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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This year marks Arizona's 100th anniversary of statehood. And the legend of Wyatt Earp has helped shape that century. The shootout at the O.K. Corral put the tiny desert town of Tombstone on the map. Arizona Public Radio's Gillian Ferris Kohl reports on why Marshall Earp and that gunfight loom so large in our understanding of the West.

GILLIAN FERRIS KOHL, BYLINE: In the late 1880's, a silver strike had turned the dusty town of Tombstone into a cosmopolitan hot spot. There were casinos, oyster bars and shops filled with the latest Paris fashions. But, when the silver ran out, Tombstone almost died. Only one thing has kept it alive for the last century: the shootout at the O.K. Corral which is re-enacted daily.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Y'all ready for a gunfight?

GROUP: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

KOHL: Thanks to books, TV shows and movies, the allure of Wyatt Earp has stood the test of time. Almost everybody goes through a cowboy phase. Tombstone resident Jay Clark has never outgrown his.

JAY CLARK: Seated in front of you is an 8-year-old trapped in the body of a 64-year-old.

KOHL: Clark is a retired forensic dentist turned historical re-enactor and tour guide. Dressed in head-to-toe period clothing, he sits in the shade of a gazebo right next to the O.K. Corral.

CLARK: We have a whole generation of people that grew up watching and wanting to be part of that great westward expansion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL")

BURT LANCASTER: (As Wyatt Earp) All gunfighters are lonely. They live in fear. They die without a dime or a woman or a friend.

KOHL: Burt Lancaster played Wyatt Earp in 1957. And Kevin Costner had his shot in '94.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WYATT EARP")

KEVIN COSTNER: (As Wyatt Earp) I'm Wyatt Earp.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Who?

COSTNER: Wyatt Earp.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Who the (bleep) is Wyatt Earp?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KOHL: But it's an actor much nearer and dearer to Wyatt Earp who's playing the role now.

WYATT EARP: My name is Wyatt Earp and I'm the great grand-nephew of Wyatt Earp.

KOHL: This Wyatt Earp lives in Phoenix and is the producer, director and sole actor of his stage show, Wyatt Earp: A Life on the Frontier.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOHL: It tells the lesser-known parts of his legendary uncle's life.

EARP: He was an amusing person, contrary to the stoic black and white image you get through the movies. And it wasn't all just about violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, WYATT EARP: A LIFE ON THE FRONTIER)

EARP: (As Wyatt Earp) Bad guy.

GROUP: Boo.

EARP: (As Wyatt Earp) Well, (Unintelligible) you're warmed up. Now, come on over here and (unintelligible).

KOHL: Even so, the famous gunfight is what drew Will and Lee Bolton to Tombstone from their home in New Albany, Indiana.

WILL BOLTON: She just turned 50 two days ago and her birthday present was to come to Tombstone.

LEE BOLTON: He's a Western buff beyond compare.

BOLTON: We both love the Old West, and this was something we always wanted to do.

KOHL: More than a century later, the 30-second gunfight at the O.K. Corral continues to draw more than half a million tourists to Tombstone every year.

For NPR News, I'm Gillian Ferris Kohl.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF WYATT EARP" THEME SONG)

GROUP: (Singing) Oh, Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp, brave, courageous and bold. Long live his fame and long live his glory and long live...

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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