Updated March 9, 2012 — Robert Temple Ayres, the artist who painted the original Ponderosa map featured on the TV show Bonanza, has died. He passed away on February 25 in Los Angeles, surrounded by friends and family. He was 98.
Ayres, who had a long career working as an illustrator for several Hollywood studios, was also a cousin of that more famous Temple, the actress Shirley Temple. But daughter Sharon Richards said her father was never one to play up details like that.“He was the most gentle, most non-judgmental person you ever met,” she said. “He was a very stable guy and so kind to everybody. He just had the respect and love of so many people who knew him.”
Ayres came from a family of artists and musicians: his mother was an artist and pianist, his sister a violinist, and his uncle Harry Temple a prominent painter in Woodstock, N.Y. Ayres himself drew and painted from childhood and always wanted to attend art school, but the Depression, and later World War II, intervened, delaying his training. He was a navigator in the service. Afterward, he trained with William H. Mosby at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, under Henry Lee McFee at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles and F. Tolles Chamberlin at Jepson’s Institute in Los Angeles, according to his website.
He broke into the business doing freelance illustrations for church bulletins and for publishers of Christian books. This work caught the attention of a family friend who told him MGM Studios, which was producing the movie Ben Hur at the time, was hiring artists, Richards said.
“He told my dad, ‘Why don’t you take some stuff down there?’” Richards said. “He went on location and they hired him right away.”
Shortly after that, Ayers won a contest for a mural he had painted at the studio’s commissary.
“At the time, he had to save up money just to buy popcorn at the drive-in,” Richards said. “But he won the contest and he came home with $100. It was like a million dollars to us.”
Richards said her father helped design the chariots for the movie Ben Hur and was often on loan to other studios. Over his 25-year career, he worked for MGM, Paramount, Warner Brothers, Seven Arts, Universal, and Disney Studios, according to the website.
“He was at Disney while Walt (Disney) was still alive,” Richards said. “He was on the third floor and Walt was on the fourth.”
Richards said she has fond memories of watching filming on the set of Bonanza, which she said was “like a big family.” She remembered one scene in which the actor Slim Pickenswas supposed to come down the stairs of the set in a pair of longjohns underwear. He felt a bit embarrassed because Richards and her mother were watching offstage.
As for his painting of the Ponderosa map that opens the credits to Bonanza, the NBC series that ran from September 1959 to February 1973, for years it 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 on horseback, as the twangy theme played. It was donated by the family of David Dortort, the show’s producer, and has been hanging in the Autry’s Imagination Gallery since May 2011.
Even though Ayers worked with some of the biggest names in the business, including Elvis Presley at the peak of his fame, the artist never took the Hollywood hoopla seriously. He didn’t know the map had survived the series until shortly before he came to see it with his family in July. As a family member led him to it in his wheelchair, he exclaimed his surprise.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake!” Ayres said.“I had no idea where that had gone.”
Ayers is survived by his only daughter and two grandchildren. He was laid to rest on Friday, March 2, at a private ceremony in Glendale. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in Ayers’ memory to the Loma Linda Children’s Hospital, 11175 Mountain View, Ste. A, Loma Linda CA 92354, or to the Union Rescue Mission, at 545 South San Pedro Street Los Angeles, CA 90013, to which Ayers contributed.
View the Los Angeles Times obituary.