Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Mescal on TV

DVD cover
Alias Smith and Jones aired in the early 1970s and the show was filmed at Universal Studios in Los Angeles.  Part of the third season was filmed on location in Moab, Utah, which stood in for Wyoming.  (Which made me really want to visit Wyoming--imagine my surprise when I finally visited the state in 2011 and it turned out to look nothing like the Wyoming in the TV show!)  Fortunately, it is possible to visit both places and I did so in 2008 and 2010.  It was a thrill to see where the episodes were actually filmed and what the Universal sets and Moab really looked like.  Another location I recently had the opportunity to visit was Mescal, near Tucson, Arizona, which is part of Old Tucson Studios.

DVD cover
Beginning in 1974 and for the following nine seasons, Little House on the Prairie was broadcast on NBC.  Starring Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert, it was based on the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Although I really enjoyed the books, I was never a fan of the TV show.  When I visited Old Tucson Studios in 2010, I was interested to learn that it had been filmed there and I saw some of the sets that were used in the show.
Close-up of LH building
When I visited Mescal a few days ago, I learned that Little House had also filmed at that location.  Mr. Frank Brown, the caretaker who lives on site and gives guided tours of Mescal, pointed out a building that was alternately used as either the school or the town hall in the TV show.
Little House schoolhouse
Completely incongruously, this building is located right
next to the field that was the site of the shootout at the O.K. Corral in the movie Tombstone.  This building is not in the best condition but the sets at Old Tucson Studios have been better maintained. 

The main attraction of Mescal for me, however, was the fact that another TV Western was shot there.  For three years, from 1989 to 1992, Mescal was the main location of filming for The Young Riders. Airing on ABC, this show was a fictionalized account of the adventures
DVD cover
of Pony Express riders and it quickly became one of my favorite shows of that decade.  One of the stars was Anthony Zerbe who played Teaspoon, a former Texas Ranger, and perhaps one reason I liked the show so much was because he and I share the same birthday.  The rest of the main cast included several young actors, a couple of whom have become much more well known: Josh Brolin as James Butler Hickock, aka Wild Bill Hickock, and Stephen Baldwin as William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill.

Marshal's office
Set in Sweetwater, Nebraska, the first season cast also included Melissa Leo as Emma and Brett Cullen as Sam Cain, the town marshal.  Quite a few scenes occurred at the marshal’s office.  The building is about halfway down the main street of Mescal on the left, as you enter from the parking area.  A small building
YouTube shot of marshal's office
attached to it has a Post Office sign on it now but I don’t recall it being there in the show.  Other than that, the building hasn't really changed over the years.  Unfortunately, Sam and Emma were written out The Young Riders at the end of the first season.  Mr. Brown said Emma's house was not located right at the Mescal set, so that is why I don't have a photo of it.

Bunkhouse & Rachel's house
Bunkhouse close-up
Teaspoon and the riders lived some ways out of town at a waystation.  In the second season, Rachel took on the motherly role; she was played by Clare Wren.  Her house was in close proximity to the bunkhouse where the Pony Express riders stayed when they were “home.”  It was a thrill to see those buildings up close!  Both are located near the parking area on the left but are set a short distance away
from the main street.   The corral where the riders broke horses is falling apart but still visible behind the bunkhouse.

Rachel's house
Another view of TYR buildings
Back of bunkhouse
Mr. Brown said the first four-sided buildings at Mescal were built for The Young Riders.  Rachel’s house still had yellow paint on it and a faded picket fence around the front.  I was able to peer inside the windows of the house but it was empty.  Inside the bunkhouse, though, I could see a table and what appeared to be a fireplace set into a wall.  The windows were so dirty, however, that my photos did not come out well.  The side walls and especially the back exteriors of these buildings and, in fact, just about all the buildings at Mescal, were in poor condition; the wall boards were buckling and the porches were used for storage.  It's a shame the buildings aren't better maintained.

One place I didn’t have the chance to identify was Tompkins’ General Store.  William Tompkins was played by Don Collier, who was in The High Chaparral, which was also filmed at Old Tucson Studios and whose sets are in the same vicinity as those of Little House on the Prairie.  I definitely want to return to Mescal to find out which building was the mercantile in The Young Riders

Side view of marshal's office
Mescal is actually quite small; there is just one main street lined with buildings, a side street partway down from the main thoroughfare with one building at the end on the right, and then a small street paralleling the main street, where the Little House building can be found at the far end, and then Rachel’s house and the bunkhouse off to one side.

View of Mescal from TYR buildings
The towns depicted in The Young Riders look fairly large in size but that is due to the magic of cinematography and the camera angles used to film the action.  Watching episodes now on YouTube makes me wonder what Mescal looked like when The Young Riders was in production and the buildings were kept in excellent condition.  I had a hard time picturing all the hustle and bustle of Sweetwater—all the extras going about their daily business—when I was there.

Far end of the main street of Mescal
I suppose it is appropriate, though: The heyday of Westerns is long over and those movies have faded into memory, and even though some filming is still done there, Mescal is now more of a ghost town than an active movie set.  But maybe one day Mescal, and Westerns, will ride again.