Playing cowboy in a street actor’s fantasyland

Ian Messenger, before a gunfight re-enactment. Photo by Kayla Belcher / Arizona Sonora News

Men and women travel from around the globe to dress up and play cowboy in Tombstone, where everyday is Halloween.

Many of the Tombstone actors have zero desire to move to Hollywood to pursue a silver-screen career and are simply satisfied in the town of make believe.

Five years ago, the O.K. Corral busker, Ian Messenger, was an oxygen tank delivery man in Sierra Vista. One day he had enough of the real world.

“I realized I can’t do this, delivering oxygen is basically like being the grim reaper, you visit people when they’re dying,” he said.

The thought of having a 9-to-5 job no longer appealed to Messenger. He knew his childhood dreams of becoming a professional wrestler were behind him, so seeking an acting job in his hometown of Tombstone became his next plan.

“I had real jobs but those were miserable, as real jobs are. So, I’m here ‘cause I like acting, I like entertaining people. That’s really it,” said Messenger, who also directs film.

An eight-second gunfight re-enactment is now his life. Most actors have no formal training, and most of their acting experience is from high school theater and small independent films made among the bunch.

The actors put on their own movies around Cochise County, in a surprisingly non-western genre — horror films.

The actors’ latest creative ventures include Friday the 13th fan films and several of their own films, “Fireside Tales” and “Monkey Farm,” based on an urban legend in southern Arizona.

Cowboy actors line up in front of the O.K. Corral as the iconic Tombstone movie poster. Photo by Kayla Belcher/ Arizona Sonora News

“We have two feature films releasing in the next month, some of us kind of took this and ran with it and tried to make a career out of it,” said Messenger, who also is a director.

Virginia City, Nevada, native Kyle Truhill, 32, re-enacted movie scenes with his siblings growing up and although he grew up in another western town was never drawn to the western motif until he said he was “lumped into it.”

Truhill, who now plays Wyatt Earp, had always been a performer, but he had also been in the Army and worked in blood labs until he made his way to Tombstone.

“I was working a stunt show up in Nevada and the same employer owns a business here and so I came down here to run his other show,” Truhill said.

He has been in Tombstone for the last three years performing at the O.K. Corral as his main occupation and selling Adams Family memorabilia along with “mummified fairies” online.

“It’s hard to make it as an actor anywhere in the world so if you find a gig that pays and it’s something that you like, stay with it until something better comes along, I suppose,” Truhill said.

Truhill admitted that his dream role of being a Ninja Turtle is hard to come by — and he would be completely satisfied staying where he is and being stunt man, because besides acting he also enjoys the deep rooted history of the town.

The starting hourly rate is minimum wage, and all actors are paid differently as incentive.

Despite this being their livelihood, the actors know the historical re-enactment is not to be taken seriously in the professional sense. “We rehearse maybe once every four months only because the guys get a little loose. That’s the best way of saying it, they get loose and that’s the way we clean it up,” Messenger laughed and explained.

Even the cowboys know the uncertainty about the future of the withering city. Some know the inevitable downfall of Tombstone is fast approaching and others are still living in denial of their beloved playtime.

“I think people are doom and gloom. Things are always getting better, but people think it’s always getting worse and it’s not true,” Truhill said.

Contrary, Messenger went on to say, “If you told me Tombstone would die in 15 years, I would believe you.”

Until that time comes, Messenger, Truhill and those alike will continue to flock to this fantasy land to play Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

Allison De Fina is a reporter for the Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos.  

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