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'Hollywood of the desert' rides tall in tourism saddle

On a sun-blistered day the clink of spurs pierces the dusty afternoon air. Two men strut down a wagon-rutted street, six-shooters strapped to their thighs.

After a gruff exchange, one man decides to settle the score with a slug from his .45. The villain slumps over in front of the local saloon.

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This is no advertisement for Lee jeans. But it might just as well be. Hundreds of similar scenes have been repeated here over the years in a Western setting as authentic as rawhide chaps: Old Tucson.

The movie set has been used for dozens of shoot-'em-up westerns and TV sagas, as well as a few commercials. Its Dodge City-style flavor, from an operating 19 th-century locomotive to an adobe jail, has made it one of the world's most popular Wild West movie sets. No false-front saloons or stables here.

John Wayne has glared down his share of Black Barts along the town's dusty streets. So have Kirk Douglas, Gene Autry, Van Johnson, and Burt Lancaster. Hoss Cartwright, shaded under his dome-shaped cowboy hat, has trotted into town more than a few times.

But Hollywood is putting out fewer westerns, and the bellows from directors' bullhorns don't echo through this celluloid fantasyland just west of Tucson the way they once did. Instead, the town is living more off the fat of another major industry here, tourism.

Each year Old Tucson draws close to half a million visitors, making it one of the biggest tourist attractions in Arizona behind the Grand Canyon. Luring snow-weary Northerners and other outsiders to the sun-dappled state remains a bedrock part of the economy. Visitors spend more than $3 billion in Arizona each year.

The turnstiles at the border are likely to spin even more in the future. The Hudson Institute, an upstate New York think tank, projects that tourism will be the largest industry in Arizona within two decades. By the year 2000, it expects tourist expenditures in the state to reach $20 billion to $25 billion a year. Outlays by Mexicans, many of whom come to shop in the Tucson area, could top $5 billion annually, up from the present $400 million.

Visitors spend around half a billion dollars a year in Pima County (which includes Tucson). Like other parts of the Southwest, Tucson has long been a therapeutic retreat for the elderly. But it is also drawing more young and middle-aged people, laden with lounge chairs and barbecues, to its cloudless clime.

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To do this, the Tucson area has 19 golf courses, acres of tennis courts, and enough stands of stately saguaro to satisfy the most ardent desert backpacker. ''Ranch resorts,'' once called dude ranches, dot the dusty landscape. Some folks , interested in firming up their thighs as much as their mind, spend time at an area ''fitness resort.'' Others nose around historical sites, such as the Mission San Xavier del Bac, built by Franciscans in the late 1700s.

Tucson isn't the posh desert retreat of a Palm Springs. Travel trailers and bus tours are common here. Next to the interminable sun, the biggest attraction is the Western lore.

The last Indian uprising in the area occurred as recently as the early 1900s, a historical footnote that particularly intrigues many Japanese. Tombstone, the real one, where Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp confronted villainy at the gunfight at the O. K. Corral, sits southeast of the city. ''People expect to come out here and still see cowboys,'' says Sally Hankin, director of tourism for the Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Which is where Old Tucson comes in. Built in 1939 as set for Columbia Pictures' movie ''Arizona'' (starring newcomers William Holden and Jean Arthur), the town was a re-creation of Tucson in the 1860s. A passel of western films followed.

By the late 1950s, however, the town's adobe walls and wooden sidewalks were crumbling. In rode Bob Shelton from Kansas, who set up the Old Tucson Development Company and helped restore the movie set, which stands in the shadow of the gap-toothed Tucson Mountains.

Since then, dozens of films have been shot at the desert site - ''Heaven With a Gun,'' ''Dirty Dingus Magee,'' ''Rio Lobo,'' ''Young Billy Young'' - as well as several TV shows (''High Chaparral'' and most recently ''Father Murphy''). Ronald Reagan, before taking up statecraft, wandered Old Tucson's streets in ''The Last Outpost.''

With fewer western films being made, Old Tucson is becoming as much a backdrop for commercials with a cowboy motif as anything else. Shock absorbers, McDonald's hamburgers, Toyotas, even bubble gum, have been peddled here amid the crack of pistol fire.

Some western buffs worry that the ''Hollywood of the Desert'' may be riding into the sunset. ''We used to get three or four movies a year here,'' laments Marc LeMieux, general manager of Old Tucson. ''But now it's very costly for them (film and TV producers) to travel anywhere.''

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