Bird Cage Theater Museum
Our tour guide, who called himself "Doc," was dressed as a 19th century cowboy. "Everything in this building is original," he advised us, over and over. "This is not restoration or a reconstruction. It's a preservation." He told us that over and over, too.
Doc and the other personnel at the Bird Cage Theater Museum are intent on making these distinctions because, if you listen to some people, almost everything else in Tombstone is fake. Or at least, not as real as the Bird Cage Theater Museum. "This the only building on Allen St. that is original," Doc told us, drawing the distinction still sharper.
Original is a magic word for hard-core fans of the Old West, and the Bird Cage Theater Museum is a pilgrimage destination because it is so very original. Built of cement, not wood, it survived the fires that burned everything else to the ground in Tombstone in the early 1880s. When it closed its doors in 1889, everything inside was left in place. The doors weren't opened again until 1934, and when they were, Tombstone found itself with a perfect window into its past.
And what a view! The Bird Cage Theater was "party central," as Doc put it, the town's most infamous bawdy house, home to everything that still makes Tombstone a tourist magnet: colorful characters, hair-raising stories, violence, and sex. The "bird cages" were private boxes near the ceiling of the bar/casino, where prostitutes plied their trade for $25 a night. "That wallpaper, and those red velvet curtains?" Doc asked us, pointing to the boxes. "All original."
Frankly, the originality of the Bird Cage Theater Museum means that it's dark, shopworn, and a little dreary -- which, to be fair, is probably an accurate view of the Old West. But we weren't here for the authenticity; we were here for the museum exhibits.
We were especially anxious to see the Tombstone Merman, a small, mummified creature in a glass box just inside of the entrance. Doc, otherwise a font of expert knowledge, couldn't explain how the Merman got here, so very far from a mer-friendly body of water (We guess that not many Wild West fans ask about it.). The best Doc could offer was a firm opinion that the Merman was not here in 1889, but arrived some time after 1934, donated by a local who wanted to exhibit it in what passed for the town museum. [RA: Our DB notes that Chinese businessman Quong Lee displayed this specimen in his Can Can Cafe, and donated it to the Bird Cage in 1934. It may have also been on loan over at the Gator Marine Museum before it closed.]
Other exhibits caught our wandering eye as well: Doc Holliday's dental chair, and the Imminent Death Chair of Curley Bill, who was "recognized while getting a haircut in this chair" and shortly thereafter killed by Wyatt Earp, according to an accompanying sign. Also on display is the Black Moriah, Tombstone's horse-drawn hearse and the first vehicle with curved glass, according to our guide. "That's documented by the Ford Foundation," Doc assured us, and he estimated the Black Maria's value as "a little less than two million dollars." Less precious, but more memorable to us, was another exhibit -- the stiletto used by Gold Dollar to cut the beating heart out of a rival prostitute, Margarita, on the Bird Cage casino floor.
Doc took us downstairs to see the private bordello rooms used by high-rollers. ($40 a night.) "Notice how small the rooms are? How small the furniture is?" Doc asked us. "That's because people back then were smaller." Of course, everything in the rooms was "all original." Doc then turned our attention to a poker table where a high stakes card game had been continuously played, he assured us, for more than eight years. Next to it was a showroom dummy outfitted with a green rubber ghoul mask. "Is that original?" we asked, because sometimes we can't resist being smart alecks. "No," said Doc.
The Bird Cage Theater was a violent place. Back on the casino floor, a middle-aged woman dressed as a whore pointed to a large painting of a woman; she claimed the canvas had been shot and slashed many times. Doc told us that 26 people were killed here, and that the Bird Cage Theatre is considered to be the most haunted place in Tombstone -- an impressive distinction, given that ghosts are supposedly everywhere in town.
Doc prefers to not emphasize the spirits -- it draws attention away from the whole "original" thing -- but he does encourage visitors to check their snapshots for glowing orbs or howling specters. "I've got a whole drawer full of them," he told us. We were skeptical, but we thought enough of Doc to review our photos afterward. We did find one ghostly-smeared image, but it was caused by a pear-shaped German tourist who glided into one of our long-exposure shots.