TOMBSTONE: THE TOWN TOO TOUGH TO DIE
A Travel in Hyperreality to find a DOC HOLLIDAY
By Tyler Malone
Years ago, the writer Umberto Eco took his travels in hyperreality across the good ole U. S. of A. and discovered, unsurprisingly, that America has a fascination with what he terms “the absolute fake.” The absolute fake positions itself as something to replace or act-in-place-of what is both real and absent. It becomes, in effect, more real than real, while remaining at its core a false approximation. To be more specific, he is referencing our love of reproductions, of replicas, of reenactments, of wax museums, of holograms, of so-called “fortresses of solitude.” Think Colonial Williamsburg, Knott’s Berry Farm, or any “ghost town” that’s become an “attraction.” Think Disneyland, Hearst Castle, and Civil War reenactments. Think of all the replicas, wax or otherwise, of people and paintings and sculptures (“Between San Francisco and Los Angeles I was able to visit seven wax versions of Leonardo’s Last Supper,” Eco confesses to us in his book Travels in Hyperreality). As he explains: “the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake.”
Think Tombstone, Arizona: the infamous “Town Too Tough To Die.” Once a real boomtown in the Wild West, then transformed into a “real” boomtown in the Wild West (revamped as a tourist recreation of a historical place, reconstituted as an absolute fake).
You probably know a bit of the history: Tombstone was a silver-mining town that gained its place in our culture’s collective imagination due to events that transpired in 1881 around the corner from a spot called the O.K. Corral. The “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” which occurred between the Earps and the Clantons, was, in actuality, a minor shootout lasting only 30 seconds, and didn’t really make any lasting impact on the American consciousness until the 1930s when author Stuart Lake published a (mostly fictionalized) biography of Wyatt Earp titled Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall.
America became entranced by this near-forgotten story rather quickly; it was turned into a film (John Ford’s My Darling Clementine) in 1946, and another film version was made a decade later (John Sturges’ Gunfight at the O.K. Corral). It wasn’t until the Sturges film, almost 80 years after that brief but deadly dust-up, that the gunfight gained its famous name: “the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” Soon after the Struges film, in 1961, Tombstone received its designation as a National Historic Landmark District (“as one of the best preserved specimens of the rugged frontier town of the 1870s and ’80s”).
I grew up on two more recent films inspired by the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, both released in the ’90s: Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994). Though both films are decent, Tombstone is definitely the better of the two, in this film critic’s humble opinion–and much of the credit for its superiority should go to Val Kilmer’s scene-stealing performance as Doc Holliday. He’s your huckleberry.
Ever since we saw Tombstone, my brother Kelsey and I had wanted to visit the “real” Tombstone, knowing it was now a tourist trap (which recreated hyperrealistically the days of the O.K. Corral, with actors even acting out the gunfight daily), but intrigued nonetheless. The American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake.
Though my brother and I had done quite a bit of traveling together over the years, we never made it down to Tombstone. What finally persuaded us to go out of our way to visit the wholly hyperreal town was a clip from The Colbert Report where Stephen Colbert–as usual out-O’Reilly-ing Bill O’Reilly–relays the story of Stephen Keith in a segment called “Difference Makers.” Stephen Keith was the actor playing Doc Holliday in the O.K. Corral street show, and at some point he was given a summons for performing in the streets of Tombstone without a permit. Stephen Keith is simultaneously creepy and loveable, funny and sad, too good to be true and too fake to be good. He tries, through his interactive street theater, to give people “enchanted moments, the little pieces of magic where for a second, a split second, you forget it’s not real.” He is a living embodiment of Eco’s absolute fake. He lives and breathes his Doc Holliday character probably better and more naturally than he lives and breathes his own self (though that isn’t to say he’s a good or natural actor with any real talent, but rather that he’s just that dedicated to the fiction). And, what is perhaps even more pertinent to the concepts of “hyperreality” and “the absolute fake,” is that, due to the fictionalized nature of much of what we know of the gunfight, Stephen Keith’s Doc Holliday is in a way more “real,” more “Doc Holliday,” than Doc Holliday was himself.
At one point in The Colbert Report clip, he compares the law that prohibits him from performing as Doc Holliday on the streets to, in his words, “a law that says you can chain up a black man and force him to pick cotton and make him get a lawyer to prove there’s the 13th amendment.”
“What?!?!” I can almost hear you shout. Yes, it seems unbelievable, but please watch the video, and you’ll see for yourself. This kind of eccentricity can’t be adequately described, it can only be witnessed.
When my brother and I finally trekked down to Tombstone, during a weekend celebration called Wyatt Earp Days–which brought even more tourists than usual, but also even more recreated gunfights–we didn’t think Stephen Keith would still be there. After all, it had been a couple years since the Colbert segment aired, and at the end of the segment Keith contemplates heading to Tortuga and “starting a pirate show.” Could he have ditched the town too tough to die and gone elsewhere? Could he perhaps be performing as Juliet again? (In the video, he admits to having performed as “Juliet once,” one of mine and my brother’s favorite quotes from Keith’s Colbert appearance.)
Kelsey and I wandered through the O.K. Corral, which was as cheesy, or even cheesier, than we had imagined. When there aren’t active gunfight reenactments underway, there are animatronic Earps and Clantons ever-repeating the infamous altercation with clunky robotic moves under a speaker that broadcasts a lifeless audio narration. We were having fun (as we always do together), but we had begun to wonder if the trip had been worth it, until suddenly something put our skepticism in check: we saw Stephen Keith, in character as Doc Holliday, walking the streets of Tombstone.
My brother yelled out, “Doc, Doc Holliday.” He didn’t turn around. “Should we call him Stephen?” we wondered aloud to one another.
“No! He’s Doc Holliday. Perhaps he just didn’t hear you.”
Kelsey caught up to him, with me following behind, and grabbed at Stephen/Doc, who quickly turned around and unholstered his gun, pointing it at my brother. My brother put up his arms: ole cowpoke sign language for “I mean you no harm.”
We asked him to take a picture with us, and he obliged, pretending the whole time that the camera didn’t really make sense to him. Of course, in the play going on in his head, it was an anachronism. Doc Holliday was with us, strangely, living in 1881 (but in 2011!)–Stephen Keith was doing “the craft,” acting. He gave us an “enchanted moment.”
My brother said to him, “I look forward to the gunfight later.” (We had tickets to see the main Tombstone gunfight performance in the afternoon).
“Whatever do you mean?” Doc Holliday wondered back at him with his off-putting, dandified lilt.
“The gunfight. We can’t wait.”
“I sincerely hope there’s no gunfight.”
We were a little confused for a second because we were sure he would have been in the gunfight we bought tickets for.
And then, as he turned to walk away, he gave us his signature creepy wink, and he said under his breath, “But then again, you never know.”
Tombstone, AZ is a city in Cochise County, Arizona, United States, founded in 1879 by Ed Schieffelin. From about 1877 to 1890, the town’s mines produced USD $40 to $85 million in silver bullion, the largest productive silver district in Arizona. Its population grew from 100 to around 14,000 in less than 7 years. In 1881, it became the county seat of the new Cochise County. Also, in 1881, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral happened, which forever placed the town in American Wild West lore.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Tyler Malone
Design by Devon Pentz
“Graves at Boothill Cemetery,” Tombstone, AZ, May 2011, Photography by Tyler Malone
“Tombstone Welcome Sign,” Tombstone, AZ, May 2011, Photography by Tyler Malone
“Kelsey Malone, Stephen Keith/Doc Holliday & Tyler Malone,” Tombstone, AZ, May 2011, Photography by Unknown Nearby Tourist
“Shots of Stephen Keith as Doc Holliday during the Reenactment of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” Tombstone, AZ, May 2011, Photography by Tyler Malone
“A Scene from the Reenactment of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” Tombstone, AZ, May 2011, Photography by Tyler Malone
“Shootout on Allen Street,” Tombstone, AZ, May 2011, Photography by Tyler Malone
“All Dressed Up,” Tombstone, AZ, May 2011, Photography by Tyler Malone
“Grave of George Johnson in Boothill Cemetery,” Tombstone, AZ, May 2011, Photography by Tyler Malone