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Culture Texas movie set used by John Wayne for 'Alamo' fading away

Texas movie set used by John Wayne for ‘Alamo’ fading away

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Robert Francis
Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

MICHAEL GRACZYK, Associated Press

BRACKETTVILLE, Texas (AP) — Time and Mother Nature are threatening to dismantle the Alamo. Not the original, but the replica 18th-century Spanish mission and Old West movie set John Wayne built for his Oscar-nominated 1960 movie and that for decades was a tourist mecca and film production site.

“It’s not just something that represents history to a movie set — it is now history for sure,” says Rich Curilla, the one-man curator and custodian of the now-closed Alamo Village.

Alamo Village, a 400-acre plot of land about 120 miles west of San Antonio, was carved out of a large ranch in the late 1950s for Wayne’s directorial debut. Starring Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie and Wayne as Davy Crockett, “The Alamo” had an estimated $12 million budget, huge for its time.

The 4-foot-thick Alamo facade was modeled off a 1936 map of the historic building — drawn up for the Texas centennial that year — and set construction took nearly two years. Unlike the real Alamo, which is dwarfed by taller buildings in the heart of San Antonio, the view from Wayne’s Alamo offered a panorama of iconic Texas and Western images.

“To Hollywood, a movie set is just a means to an end,” said Curilla, a film and Alamo historian who spent his summers in college during the late 1960s at the site and began working there full-time in 1988. “I think Wayne was cognizant of building a monument and not just a movie set.”

In its heyday, Wayne’s Alamo hosted Jimmy Stewart, Dean Martin, Raquel Welch and even Willie Nelson. It’s where James Arness reprised his famous Matt Dillon role in a “Gunsmoke” TV movie.

In all, nearly 40 major film and TV productions, plus hundreds of commercials, documentaries and music videos were shot at Alamo Village. And musical shows, comedy skits and staged gunfights drew hundreds of tourists daily.

“It was magical,” said Penny Loewen, who was 18 in 1979 when she arrived from tiny St. Francisville, Illinois. She stayed for three years, getting paid $350 a month to sing and perform six days a week, 11 hours a day.

“We would do just about anything,” the 55-year-old retired Nashville songwriter who remained involved with movie productions for 20 years said. “That was the most fun I ever had in my life.”

Business at Alamo Village began to wane in the 1980s when traffic along the main east-west route through South Texas shifted north with completion of Interstate 10. It closed to the public after the last remaining owner died in 2009 and the property was divided among heirs. The land now primarily is used for cattle grazing and hunting.

In recent years, a large crack has developed on the front of the Alamo facade. A tree grows inside. Other walls and structures that have been replaced or redone are failing.

At the main entrance to the ranch, only an abandoned ticket booth and a weathered sign telling visitors they’re entering the world’s largest outdoor movie set hint at its storied past.

“The weather and elements are taking a toll on it,” Texas Film Commission Director Heather Page said. “I think it would be disappointing to lose something like that.”

Corpus Christi businessman David Jones, 74, envisions saving Alamo Village as a Texas version of Old Tucson, a thriving Old West theme park in southern Arizona.

Jones, who describes himself as a lifelong friend of the former owners, says he’s close to raising the $8 million he believes is necessary to buy the property and ready it for visitors. The remote location won’t be a deterrent, Jones says, noting that Big Bend National Park, some 200 miles to the west, typically draws more than 300,000 visitors a year.

“The place really needs to be more than preserved,” he said. “It needs to be rehabilitated. … It has two icons, John Wayne and the Alamo, known to everybody all over the world.”

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