Father Knows West

When warehouse manager Patrick Kellum got married, he did so dressed as "Wild Bill" Hickok, with his wife Chris done up as Sally Jensen. When a friend "objected" to the marriage, they gunned him down during the ceremony.

Such is life for a gunfighter.

Since 1993, The Arizona Gunfighters, who will perform in the 10th annual Father's Day show at Mesa's Rockin' R Ranch, have been showing the state of Arizona how the West was won.

"Big Jim" Robson and his wife "Sweet Mary" own and operate the Rockin' R, a former working ranch that has been in the family for three generations. They also perform with the Rockin' R Wranglers, a band made up of several members of the Robson family and a national champion fiddle player.

The Father's Day show will feature a barbecue dinner with music from the Rockin' R Wranglers, followed by the story of "Wild Bill" Hickok (featuring Kellum) and a dramatization of the famous shootout at the OK Corral. The show incorporates actors who play out every part of life in the Old West. There are townsfolk, a preacher, the mayor and even shopkeepers." We cover the streets; that's what makes it believable," says Kellum. "We try to make it feel like you're really there."

Ranging in age from 10 to 70, the gunfighters are about 80 members strong, 23 of whom are women. Founder Bob Charnes, a former sheriff and movie stuntman, says he started the group with his wife Dale so they could "play cowboy and entertain people at the same time."

But that's not to say Charnes and his gunfighters are all play. "This is more than guys running around shooting at each other," he insists. With Charnes, it's not just about the gunfight, it's about the "how and why" of the story, which he loves to tell. "You see, 99 percent of what people know about the Old West is from Hollywood," he claims, "but 99 percent of what you see in Hollywood is wrong."

Charnes started working with Kellum in Northern California with a similar group called Legends of the American West. Charnes convinced him to come to Arizona, and Kellum has been playing "Wild Bill" ever since. But according to Kellum, the real performer in the family is his wife. "I'm good at what I do, but my wife Chris — she's better," he says.

And while Charnes admits that he's a stickler for historical accuracy, he understands the need for occasional historic license, as in the case of the famous shootout at the OK Corral — which, according to him, actually took place around the corner.

"After all, who's going to see a movie called 'Shoot Out at the Vacant Lot Next to the Harwood House'?" he asks. "It just doesn't have the same flair."

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Quetta Carpenter