‘I’m your huckleberry’ turns 25

The Streets of Tombstone Theater re-enact the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. (Photo by: Katie Caldwell / Arizona Sonora News Service)

It’s been nearly 25 years since actor Val Kilmer uttered the infamous line, “I’m your huckleberry” as he walked the set of “Tombstone,” a film that rejuvenated this entire Southern Arizona community.

Ranked among the most profitable and influential Western-themed movies of all time,“Tombstone” also reintroduced the Western genre to 21st century audiences nationwide.

Now, decades after the film’s release, the town for which it gains its namesake, celebrates its impact on their community with a weekend of festivities set for June 30 and July 1.

Based on the infamous O.K. Corral shootout between Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), his brothers Virgil Earp (Sam Elliot) and Morgan Earp (Bill Paxton), Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) and a band of local outlaws, “Tombstone” captured one of the West’s most notorious gunfights.

“Were it not for that gunfight, and an aged Wyatt Earp wanting to tell a story to an author that attempted to create a hero character from the gang fight that took place on Oct. 26, 1881, the town of Tombstone would most likely not be a destination to see a living town, but more likely a destination to see as a ghost town,” said Janice Hendricks, of the Tombstone Times.

Following the release of the movie on Dec. 25, 1993, tourism rose dramatically. For Michael Taylor, an avid historian and three-year-resident of Tombstone, the film perfectly captured the essence of the West.

“It brought this town to life with tourism,” Taylor said. “That movie just made people want to come to Tombstone and see if the movie had it right and if that’s really what we’re all about.”

For many residents, the film was a catalyst for big, positive change in the community. Talk to just about any local and you’ll soon learn the value the film had on them both personally and professionally.

For Kevin and Sherry Rudd, owners of the Tombstone Mustachery and seven-year-residents of Tombstone, the movie is their bread and butter. The daily gunfight re-enactments and continual community effort have preserved the historical essence of Tombstone and kept the town from dying.

Without the movie, I don’t think Tombstone the town would be at the level of success that it’s at right now, because it increased tourism that much over the past 25 years to probably sustain the city,” Kevin Rudd said. “There’s just not enough other activities and things here to bring that excitement that the movie ‘Tombstone’ did for our community.”

And while Tombstone remains a travel destination for many, interest in the community has tapered off since the initial release of the film. According to Ron Moran, a five-year-resident, tourism in town usually ebbs and flows. Currently, he said, it’s in an ebb.

“We could use another movie,” Moran said. “Tourism is dropping.”

Though some locals regard the decrease in tourism as a cause for concern, others aren’t so sure. For Willam “Bronco Bill” Pakinkis, town historian and 16-year-resident of Tombstone, there will always be people who are drawn to mysticism of the Old West.

“People have always romanticized the West, and they always will,” Pakinkis said.

Though the film worked to attract visitors from across the globe, it also attracted people interested in prospecting the promise of Old West culture.

Since the 1993 release of “Tombstone,” the town has gradually grown in population. According to 1990 Census information, Tombstone had a population of approximately 1,000 people. In the decades that followed, the population grew by nearly 400 people.

“I’d say ‘Tombstone’ is in at least the top 10 best Western films of all time,” said P.J. Lawton, an Old Tucson Studios historian. “It’s got all the important ingredients of a good Western. It’s got conflict, identifiable personalities and, of course, a big gunfight at the end.”

For Lawton, and scores of other Western enthusiasts, “Tombstone” is a movie that transcends time.

“It’s earned its place in the Hall of Fame,” Lawton said.

Tombstone Mayor Dusty Escapule isn’t concerned with losing visibility because the film, with already more than two decades of air time, will continue to be accessible on the internet and remain part of Western culture, he said.

“When the movie first came out, it increased tourism by probably almost 100 percent,” Escapule said. “It was unbelievable. Over the years it has decreased; however, the movie is being aired constantly on cable networks. It’s not like it’s a big issue anymore. People still want to watch the movie ‘Tombstone.’ ”

For Gordon Anderson, a 40-year-resident of Tombstone and organizer of the upcoming 25th anniversary celebration, it was important to honor the the movie. From June 30 to July 1, locals and tourists alike will gather to remember the impact the movie had on this small southern Arizona community.

Anderson said several actors from the movie will attend, including Michael Biehn (Johnny Ringo) and Peter Sherayko (Texas Jack Vermillion), in addition to set designer Catherine Hardwicke and former U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Florida.

“We’ve put a lot into this celebration, and it’s going to be big,” Anderson said.

Anderson, in conjunction with the Tombstone Lions Club, the O.K. Corral and other organizations and individuals throughout the community, set out months ago to make the 25th anniversary celebration of Tombstone the movie memorable.

“People definitely still came here when I was a kid. They came for the history and events,” Anderson said. “But after the movie, the town gained much more recognition than it ever had before. The movie was very important for Tombstone.”

Elise McClain and Katie Caldwell are reporters for Arizona Sonora News. Reach them at evmcclain@email.arizona.edu or kcaldwell@email.arizona.edu.


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