Sunday, January 22, 2006

A Shattered Childhood Illusion

Yesterday I went to Tombstone.

No doubt to the surprise of most of my friends and relations it is not thanks to Val Kilmer's performance in the 1993 film Tombstone. I am a true geek. I owe my fascination to an original Star Trek episode called Spectre of the Gun. An episode famous because they didn't have enough money for a real set so Kirk and Spock wander around a town made of western building facades. The plot revolves around Kirk and his gang being forced to play the parts of the bad guys against the Earps on that fateful day.

From those beginnings was born a fascination with the legendary characters and events that made up that famous fight in Tombstone. Really, all of the American west is fascinating for the alternate morality and colorful people that made it up. The prostitutes. The gunfighters. The lawman who weren't always so lawful. The feuds. The friendship. One of the most fascinating things to me about the legend of the OK Coral was the loyalty that existed between the suicidal gunfighter Doc Holliday and the borderline lawful Earps. The romantic in me loved it.

There is not much romantic to be found in the town of Tombstone anymore.

Yesterday Some Girl, her fiance, Tech Support and I piled into their car and drove the hour it took to get from Tucson to Tombstone. It was to be the fulfillment of a childhood dream. I'd heard that it was a tourist trap, but I had to go anyway.

The old courthouse of Tombstone which is now a museum was the first place we went. It proved to ultimately be the most interesting. It is filled with artifacts and historical information on the city, from the discovery of the first silver strike to when the mines finally closed down. Though at times it felt a little hodge-podge and quaint, it was still very interesting.

We left the courthouse and began to stroll around the town. I first began to suspect the true nature of the town when Tech Support laughingly informed me that it would be $3 to see the world's largest rose bush. Shortly thereafter it cost $4 to see three men shoot each other with blanks and stand up repeatedly while making off-color jokes in a "gunfight" show.

We paid $4 again later for a package deal at the OK Corral which lead to the ultimate destruction of Tombstone in my mind. The first part of the deal was a little history piece on Tombstone, narrated by Vincent Price. As the lights came down in the small theater we sat in with a few polite looking older couples one of the ladies that worked there said, "Please don't take pictures of the diorama during the show. If you want to we can open it up again for you afterwards."

We sat in stunned silence for a moment as the door shut ominously behind us and Tech Support said softly, "A diorama? This could be fantastic."

It was.

Tears poured out of my eyes and I desperately tried not to disturb the other patrons by laughing out loud as the curtain pulled away and the giant diorama was revealed. Vincent Price's dramatic voice describing the earliest years of Tombstone as lights highlighted various parts of the huge model was lost on me as the absurdity of the situation sent me into hysterics. I was finally able to calm down a bit when a small screen came down and started playing some shaky vintage 60's footage complete with reenactments. The giggles started again. The little screen rose and I discovered that the diorama actually rotated, displaying different scenes each time the screen went up and down. This did not help matters.

Further highlights included a fire in Tombstone that involved the model buildings windows all turning red, and the deaths of Morgan Earp and Frank Stilwell, in which small diorama people clunked dramatically to floor in their death throws. Not much information was gained as even Vincent Price lost interest in his overly dramatic monologue and started slurring words together.

We left the diorama and went out into the courtyard of the OK Corral itself. In one corner of the yard large metal manikins moved arms and necks jerkily in a bizarre reproduction of the gunfight where no one falls over. Once again the austerity of history was not present and I tended towards giggling rather than awe.

It was here also that one of my main problems with Tombstone is highlighted. It's hard to tell what is truly historic. The fight of course didn't actually happen in the Corral itself (although two other murders had occurred there) it happened in an empty lot next door. However, the location we were in was called the "OK Corral". Now, it is stated that the person who owns it now also purchased the empty lots, but I'm still confused. Were the creepy sun-bleached reproductions standing where Wyatt and the gang actually stood? I'm left uncertain. As I was also left uncertain about many of the historical buildings that lined the street. Which ones are actually historical and which ones are rebuilt? Do they look like they used to? Most of them seemed concerned more with bringing in money than with history, which was a bit off-putting.

A quick run to wikipedia reveals that I am not the only one who had these problems.

There were gems amongst the tourism intense locations. Fascinating information about prostitutes cribs, lynchings, and all the things that make the American West so fascinating, but most of it is buried beneath the artificial attempts to turn Tombstone into an amusement park.

After Wyatt and Doc fled town for Colorado one step ahead of a large posse most of the locations they had made so famous burnt down. Not too long afterwards flooding in the mines crippled and then destroyed the town's source of income. One can't help but wonder if it was meant to stay dead.

Tombstone, the self proclaimed "Town Too Tough to Die", is about as tough as a kitten.

Still, despite my doom and gloom I think Tombstone could get better. I know that people need to earn a living in a town where the main industry is tourism, but I want to believe that if they focused more on history and less on fleecing tourists, the money would come. I want to see clearly what buildings are reproductions (which are most I suspect) and to see pictures of what the originals looked like. I want to stand where Wyatt and Doc stood and feel the history, not giggle at the absurdity.

And please, get rid of that diorama.

1 comment:

AuntKitty said...

After hearing about your experience, I don't think I will go to Deadwood. Tombstone, may it rest in peace.