An iconic map of an iconic place -- The Ponderosa Ranch (Autry Collections Photo)
An iconic map of an iconic place -- The Ponderosa Ranch (Autry Collections Photo)

A “Burning Controversy” Around the Bonanza Map

Talk about a “burning controversy.” A comment from a Trading Posts reader this week prompted us to take another look at a famous map in our collection that is perhaps one of the most widely seen in history.

The map is of the Ponderosa, the Nevada property where plot of Bonanza, one of the most successful television Western series ever, supposedly unfolded. From September 1959 to February 1973, audiences saw this map every week in the opening credits of the Paramount Television show that aired on NBC. It appeared briefly before it burst into flames, dissolving into a shot of all four members of the Cartwright family riding up to the screen as the strains of the show’s famous theme played in the background — and it did this for 14 seasons and 431 episodes, for audiences around the world.The show starred Lorne Greene (1915–1987) as widowed father Ben Cartwright; Pernell Roberts (1928–2010) as urbane Adam Cartwright, the oldest son; Dan Blocker (1928–1972) as soft-​hearted Eric “Hoss” Cartwright, the middle son; and Michael Landon (1936–1991) as the hot-​headed youngest son. The series, mostly shot in a studio, was known more for its family dramas and for addressing contemporary themes than for western vistas and traditional cowboy action story lines. But the map of the Ponderosa was seared into the audience’s consciousness, almost as if it were another character.

The original of that map, a hand-​painted, monumental work, was donated to the Autry after Bonanza producer David Dortort died in September 2010. It had hung in his home until then. Now it is part of the Autry’s permanent collection, hanging in the Imagination gallery.

But something seemed amiss to Janet Hunteman, a film history major at Clemson University.

“The map you have attached to this website, posted by luckygrrr May 25, 2011, is NOT the one originally used for the television show,” she wrote in the comments. “Where is the original map?”

An urgent question indeed. Hunteman said in her message that there are several “tells” or giveaways from the first few episodes that showed differences between the map hanging in the gallery and the one that appeared in the show’s credits.

Still of the cast of Bonanza, from a comic book (Autry Collections Photo)

“The primary tell on the one you picture is the Cartographer’s Legend,” Hunteman wrote me. “Yours is much larger and denser in inking. The map on the original air date is finer and lighter. Also, several of the icon images (farmer, miner, houses, etc.) have different substance in regards to sizing and inking.”

Well, there was no questioning the provenance on the map in the gallery: it had come from the family of the originator of the show, who had made a point of keeping this important piece of television history in his own home. The map is a beauty, hand-​drawn in intense colors by Robert Temple Ayres, a Paramount employee. And late in 2011, Ayres himself, accompanied by several members of his family, visited his creation at the Autry and authenticated it.

But was there something to Hunteman’s claims?

“I think she is right that the version used in the original episodes is slightly different,” said Jeffrey Richardson, the Autry’s Gamble curator of Western history, popular culture, and firearms, who was closely involved with bringing the map to the Autry. “The map we have is the original production painting. Like all original production art, the final product used is a variation of the original piece.”

The original handwritten pilot for “Bonanza” (Autry Photo)

Richardson pointed out that another Autry exhibit, a Norman Rockwell painting used for the promotion of the Gary Cooper movie Along Came Jones (1945), also differs in minor details from the image used in the posters that advertised it.

Indeed, it’s not unusual for an original piece of art commissioned for a production to suffer minor changes between canvas and Silver Screen. Doug Cumming, a film industry art director who worked on Disturbia (2007), The Kite Runner (2008), and I Am Number Four (2011), said it’s possible many prints or copies of the map were used in making the iconic take in which flames consume the map. And it’s also possible that, for the sake of the take, alterations might have been made, including making features bigger or smaller.

“The one in the credits would have been just one of them,” Cumming said. “They would probably have experimented with different paper to see how it burns. They would have had some that were just blanks to see how the paper would burn and how it would look on film.”

Not to mention the number of takes that might have been required to get just the right kind of photogenic flame.

“There would have been a lot of takes,” he said. “It’s all about how it looks to the camera.”

A sentiment echoed by Ayres himself, when he was asked about the odd orientation of the map. The way it looks on the credits, due north is off in a west-​northwest direction and Reno to the west of Carson City — not, as in reality, to the north. To look at the map in its correct orientation, one would have to flip it on its side, with the “horn” of the Ponderosa pointing upward. When Ayres visited the Autry, he acknowledged that accommodations had to be made for camera aesthetics. Hence the oddly pointed compass.

Richardson praised Hunteman’s powers of observation.

“Nice catch by the individual that there are differences with the map shown during season 1,” he said. “But there is no doubt that what we have is the original production painting.”

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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.