|Map/Photo: Autry Collections|
By Ruth Ellen Gruber
The Autry National Center in Los Angeles now displays one of the most potent icons of the post-World War II imaginary wild west -- the map of the fictional Ponderosa ranch that was displayed and set on fire at the beginning of every episode of the long-running and internationally popular TV show Bonanza.
The map -- which has been hung in the Autry's "Imagination Gallery" -- charts a place that doesn't exist but is recognized and even beloved by millions world wide. As the Autry blog puts it:
NBC audiences from September 1959 to February 1973 saw this map every week in the opening credits of the Paramount Television show. It would appear briefly before it burst into flames, dissolving into a shot of all four members of the Cartwright family, astride their horses, as the memorable theme played.
“We’re talking 14 seasons, 431 episodes,” said Jeffrey Richardson, associate curator of western history and popular culture at the Autry. “Just those numbers alone are staggering. But at the beginning of every single episode, and the theme song that so many people can hum, it all began with a shot of this particular map.”
The burning map was a high spot for viewers, but Richardson notes that it actually was drawn with an incorrect geographical orientation.
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The map is a beauty, hand-drawn in intense colors for Bonanza creator David Dortort by Robert Temple Ayres, a company employee. But it has a flaw.
When Ayres drew the map, he evidently thought that a fictional ranch didn’t need a terribly accurate map. So he drew Reno to the west of Carson City. Dortort noticed.
“They put it together; they brought it to David Dortort; he looked at it,” Richardson said. “He said, ‘I love it, but your directions are wrong.’”
Looking at it as it was designed, the map shows Reno to the west of Carson City. In reality, Reno sits to the north. To fix it, Ayres drew a compass. But instead of the north arrow pointing straight up as on most maps, it goes off in a vaguely west-northwest direction. To look at the map in its correct orientation, one would have to flip it on its side, with the “horn” of the property pointing upward.
“To justify the inaccurate locations the way they had them drawn, they had to slant the compass a different way,” Richardson said. “It was too late at that particular time in 1959 for them to redo the map, because again, it was hand-drawn, and they were going to start shooting the opening sequence."
Dortort had donated most of his papers and memorabilia to the Autry a year or so before his death last September at the age of 93. He had held on to the map however. After he died, his family gave it and other objects to the museum.