July 13th, 2013
By Mark Tovsen
One warm dusty March day, a gang of more than fifteen of Arizona territory’s meanest and most wanted bandits and murderers rode into Tucson to rob the fifty thousand Dollar gold shipment guarded by three Pinkerton Agents and several Deputies. The bandits quickly gunned down the guards before taking position at the stage depot to fend off the attack by the remaining lawmen. One Deputy was taken hostage as a way to escape with the gold. All of this was put to an end when Judge “Black Jack” Young stepped in and assisted Marshal Kimo Owens by blowing all the robbers, and half the stage depot, into Kingdom Come with the town square cannon.
Don’t remember this battle? Think it never happened? Well it did on March, 16th, 2013 at Old Tucson Movie Studio’s ‘The Reunion – 50 Years of Gunfighters’ event.
Fifty former Old Tucson stunt people, yes women too, assembled from all over America to put on one of the biggest live gunfight shows ever held.
Old Tucson’s gunfighter history began when Robert Shelton, former President and founder of the studio, hired famous stuntman Jack Young in 1963 to create street shows and recruit & train new stuntmen to perform those shows for the tourists. Jack had already made himself a name doing stunts for movies like “High Noon”, “The Searchers”, “How the West Was Won”, and many more. He might be best known for doubling Jack Palance in “Shane” and took the shot reaction for Palance when Shane shoots him in the end. Young’s taped shows were in use up to the 1990’s when a change in management wrote new shows. His techniques are still used to this day.
In mid October 2012, former stuntmen Dennis Leoni and Richard Wenz who were part of the crew in the mid 1970’s, had met up again on the Old Tucson Alumni Face Book page. After a few posts they joked about going out on the Old Tucson streets for one more show. Dozens of other alumni members on the page saw the comment and quickly posted that they were excited for the opportunity and would be up for performing.
Leoni and Wenz quickly agreed and made the proposal to Old Tucson CEO, Pete Mangelsdorf who gave the nod that set the wheels in motion. The date was picked, and all former stunt folks that were interested, could join in on the fun. Wenz came up with the Gold Robbery story idea and Leoni set out to write a special script that could incorporate some fifty players (Dennis Leoni is a writer, producer, and director in Hollywood, so the script was destined to be top-notch. Henry Darrow and Rudy Ramos both were in his show “Resurrection Blvd” ).
Leoni and Wenz made a special effort at finding Jack Young, now 86 years old, to encourage him to participate in the show. Jack made it clear that he was excited to do it, but certainly couldn’t be falling off any rooftops. Leoni wrote a central character for him ‘Judge Jack Young’. Jack had the opening and closing lines of the show.
A month before the show, they met with a few of the local Tucson alumni to lay out the show with Old Tucson Entertainment Director and Stunt Coordinator Rob Jensen, to get an idea of how this was going to work.
I arrived in Tucson early on Friday, March 15, the day before the actual show. The first practice was three in the afternoon until seven at night. All went well and we all got to see some friends that we hadn’t seen in many years. I was very happy to be a Pinkerton Guard with two great stuntmen I worked with in the eighties, Grant Wheeler, and Academy Award winner Christopher Gilman (Technical Achievement Award 1991). Christopher also is well known for designing Whitney Houston’s clothes in the movie “The Bodyguard”. Also present was Ed Adams, who has made so many films it would be impossible to list them all (Ed and Grant were both in “Flashpoint” with Mark Slade), as Eli Cutter the leader of the bandits. There were many more talented professional stunt people in this group and all of them were modest about their achievements. Their abilities made the show possible in only hours instead of the weeks involved in a show this big. Also, the people behind the scenes, the “Techs”, made this show come to life with musical soundtracks and explosions.
The biggest honor for us all was working with Jack Young. At 86 he is in better shape than most people his age. This is remarkable considering how many injuries he suffered over his career. After stunt work Jack became involved behind the camera. We both laughed when I reminded him how I blackmailed him into getting me a part on “Cannonball Run II” by finding his home address and threatening to send other actors over if I didn’t get a part (I got a part where Jackie Chan threw an orange at me in a fight, but it was deleted). I never in a million years thought I’d ever be in a show with Jack Young.
On the day of the show, we all met at a 6 am rehearsal call to practice before the park was opened. There were many more legends in this crew and even those of us who didn’t go as far in the movie business as the others were all professionals and knew our parts well. The crowds for the shows were overwhelming. Old Tucson was filled with not only family and friends of us actors but many tourists as well. The shows went off great and everyone enjoyed them, but maybe not as much as we who were performing again after all these years.
After the show, Jack was presented with the first special badge made for the event. It brought tears to many of our, and the audience’s, eyes. At the end of the day after performing two special packed shows, we all celebrated with a fun party and dinner in the Old Tucson saloon.
I hadn’t been back to Old Tucson since before the fire, and I think it looks great and you sure can’t beat their hospitality.
The next morning I had to be on a plane to Fort Worth at five AM. My few death scenes and gunshot reactions took their toll, I was sore and had trouble moving (of course I was stuck in a center seat in economy the whole way! Getting old stinks). But I would have never missed working with my old friends and some new ones, for anything in this world.