The streets where Wyatt Earp and his "posse" reached for their Colt 45s during the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral are once more being disturbed by battling troupes of rival gunslingers. In Tombstone, Arizona, a bitter row has broken out over the right to perform historic re-enactments of the shoot-out, which took place in 1881 and was later immortalised by Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and countless Hollywood stars.
The battle once more pits mercenary cowboys against the forces of law and order. It has been brewing since before Christmas, when a new mayor strode into town and promptly banned actors from performing on his streets without a permit. Dusty Escapule, elected by Tombstone's 1,500 residents, enacted the law to prevent fallings-out between groups of actors who have for decades trawled the town's main drag in Wild West costume to entice tourists to their shows.
The move was prompted by criticism of the Huckleberry Players, a troupe which began performing in the former mining town south-east of Tucson three years ago, and had upset both local store-keepers and the organisers of less-successful rival shows by allegedly "poaching" customers.
It first made headlines in January, when four costumed members of the Huckleberry Players were accosted by Tombstone's marshal Larry Talvy while attempting to persuade a group of tourists to attend their show, which is staged at the very OK Corral of Earp's shoot-out. They were charged with "organising an illegal street performance," a crime that carries a sentence of up to two years in jail and a fine of $600.
However the case, which has yet to reach court, has since become a cause célèbre in Tombstone's dusty streets, many of which are closed to traffic and still contain the historic buildings which bore witness to the shoot-out 127 years ago.
To their critics and competitors, the Huckleberry Players were flagrantly ignoring the law in a manner akin to that of the infamous Clanton and McLaury brothers, the notorious ne'er-do-wells who were gunned down by Earp and his colleagues. "I can't just afford to let anyone come round here and do things on their own," explained Marshal Talvy, when the Los Angeles Times asked him about the prosecution.
But many other locals say the Huckleberry Players, who perform at 4.30pm, help keep tourists in town later in the day. Their show, which features professional actors, is also credited with persuading many punters to stop in Tombstone in the first place. "Pulling these guys off the street when the tourists absolutely loved it is like stabbing yourself in the foot," said Jaye Kukowski, the owner of a local attraction called Helldorado Town, complete with miniature golf course and petting zoo. Stephen Keith, who founded the Huckleberry Players three years ago, claims that rival local performers with no theatre experience simply didn't like seasoned veterans coming into town and making their shows look amateurish. "Every old guy who retires and ties his white ponytail back and puts his name on his pick-up truck comes here to be Wyatt Earp," he told the LA Times. "I know how to work a crowd. I've been in theatre for 32 years. This is what I do."
Keith plays Wyatt Earp's colleague Doc Holliday in re-enactments of the famous gunfight, which represented the culmination of a long-running feud between Tombstone residents and so-called "cowboys" blamed for stealing livestock in the surrounding countryside.
The shoot-out, on 26 October 1881, saw Earp, Holliday, and Earp's brothers Virgil and Morgan – who were representatives of the Tombstone marshal's office – battle Frank and Tom McLaury, and Ike and Billy Clanton. All three of the "baddies" were killed, three of their opponents were wounded. Wyatt Earp was the only man left unscathed.
Although many other shoot-outs ended with more people being killed, the dramatic nature of the Gunfight at the OK Corrall – it lasted just 30 seconds, took place in broad daylight, and all combatants emptied their firearms – saw it feature in dozens of Hollywood movies. Today, it still represents a potent symbol of the historic tension between lawlessness and order in the old Wild West.