Quiet on the Set

Fade to Black at Old Tucson.

There wasn't much that Greg DiBenedetti wasn't willing to do for Don Diamond and Donald Pitt at their Old Tucson theme park.

He set himself on fire and hurled himself through the air. He fell 27 feet from the Mission. He dug ditches. He worked 13- and 14-hour days. He gave Old Tucson the rights to his face, his talent, his sweat. Though sympathetic, he stayed away from upset co-workers when they explored a unionizing, only to be canned one Christmas Eve. He'd slug it out with other actors and stuntmen in front of enthralled crowds, only be told by the Diamond and Pitt managers--out of touch and hypersensitive--that the staged fights needed to be toned down so they wouldn't offend anyone.

He tolerated the lack of heaters last winter and no air conditioning in the summer. He didn't complain when autocratic bosses demanded that he and others get back into their gunfighter wardrobe for forgotten photo shoots after the crew had already cleaned up and changed to go home.

"I loved Old Tucson," DiBenedetti said. "I just loved being at Old Tucson and entertaining people."

Whether it was to strike awe into the crowd with a stunt or to give someone a break from reality, DiBenedetti was happy to oblige.

"The job itself was wonderful. Seeing somebody smile, knowing that you helped lighten their day just a little, was very rewarding. It was the way we were treated and the politics of the place that was tough to take."

Pete Mangelsdorf, the MBA installed by Diamond and Pitt to be Old Tucson's chief executive, professes his appreciation for stuntmen. But it was commonly discussed among these actors that Mangelsdorf thought little of their skills--an accusation Mangelsdorf denies.

"We value all our employees," Mangelsdorf said.

He didn't value them enough to keep them from new jobs or unemployment.

Diamond and Pitt, two of Arizona's richest men, are in default on Old Tucson's lease with Pima County and have failed to pay $172,000 in back rent. They ordered Mangelsdorf to drop the hammer on DiBenedetti and most of the park's 270 employees on May 29 with layoff notices.

Only a skeleton crew was necessary because Mangelsdorf quickly followed another Diamond-Pitt directive to shutter the once-famous movie set--and top tourist attraction--to all but a tiny schedule to include guided tours for which almost no one is willing to pay the nearly $15 admission.

Young, energetic and devoted to Old Tucson and its stunt performances, DiBenedetti is now selling motorcycles. There isn't a great demand for stuntmen and budding actors, particularly since Diamond and Pitt diminished Old Tucson's once-coveted place as a movie location. They did so, with complete acquiescence by the Board of Supervisors, by their refusal to rebuild Old Tucson's movie sets and soundstage after a fire ripped through the park on April 24, 1995.

DiBenedetti, a Salpointe Catholic High School graduate, was just completing his freshman year when that fire leveled the main movie shooting streets and buildings. And although he was only 5 when Diamond and Pitt, orchestrated a buyout of Old Tucson, DiBenedetti has learned enough about the steady stream of movies filmed at Old Tucson to hold its former owner, Bob Shelton, in high esteem.

Shelton didn't dumb-down the routines to include farts and other potty humor. And he didn't all but close the park in the summer.

DiBenedetti is one of several stuntmen who have spoken to The Weekly about their jobs at Old Tucson. He is the only one who's unafraid to have his name included.

A longtime drama student, DiBenedetti hoped to expand into physical roles when he signed up at Old Tucson a few months after graduating from Salpointe. He entered the University of Arizona's media arts program at the same time, but his real passion was acting and learning stunt techniques at Old Tucson.

Lineups spun in and out faster than the public turnstile, but DiBenedetti was determined to learn and work. He caught on quickly. By his third day, he was in shows, fighting, "taking" bullets and entertaining crowds that wanted action after Old Tucson re-opened in 1997.

"I loved every minute of it," he said.

DiBenedetti soaked up the life. He learned about explosives, the big falls and even how to set himself on fire for the shows in the annual Halloween "Nightfall" features.

He and others worked up to 14 hours a day. There was no overtime despite regular 48-hour weeks. His face and talent were used for Old Tucson's benefit in numerous commercials and for an ESPN2 promotion, when the sports network was in town for one of the last Copper/Insight.com bowls.

He landed a minor speaking role in one of the rare movies filmed at Old Tucson in recent years, a yet-to-be-released Western horror first called The Reckoning and now known as Ghost Rock. For that, he earned his Screen Actors Guild card.

But these are hardly the days of Bob Shelton, when half a dozen movies were simultaneously in various stages of production at Old Tucson.

Mangelsdorf and Terry Pollock, an Old Tucson mouthpiece, tried to reverse a stampede of bad press by recently hyping a movie that purported to feature Sam Elliot and Pam Grier. It was, the claims went, based on the storyline that Jesse James had an illegitimate African-American daughter who rode with her own bad-ass gang. Despite a casting call that generated words and photos in Tucson's daily media, the project was illusory--the fruit of someone with a flash roll of cash.

Along with new skills, DiBenedetti said he learned "not to complain. You really didn't want to piss off anybody. They treated us like puppets."

On May 29, DiBenedetti and others were told that they would be turned loose or put on some vague on-call list. In a move that skirts rules for unemployment, Old Tucson forced its employees to choose between some on-the-come work or no work.

"They pulled the entertainers aside and told us that we had the option of terminating or going on the on-call list," DiBenedetti said. "I said, 'That's it. I'm done.' And damn it, I miss it. I miss doing stunts out there. I miss the people. I remember as a child being enthralled by those shows, the action, the stunts. Then I saw that from the kids when I was doing the stunts."

Diamond and Pitt had installed some of their children as Old Tucson executives, giving rise to the muted complaint among park veterans that it was purchased--for $3.5 million--as "toy for the kids that broke and is ignored."

The Diamond and Pitt legal posse is in court and lobbying county supervisors, each of whom they have greatly aided in political campaigns, to get out of the provisions of the lease.

Litigator Lindsay Brew has filed an answer to the county's lawsuit in which he claims it is the county's fault that Old Tucson is not making money. Programs, proposals and building projects necessary to make money have been unfairly rejected by county officials, Brew said.

In separate negotiations, Diamond and Pitt want to spread $160,000 in late rent payment over 20 years and all but eliminate basic rent while promising a high cut on higher revenues. They also vow to contribute $500,000 to the construction of a new sound stage.

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