From the moment the map of The Ponderosa came on the TV screen, viewers knew “Bonanza” wasn’t a show about city slickers. Not even close. It was a show about men with a love of horses who were able to shoot when shots needed firing, rescue each other from all sorts of calamities and put family first. For fourteen seasons and 431 episodes, the Cartwright family showed America a slice of the Old West. “Bonanza” has the distinction of being the first television series to film every episode in color (even though most homes didn’t own color television sets, at the beginning of the show’s run). One of the longest running Western, television series of all time had, what is arguably, the most recognizable openings of all time. From the fiery map, to the scenes of the Cartwright men looking manly, to the music that played in the background, the opening to “Bonanza” was a thing of beauty!
I’ve had a hankering to write about my love of “Bonanza” and have run into a bit of a snag. I have too much to say to fit into one meager post! While I could write a book on the subject, I won’t. (Pause here for the cumulative sigh of relief!) But I’ve realized that I need to devote an entire blog post to just the opening of “Bonanza”. . .there was way more to that map than met the eye!
Do You Know the Way to Carson City?
The map that graced Bonanza’s opening credits was a hand drawn by Hollywood studios set illustrator, Robert Temple Ayres. For years, that map hung in the home of “Bonanza” creator and producer, David Dortort. Following Dortort’s death, in 2010, his family donated it to the Autry National Center of the American West, where it is on permanent display.
Have you ever paid attention to the cockeyed compass on the Ponderosa map? That off-kilter compass was not tilted for merely artistic reasons. It was added because the artist misplaced Reno! Hey, he was a set illustrator, not a cartographer!
There wasn’t time to have the entire map of The Ponderosa and its surroundings redrawn and it wouldn’t do to have the people of Nevada driving the wrong direction to find Reno. So, the show’s creator came up with the idea of adding a compass, in which North is pointing in the general direction you might expect to be reserved for Northwest. Eh, close enough!
The map includes the sprawling 1000-acre Ponderosa, Lake Tahoe, Carson City, Virginia City, and the ill-placed Reno. Just looking at that map makes me practically smell the smoke from the flames that spread across the map in the show’s opening. As you’ve probably gathered, the original map was not torched for the opening credits. Numerous, inexact, hand-drawn copies were sacrificed for the sake of the flames.
While The Ponderosa ranch tourist attraction closed in 2004, visitors can still enjoy poking about in nearby historic Virginia City and Carson City. But, do yourself a favor and don’t try to find the towns by following the “Bonanza” map!
The Men on Horseback
The action scenes in the show’s opening were filmed in 1959, on, what was then, Janss Conejo Ranch, in Southern California. By 1969, that area had become Thousand Oaks, California. Imagine how different that opening shot would look if four men on horseback tried to reenact it today!
Throughout the years, the opening’s cast close-ups were shot in a variety of outdoor locations. It’s interesting to note that each Cartwright’s wardrobe remained fairly constant because outdoor footage from one episode could be used in another episode. It really wasn’t noticed from a trotting horse!
Wait a Minute. There Were Words to that Song?
If you didn’t know that there were lyrics to the Bonanza theme song, you are not alone. For whatever reason, the lyrics didn’t make it to the show’s trademark opening. But you are in luck. Thanks to YouTube, you can enjoy a performance of the song by Ben Cartwright himself, Lorne Greene!
And here are the lyrics, in case you want to sing along!:
We chased lady luck, ’til we finally struck Bonanza. With a gun and a rope and a hat full of hope, planted a family tree. We got hold of a pot of gold, Bonanza. With a horse and a saddle, and a range full of cattle, how rich can a fellow be?
On this land we put our brand, Cartwright is the name, fortune smiled, the day we filed the Ponderosa claim. Here in the West, we’re livin’ the best, Bonanza, if anyone fights any one of us, he’s go a fight with me, Bonanza.
Hoss and Joe and Adam know every rock and pine, no one works, fights, or eats, like those boys of mine. Here we stand in the middle of a grand Bonanza. With a gun and a rope and a hatful of hope, we planted our family tree, we got hold of a potful of gold, Bonanza.
With a houseful of friends where the rainbow ends, how rich can a fellow be? On this land we put our brand, Cartwright is the name, fortune smiled, the day we filed the Ponderosa claim. Here in the west we’re livin’ the best Bonanza.
With the friendliest, fightingist, loving band, that ever set foot in the promised land, and we’re happier than them all. That’s why we call it Bonanza…Bonanza…Bonanza…
Actually, several artists performed renditions of the “Bonanza” theme song, including Johnny Cash. Hearing that song again puts me in mind of taking a long horseback ride. . .and maybe I’ll head on into Virginia City with Little Joe, just to see what kind of trouble we could maybe get into!
Happy Trails, y’all!