Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Obituary -- David Dortort, creator of BONANZA

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Photo: Autry National Center
David Dortort, the pioneering television producer who created the iconic western show Bonanza, died Sunday at the age of 93.

The Autry National Center runs a lengthy obituary of him on its blog. I had the pleasure and privilege of conducting a lengthy interview with Dortort when I was a Visiting Scholar at the Autry -- I do not have a copy of the interview with me at the moment, but when I do I will post some excerpts. Meanwhile, you can watch a three hour interview with him conducted in 2002 for the Archive of American Television by clicking HERE

Bonanza, a ground-breaking "adult western" that focused on the life of a family of men on the Ponderosa ranch near Virginia City, was one of the most popular TV westerns of all time -- shown in dozens of countries and dubbed into local languages.
Considered Dortort’s most important work, “Bonanza” became one of the most popular and the second longest-running western on television, with 425 episodes airing from 1959 to 1973. The family saga of thrice-widowed Nevada rancher Ben Cartwright, his disparate sons, and their vast landholdings also was the first of a new genre at the time — the adult western.

“Prior to that particular time, most of the Westerns that you saw on TV were geared toward children,” said Jeffrey Richardson, the Autry’s associate curator of film and popular culture. “These were shows like ‘The Gene Autry Show,’ ‘Roy Rogers,’ ‘Sky King,’ those types of shows, which were very simplistic in their message.”

With the adult Western, Richardson said, television was able to tackle more controversial issues and social themes — topics that resonated more with what was going on in the United States in the1960s, rather than in the 1870s.

“The issues that they’re dealing with in the standard ‘mission of the week’ were issues that were relevant to people in the 1960s,” Richardson said. “Gender was one. Race. Society and the role of the ‘big guy.’ “

I remember that when I checked into the "Colorado" hotel on my first visit to the Skluv Mlyn wild west town in the Czech Republic, the theme song from Bonanza was being played in the background -- sung in Czech.

Similarly, Dortort's papers, which he donated to the Autry, include fan letters -- one of them is from  a German filmmaker in Berlin
"who tells Dortort he was walking along the Wall on the West side one day when he heard someone on the East side whistling the theme to “Bonanza.” “He talked about the irony of it,” said Marva Felchlin, director of the Autry Library. “That says something about the allure of the West.”

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