Bonanza’s True North; or, Re-Orienting to the Cartwrights

Ponderosa Ranch meant wholesome family entertainment with guns and cowboys, and first lick of flame burning up the hand-drawn map of the ranch meant “Bring in your TV dinners, kids, Bonanza is starting!”

Ponderosa Ranch (Autry Collections Photo)

Check out the cultural landmark on display at the Autry National Center, a must-see museum in Los Angeles, chockfull of reel-life and real-life cowboys and much, much more. It’s a museum that strives to reverse the effects TV and film has had on western regional history. (Q: Were there more people out West than white cowboys? A: Yes.) They also love their TV and film cowboys, by the way. Hence the map.

I remember the map from growing up, and the cooler-than-awesome yellow lettering that read “Bonanza,” right before you saw the guys of the show squinting into the camera one by one. I wasn’t one of the fans that watched every one of the 431 episodes between September 1959 and February 1973, because I wasn’t born for most of that time. But Bonanza’s legacy shaped my understanding of the west, and to this day, my appreciation for both all that is classical (John Ford) and revisionist (Jarmusch).

Even as a tot my views on cowboys and Indians were set by the ripple effects of the Cartwright clan. When my friends and I galloped through yards on firefly-lit summer eves, I was so totally the Indian.

Before I get a slew of mad-as-hornets Bonanza bullies sending me gunpowder through the mail, let me say that if I could do it all over, I would not only call Indians “Native Americans” and not do the stereotypical “hwa-hwa-hwa” shriek , but I would also never talk the trash I did about cowboys.

Cowboys just weren’t cool then, in my mind. Like the Cartwrights, they let women make them wear clean clothes on Sundays and dirt was sprinkled a bit only on their elbows and knees. They stood for a community of laws and never pulled a gun unless they were forced to, and even then, they’d rap the wrongdoer on the nose with the barrel and haul his ass off to jail. And they wouldn’t say “ass.”

Just by breathing the same air as Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns in the late sixties and early seventies, I’d somehow glommed on to the fact that indigenous societies had profundity, gunslingers didn’t need no stinkin’ badges, and the Cartwrights were a symbol of clean-cut American values. I wanted none of it.

Fool that I was, I missed out on the TV dinners before Bonanza, where I might have caught the lessons of family dynamics before I hurtled into them with my own family. I may have sensed widower Ben Cartwright’s ambivalence about the so-called family values of the community he lived in, and felt the restlessness of Little Joe before he morphed into Pa on Little House on the Prairie.

I missed all that, but when next I walk in the Autry’s hallowed halls, I will stand reverently at Ponderosa Ranch map’s colorful lines and appreciate their myth-creating power.

Trivia: Didja know why the map isn’t drawn to the usual north-is-up orientation? The creator of the map, Robert Temple Ayres, made a mistake by placing Reno west of Virginia City. They needed a quick fix as the first scenes were being shot, so he painted the compass to point toward Reno as north.

Didja know the Ponderosa Ranch is a real place? It was a stage set for a while, then an amusement park. Now it’s fenced off, but I took a ponderosa pine cone from nearby. The size of my arm, those cones.

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