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Too many Wyatt Earps walking Tombstone’s streets

Marshal Larry Talvy’s phone rang. There was trouble in town. A bunch of men in black dusters with guns were walking down Allen Street. Again.

Talvy bolted uphill to the town’s main drag, strode toward the armed men and laid down the law, New West style. Show me your permit, he said, or you’ll be ticketed for an illegal street performance.

It’s been 127 years since Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp fought the Clantons and McLouries at the O.K. Corral here, and Tombstone is still trying to get a handle on its gunslinger problem. Only the desperadoes are no longer brawling over cards or horses. They’re fighting for tourist dollars.

The O.K. Corral gunfight has long been celebrated by Hollywood, from classics such as John Ford’s “My Darling Clementine” to the 1994 film “Wyatt Earp.” And for decades, local entrepreneurs and retirees indulging their western fetishes have put on their 19th century duds and re-created it along Tombstone streets. Between performances, gunmen from the various shows and the occasional black-garbed freelancer would mingle with tourists on the three blocks of Allen Street, which is closed to traffic and lined with raised wooden sidewalks, saloons and trinket shops.

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Then, three years ago, a stranger rode in and vowed to shake up what he considered a moribund tourist trap. A showdown ensued between Tombstone residents who wanted to keep the streets as calm as possible and thespians with higher aspirations.

Stephen Keith, a onetime regular at Renaissance fairs who can hold forth on the similarities between the 1993 movie “Tombstone” and Wagner’s “Ring” cycle of operas, founded the Tombstone Huckleberry Players. They were not content to simply re-create the shootout under a tented space inside the O.K. Corral. Instead, hoping to build a crowd for a new late afternoon show, the actors would walk down Allen Street, performing skits in character and leading tourists to the performance space.

Keith acknowledged there was resistance. Locals, he said, with no theater experience didn’t like seasoned actors taking their favorite roles.

“Every old guy who retires and ties his white ponytail back and puts his name on his pickup truck comes here to be Wyatt Earp,” said Keith, 49, who plays Doc Holliday. “I know how to work a crowd. I’ve been in theater for 32 years. This is what I do.”

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For more than a year, this town of 1,500 allowed the Huckleberry Players to do their act. But in November, a new mayor was elected, and he appointed Talvy to enforce the letter of the law.

Mayor Dusty Escapule said complaints were coming in from merchants at one end of Allen Street whose customers were being swept up by Keith’s troupe, and from rival gunfighter groups, who said the Huckleberry actors were pulling customers away from their shows.

So the City Council invoked a 1973 law that required a permit for street performances, and promptly turned down Keith’s application. In January, Talvy issued his first citation. Four of the players faced misdemeanor charges that could lead to a maximum $600 fine and two years in jail.

Talvy faced off with the Huckleberry players again last month as they posed for photographs on Allen Street for Arizona Highways magazine. He threatened to cite them before eventually backing down.

Keith says that he’s stopped doing formal street performances and that now the law is simply out to get him. Talvy says he’s just doing his job. Most Tombstone residents don’t want to get between the two.

Ask a question about the issue at a local saloon or trinket shop and the place is likely to go silent.

“You know, small-town politics,” one local woman finally said apologetically before reverting to character as a 19th century showgirl. Many cite the curse an Indian is said to have placed on the settlement more than 100 years ago -- that there will never be two white men who live together here in peace. “It looks,” Escapule said, “like the curse is still in effect.”

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It is the most famous showdown in western history. On Oct. 26, 1881, the three Earp brothers -- one of whom, Virgil, was the town marshal -- and gambler Doc Holliday fought two pairs of brothers who were part of a gang of local rustlers. Three rustlers died, and it sparked a feud that is believed to have led to Morgan Earp’s shooting death shortly thereafter. The O.K. Corral shootout made Tombstone a legend and the place where people came to experience a bygone era -- and sometimes to re-create it.

“Every man in the United States born between 1942 and 1957 wanted to be a cowboy,” said Mike Christie, 37, a computer consultant who plays Wyatt Earp in Keith’s show. “When they retired from IBM or GE or wherever, they realized, ‘I can do this.’ And they moved here.”

Skirmishes between different groups of reenactors were not unheard of, Escapule said. That’s why the town passed the law requiring a permit. “We knew something had to be done to keep the peace in this town,” he said.

Keith says he didn’t intend to cause trouble. He was just trying to escape the snow.

He was dealing blackjack in a casino in Cripple Creek, Colo., and didn’t know if he could survive another winter. Tombstone was just a place with a pleasant climate and promising prospects for an actor.

Once he arrived, he sized up the reenactment scene. In the daily show at the O.K. Corral, the dashing gunslingers were played by retirees.

“Last I read,” one unhappy tourist wrote to True West magazine, “Billy Clanton was not 50 years old, didn’t weigh 270 pounds, and didn’t have a flowing white beard and wear glasses.” (Clanton, the youngest gunslinger in the fight, was 19.)

Keith assembled his own troupe and persuaded the owners of the Corral to let him take over the show. Then Keith and his company decided to expand their repertoire.

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They added a 4:30 p.m. performance even though they knew that tourists cleared out of Tombstone well before sundown. They would lure them to their show with a “walk-down.”

The players saw it as a service to all of Tombstone because it gave visitors a reason to linger. At first, town leaders ruled that the Huckleberry Players were simply walking to work in character and didn’t need a performance permit.

But then Escapule took office, and the law came after Keith in the form of Talvy, the newly appointed marshal. Talvy had been away for a couple of years -- a member of the National Guard, he was deployed to the Mexican border, then Iraq. He was startled by what he found when he returned. The main tourist drag, he believed, was devolving into chaos.

“I just can’t afford to let anyone come around here and do things on their own,” Talvy said.

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The conflict has been covered prominently in the local paper (which Escapule owns), but folks are wary about discussing it. On a recent afternoon, the gun smoke was still clearing inside Six-Gun City, a restaurant where O.K. Corral shootings are reenacted by locals during the lunch hour. But when the grizzled gunslingers were asked about the dispute, they nervously deferred to the owner, Nora Carrafa.

“They should [allow] whatever they do for everybody,” Carrafa said. “That’s all.”

At another nearby gun show site called Helldorado Town, which includes a miniature golf course and petting zoo, owner Jaye Kukowski said even though Keith is a competitor, what’s happening to him is wrong.

“Pulling these guys off the street when the tourists absolutely loved it is like stabbing yourself in the foot,” Kukowski said.

Some local reenactors agree that Keith is different than your average cowboy. But that doesn’t mean he’s better, they add.

“The difference between him and most of the actors in town is that they are reenactment actors,” said George Turner, a retired Hollywood stuntman who goes by the name Tombstone Skip. “He’s a stage actor. It’s more melodrama stuff. When you’re doing reenacting, you have to be 100% accurate.”

Keith has vowed to fight in court, saying the citation is an infringement of his free speech rights. He turned down a plea deal that would have allowed him to get off with a $75 fine.

On a recent night, Keith and actor Impus Delectii (his legal name) watched “Tombstone” yet again in Keith’s small home.

As the movie played on his flat-screen television, Keith became melancholy during a scene in which a Shakespearean actor is killed in a stagecoach robbery and his companion scolds the citizenry for its indifference.

“That’s Tombstone,” Keith said. “You try to bring something fine into their ugly world, and they shoot you for it.”

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nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com


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