Creator of ‘Bonanza’ map dies at 98
March 18, 2012
One of my favorite television series was “Bonanza.”
Set on the 600,000-acre Ponderosa Ranch on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe near Incline Village, the weekly NBC series consisted of 430 episodes that ran from 1959 to 1973.
The series involved the adventures of the fictional Cartright family, which was headed by patriarch Ben Cartright (played by Lorne Greene) and his sons, Adam (Pernell Roberts), Eric or “Hoss” (Dan Blocker) and Joseph or “Little Joe,” played by Michael Landon.
The show’s theme song also enthralled me. Titled “Saga of the Ponderosa,” it was sung by Johnny Cash and dedicated to the giant Ponderosa Pine tree, which was (and still is) found in abundance in the Sierra Nevada.
Bonanza was decidedly different from other TV westerns, for it dealt with a father (Ben) and his three dissimilar sons, how they cared for each other
and their friends, neighbors and ranch hands, and it delved into social issues such as racism toward blacks and Asians that was prevalent in Nevada
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and the West in the early 1900s, when the TV drama’s time period was set.
The Bonanza series had ended four years before my wife and I purchased the Lahontan Valley News in 1977, but reruns of the show were syndicated on television, and Ludie and I took our children to the ranch several times over the years to view first-hand where some of the filming took place. I
also traveled to the ranch in the late 1980s when the annual Nevada Press Association convention was being held on the property.
Many of the ranch buildings consisted of facades or false fronts, and the only parts of the ranch house that actually existed were the living room,
kitchen and office. The stairs leading to the second floor led nowhere because the upstairs bedrooms portrayed in the TV series were located on a
Hollywood sound stage where most of the interior filming took place. A replica of the ranch exterior also was created in Southern California, and
it was built on the shore of Lake Hemet which stood in for Lake Tahoe.
The ranch and surrounding property near Incline Village had become a major tourist attraction and theme park by the time the TV series had ended
following the death of Dan Blocker in 1972, but in 2004 the property’s owner, millionaire software developer David Duffield, closed it down for good.
Today, nearly 40 years after NBC’s cancellation of the long-running TV series, Bonanza is back in the news following the recent death of Robert
Temple Ayres, the famous Hollywood set designer and artist who created the iconic burning map of the Ponderosa Ranch that illustrated the opening
credits of each episode in the series.
Ayres, who died at his home in Southern California at the age of 98, had a lengthy career as an illustrator for several Hollywood studios and was a
cousin of film actress Shirley Temple. Exempted from World War II military service because of severe allergies, he served as a Pan American Airways navigator during the war years and later was a commercial artist who illustrated the “Golden Treasure of Bible Stories” and other books. His religious artwork landed him a job with MGM when the studio needed artists and set illustrators for the epic film “Ben-Hur.”
Ayres’ connection with Bonanza was clinched in 1959 when the series’ creators decided that a map of the ranch was needed to open each episode and
hired him to tackle the assignment. Ayres labored several weeks on the task, and he came up with a striking panoramic illustration that featured the Ponderosa Ranch, the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding communities of Virginia City and Carson City.
Temple’s map soon became one of the most recognized maps in the world. Audiences each week saw it burst into flames and dissolve into a shot of the Cartright family on horseback as the Ponderosa theme song rang out.
That scene of the flaming map appearing on our television screens will be remembered by millions of Bonanza fans. It can never be replicated.
• David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News.