It may be high noon for Apacheland Movie Ranch's legacy of Hollywood cowboy and Elvis Presley memorabilia. The sprawling Western movie and TV filming location just outside Apache Junction was the location of the 1960s Elvis film Charro!, Audie Murphy's last film, A Time For Dying, and such classic Western TV shows as The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel and Rawhide. After a fire last year, owners Ed and Sue Birmingham sold the ranch to housing developers. Now its Hollywood artifacts are in the middle of a shootout between the Birminghams and decadelong Apacheland memorabilia collector Phil Rauso.
The Birminghams, Superstition Mountain Museum Director George Johnston and Rauso had agreed to work together to move an old chapel used in Charro! down the road to the Superstition museum. Once rebuilt on museum property, the chapel was supposed to have been turned into a tourist attraction and stocked with Rauso's collection of such Apacheland memorabilia as posters, original films and cowboy star boot prints set in concrete.
Nearly $30,000 in donations was collected for the project. But now the Birminghams have accused Rauso, who ran the museum at Apacheland, of being a memorabilia rustler. And Rauso has pulled out of the venture, taking most of his collection with him. He and rancher Wayne Richardson plan to open their own museum about a mile away and develop a Western town tourist attraction similar to Apacheland, called Gunsmoke.
"(They're) demanding I give them everything I ever collected, claiming it was all stolen," Rauso said. "The only thing that makes any sense is that these people wanted my collection in their (museum) and they want to take it all away from me."
The Birminghams also say Rauso has auctioned off such reportedly stolen items as concrete boot prints of Warren Oates from The Wild Bunch and Jock Mahoney from Yancy Derringer on eBay, and say he's using their name and Apacheland's name to legitimize his collection activities.
"He knows better, but he figures it's all his," said Sue Birmingham, whose father bought the movie ranch site in the 1950s, built it in 1960 and sold it to her in the mid-1970s. "He's selling stuff that doesn't belong to him, and the only way it could be sold was if it was stolen from Apacheland."
Last week, Birmingham sent Rauso letters threatening legal action unless he hands over the memorabilia. But it may be difficult to prove what, if anything, was stolen.
"The big differences I have with him are what the hell is ours and what the hell is his?" Johnston said. "No one knows but Phil."
The Apacheland lot and sets were plundered beginning in the 1970s as tourists, collectors, crooks and squatters loaded up, Sue Birmingham said.
Rauso claimed the Birminghams never conducted an inventory of Apacheland and have no way of knowing what they had at the site, what was sold off over the years to pay off debts and what was destroyed in the fire. He said he never took anything from Apacheland without approval but bought most of his collection online from others and has seen the original bill of sale from Apacheland for some of it. The authenticity of some of the items themselves is also proving controversial, for both parties.
The latest memorabilia Rauso is set on acquiring - Elvis concrete boot prints recently unearthed in New Mexico - may be of dubious authenticity. They supposedly were made during the Charro! filming and are worth much more than $10,000, Rauso said. The Birminghams and Johnston have no recollection of the prints.
"I guarantee there are no Elvis prints. I was there," said Ed Birmingham, who called the prints phony. "Now, if he wants to say Steve McQueen's boot prints, that's different. (They) were there."
Rauso claims his source had old sales bills from a father who worked as an extra at Apacheland decades ago and bought the prints and other items.
"All the signatures (on the prints) are legitimate," Rauso said. "Maybe (the boot prints) were made elsewhere, but they did film there."
A Web site questions the authenticity of the chapel now being rebuilt at the Superstition museum. The steeple in the movie looks different than the steeple on the current chapel.
Ed Birmingham said the steeple blown up in the movie was a stunt double used just for Charro!. It was replaced after filming with the original steeple. A new vestibule and entrance were later added and change the look of the chapel, but Birmingham said the main body of the building is the same one used in the film.
Source: Google / Updated: Oct 6, 2005