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Arizona Entertainment
Apacheland movie studio remembered Feb. 14 with diorama, lecture in Apache Junction
A diorama depicting Apacheland in its heyday is at the Superstition Mountain Museum in Apache Junction. (Photo special to Independent Newsmedia Inc. USA.)

Apacheland Movie Ranch, the iconic location for the shooting of television Westerns and films for 40 years that was destroyed by fire on Valentine’s Day in 2004, now lives again, captured through the diorama artistry of Queen Valley resident Tom Warnke and a group of dedicated collaborators.

On Valentine’s Day, Thursday, Feb. 14, the lifelike diorama, depicting Apacheland in its heyday, will take its place as the featured centerpiece of the new Apacheland Movie Ranch exhibit at the Superstition Mountain Museum in Apache Junction.

It will be on view free to the public following “Apacheland Alive,” that week’s free lecture at 2 p.m. by Apacheland alumnus Hank Sheffer.

The miniature model, capturing a moment in time when the Old West town was a dynamic location for shooting film and a tourist mecca for this area, as well, measures 5.6 feet by 3 feet and is built to a scale of 1/16th of an inch to one foot, N scale.

A backdrop panoramic photo mural depicts the exact angle on the Superstition Mountains seen from the site. The finishing touch was done by local photographer Lou Oats.

Mr. Warnke spent nearly 500 hours crafting the detailed scale model and its exhibit case. He was largely aided by information from Mr. Sheffer, who has authored two books on Apacheland.

“A large part of the credit for being able to include authentic details about Apacheland in the diorama goes to Hank,” Mr. Warnke said. “He generously walked the entire site with me and shared his personal recollections, and a lot of information and photographs so that we could get it right.”

Mr. Warnke added that Sue Birmingham, the last owner of the property, also provided three albums full of old photos.

Mr. Warnke, who divides his time nowadays between Queen Valley and Sheridan, Wyo., is a retired construction company owner, so building is in his blood and he knows construction from the ground up. This was far from the first diorama constructed by Mr. Warnke; he began his diorama building 25 years ago. What was a hobby then is a fulltime passion now in his retirement. Apacheland is the 18th diorama he has completed.

He has also constructed dioramas for other museums, including Sheridan County Museum in his hometown. He is finishing construction on No. 19, one of his most ambitious projects yet. A huge diorama, depicting the Battle of the Rosebud, the largest battle ever fought during the American Indian Wars, is nearing completion.

A history buff, Mr. Warnke said that he likes to study the local history of an area and event before he begins work on a diorama. He is a stickler for details and said he feels that building accurate and interesting dioramas is important because they provide graphic historical reproductions for posterity. “It is history for our young people to see,” he said.

He said he also enjoys the process of bringing of people together to accomplish his diorama projects. He cites the other people involved in the Apacheland diorama project as being Nancy and Robert Sorenson who hand painted the figurines in the diorama, Chris Coolidge of Queen Valley who helped enlarge and clarify the old photos, and Gold Canyon residents Mr. and Mrs. David Leach and Beth Wernhart who made monetary donations.

The Superstition Mountain Museum is at 4087 N. Apache Trail, four miles east of Apache Junction. It is open 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

For more information, visit www.superstitionmountainmuseum.org.

Editor’s note: Betty Swanson is a local writer who supplies press releases for the Superstition Mountain Museum.