in being a lawman in Tombstone. And I’m sure the cowboys had their good points. But this play is just ridiculous, and if I were a descendant of the Earps, I’d be suing for slander.
If you go to Tombstone, try to keep your sense of humor. A couple of beers at Big-Nosed Kate’s definitely wouldn’t hurt. And don’t forget the sunscreen!