Ayres with his famous map (Photo by Tessie Borden)
Ayres with his famous map (Photo by Tessie Borden)

The “Bonanza” Map: Artist and Icon Reunited

Last Friday, we at the Autry got a rare chance to reunite an artist with his work. Robert Temple Ayres, the artist who originally drew the map of the legendary Ponderosa Ranch for the TV western “Bonanza” visited his creation for the first time in decades.

Robert Temple Ayres talks with Jeffrey Richardson, Autry associate curator for popular culture, in front of Ayres’ map of the Ponderosa (Photo by Tessie Borden)

The “Bonanza” map, which opened the credits for the NBC series that ran from September 1959 to February 1973, for years was one of the most recognized maps in the world. Audiences saw it briefly appear every week before it burst into flames and dissolved into a shot of the members of the Cartwright family riding forth on their steeds as the twangy theme played. It was donated by the family of producer David Dortort and has been hanging in the Autry’s Imagination Gallery since mid-​May.

The Friday visit was a chance for a family get-​together, so various relatives accompanied Ayres, who turns 98 on Thursday, July 28.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake!” Ayres said when the group came around the corner, his son pushing his wheelchair.“I had no idea where that had gone.”

Ayres said he no longer remembers how long it took him to draw the map, which features not only the real Nevada place names, but embellishments like a tiny stagecoach and a gold-​panning miner near a creek.

“It wouldn’t be too involved,” Ayres said. “It’s not the sort of thing that takes a lot of time.”

Ayres with his famous map (Photo by Tessie Borden)

The map is oriented differently from most other maps, whose true north points up. Here, north points diagonally, toward the left. Ayres said there was a reason for that.

“The placement of the Ponderosa and the lake, I wanted it as I envisioned it the layout so it would go good on the screen,” Ayres said. “But I did put the compass rose on there to explain that.”

Ayres said seeing the map again made him revisit his memories of working at Paramount Studios, where the show was produced. He said there was a gym on campus where he used to work out at noon every day, and Michael Landon also often came in at that time.

“They were a friendly bunch,” Ayres said of the cast of the show.

Ayres made no royalties from his iconic work. He said company executives asked him to sign a release of any financial interests in it when it became clear the map would be reproduced for different purposes.

“I had to sign a release of any financial interest in the project,” he said. “I thought twice about it, but I wanted my job there at Paramount.”

Ayres said he never imagined his map, as well as the show, would become so famous.

“It was just part of the job you do at the studio,” he said. “Lots of times we were creating different things. (We had) no idea that show would be so successful.”

Here are the show credits:

[youtube http://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​m​j​d​R​g​B​A​Y​2​7​8​&​a​m​p​;​w​=​4​2​5​&​a​m​p​;​h​=​349]

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About the author

Tessie Borden is a former newspaper journalist. She writes about the arts in light of the cultural and political history of the Americas, the American West and California.