Conspicuous by its absence, the Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, Tombstone’s most popular attraction, has not graced the pages of Southern Arizona Guide … until now. Why?
At Southern Arizona Guide we have a guiding philosophy.
If we cannot wholeheartedly recommend your establishment or event to our friends & family, we will not include you in our Southern Arizona Guide.
This applies to editorial content as well as advertising. For example, I spend a lot of time trying to explain to restaurant owners and managers why they cannot advertise on our Southern Arizona Guide website. Ours is such a radical publishing philosophy that most initially think I’m kidding.
I mention this now because you will quickly realize how this mindset sometimes causes us some distress. About 3 years ago, while we were preparing Southern Arizona Guide, but before we actually launched the website, we went to Tombstone to gather information for our new section about that historic place. At that time, we attended Tombstone’s most popular attraction: the Gunfight At The OK Corral.
While some of the peripheral sights within the OK Corral, such as Fly’s Boarding House & Photography Studio, were (& still are) totally worthwhile, the actual reenactment of THE GUNFIGHT was amateurish and not in the least historically accurate. Thus, for the past couple of years, we have recommended that visitors to Tombstone save the admission fee and rent the movie Tombstone with Kurt Russell & Val Kilmer.
Tombstone Is The Real Deal
This was awkward for a couple of reasons. First, we are big supporters of Tombstone. If you have any interest in Old West history, Tombstone is THE REAL DEAL. The reason so many people think Tombstone is a mere tourist town is because they don’t know what actually happened here in the 18 and 80’s and why it matters, even today. For this reason, we always recommend Tombstone visitors take Dr. Jay’s Tombstone Walking Tour.
Second, the O.K. Corral attraction is owned by Bob Love, who also owns the Tombstone Epitaph. The Epitaph was one of two principle newspapers at the time of the gunfight and Mr. Love has a fine newspaper museum in the old building on 5th Street that we wholeheartedly recommend to our friends & family. Moreover, Bob’s father, Harold Love, was instrumental in preserving many of Tombstone’s historic buildings, for which we are most grateful.
As is our custom, when we publish a negative review, be it of a dining establishment or anything else, we offer to conduct a re-review at sometime in the future when the proprietor thinks we will have a better experience.
Having never discussed this matter with Mr. Love, I took it upon myself to revisit the OK Corral in late January 2014. I had heard that there was a new troupe doing the Gunfight skit and that it was much improved over its predecessors. I hoped so.
The gunfight reenactment is not the only thing of interest at the OK Corral. There are various exhibits, one of which is a real-life blacksmith named Grizz. He demonstrates his craft and sells souvenir horseshoes and other metal objects that he made. Interesting fellow. Arizona Highways Magazine featured him in a two-page spread in their February 2014 edition.
Fly’s Boarding House & Photography Gallery, next to which the real gunfight took place, is certainly interesting. Many of the most memorable images of the Old West were created by C.S. “Buck” Fly, including the surrender of Geronimo in 1886.
There is even a re-created “crib” like the ones that lined Tombstone’s Red Light District at the other end of town. Prostitution was both legal and big business in the 1880’s Tombstone.
The Actual Gunfight Site
Once in the back lot of the OK Corral, visitors see eight mannequins representing the combatants supposedly standing in the correct position in the small vacant lot where the gunfight started. I am immediately dismayed.
In the actual gunfight on October 26, 1881, at least two cowboys were holding their horse’s reins when the Earps & Holliday arrived on the scene. I wondered just how hard it would be for the OK Corral to place life-size model horses in this outdoor scene? It’s important historically because both Tom & Frank McLaury tried to use their respective horses as a shield from Earp & Holliday gunfire.
As soon as their horses broke free, the two Cowboys were shot. Doc Holliday blasted Tom McLaury with a 10-gauge shotgun. Frank was killed out on Fremont Street by a bullet to the head. Who fired that bullet is a matter of controversy, even today. It could have been either Morgan or Wyatt Earp.
Get A Good Seat
I perched myself at the top of the grandstands so I could photograph over the audience. I had a standard 50mm lens perspective. I did not think I would need a wide-angle lens because, in the real gunfight, when the two parties started shooting at each other, they were only a few feet apart. Silly me.
In this most recent reenactment, when the parties started shooting at each other, they were at least 30 feet apart, so my normal lens could not capture the whole scene in one frame. Very discouraging. But I may go back in a month or so and take my wide-angle zoom lens to capture the action more fully.
Why The Reenactment Cannot Be Totally Historically Accurate
There is a reason the actors were standing so far apart when the shooting started. Even blanks fire a certain amount of hot debris out the gun barrels. If the actors were standing closer, as the real combatants were, they would get that debris in their faces and eyes. So, while the positioning is not historically accurate, we have no problem making allowances for safety.
The same goes for not using horses in the reenactment. Panic-stricken horses, like the ones in the real gunfight, would be a serious danger to themselves and everyone else. Moreover, the 1881 gunfight spilled out onto Fremont Street when it was just a dirt road. It would be totally impractical to close off what is now a busy highway several times a day to achieve total historical accuracy.
Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this current Gunfight At The OK Corral. The script is written for a general audience that is almost completely ignorant of what really happened on that fateful afternoon just a few yards away. Perhaps as important as what happened is why it happened.
Very few people know the many backstories that make Tombstone in general, and the Gunfight At The O.K. Corral in particular, endlessly fascinating. If you really get to know Tombstone, you will find ample proof that historical facts are far more interesting than the many myths and legends that were spawned by The Gunfight.
As we all waited for the action, I had several conversations with members of the audience. They came from as far away as Japan and Europe, as well as our Mid-West. None seemed to know much about the details of the gunfight, nor did they seem to care. They were just happy to be this close to the scene of one of the most notorious events in Old West history.
In all cases, their source of information about the gunfight was derived from one or both 1990’s movies: Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp and Kurt Russel’s Tombstone. Thus, they all came with the preconceived notion that the real Cowboys were all bad and the real Earps and Doc Holliday were all good.
This most recent reenactment reinforced those prejudices. This was an audience-participation melodrama. When the Clantons & McLaurys came on the field, they were roundly “Booooo’d”. Ike Clanton, in particular, earned every hardy “boo” & “hiss”. Never was there a meaner drunk.
Likewise, as far as this audience was concerned, the Earps & Holliday could do no wrong. That said, whoever wrote the script managed to weave real history throughout the drama. It was done with a light touch, and quite a bit of good humor, but it was there
The Price of History
The $10 admission fee is a very good value. In addition to the reenactment, a lot of historical exhibits are included in the price. Plus, they give you a voucher that you can take to the Tombstone Epitaph and get a FREE souvenir reprint of the newspaper that covered The Gunfight. Moreover, children under 6 are FREE.
And, if you are really smart, you will have purchased a Southern Arizona Attractions Alliance Passport: Book of Fun full of coupons with 2-for-the-price-of-one admissions to dozens of Southern Arizona attractions, including the O.K. Corral. You can buy a Passport at the Tombstone Visitors Center or online for $18. Visit two attractions and you will have recouped your investment.
Suggestions & Recommendations
As mentioned, I was in the top row of the bleachers. The young gentleman who served as narrator, as well as the dashing Doc Holliday (who in reality was also a short-tempered drunk), was easy to hear and understand. Some of the other actors, particularly “Virgil Earp”, were very hard to hear, especially when a truck went by on Fremont Street where the actual Gunfight ended. For this reason, we suggest you sit closest to the action.
Overall, when I consider the historic site, the reasonably historically accurate gunfight reenactment; plus the self-guided tour through Fly’s Boarding House & Photography Gallery; the exhibit that explains the role of Prostitution in 1880’s Tombstone; and meeting Grizz, the real-life blacksmith, we can now wholeheartedly recommend the OK Corral attraction to our friends & family.
Don’t Miss the Historama
Don’t skip the Historama exhibit. It’s included with the admission ticket. This is a large rotating model of 1880’s Tombstone narrated by Vincent Price. Kids today will not know who Mr. Price was, but in 1964, when the Historama was state-of-the-art entertainment, he was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.
There are two reasons to include the Historama in your tour of the OK Corral. First, it gives a reasonably good overview of life in 1880’s Tombstone and the events that led to THE GUNFIGHT.
Second, in itself, the Historama is history. True, ’tis primitive by today’s multi-media standards. However, this is one of the ways they told these kinds of stories back in the ’60s at amusement parks and fairs.
O.K.Corral: Highly Recommended
Near the corner of Allen & Third Streets in the Historic District
This article has been KID APPROVED. For more interesting ideas of Things to do with kids, some of the not very expensive, please see our page, “Things to do in Tucson with KIDS”