A half century of Cartwrights: Bonanza’s 50th anniversary

NBC’s Bonanza brought location shooting, tourists, and money to Nevada

Bonanza by Melany Shapiro is a guide to the series, including thumbnail descriptions and cast listings of every episode. The book is available at every Washoe library branch.

When I was a kid and relatives from the East would visit, it was my mother’s job to entertain them during the day when my father was at work. (Women working was not yet all that common.) She would take them to Virginia City. I still remember the before-and-after feel of the town—before and after the start of Bonanza.

When I was a kid and relatives from the East would visit, it was my mother’s job to entertain them during the day when my father was at work. (Women working was not yet all that common.) She would take them to Virginia City. I still remember the before-and-after feel of the town—before and after the start of Bonanza.

The impact of the program, which went on the air 50 years ago this month, was memorable. Before Sept. 12, 1959, Virginia City had a charm and authenticity it would soon lose and never recover. Virginia City’s two biggest boosters, Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, eventually abandoned the Comstock in dismay at the way Hollywood began transforming the community with bad food and cheesy T-shirt and candy shops. One casino opened with the same name as the NBC program.

Each summer, the production company would come to Nevada for several weeks to do location shooting for the upcoming season. It usually happened mostly around Lake Tahoe, including Spooner Lake, and locals and tourists would travel up there to watch. Then the company would return to Southern California to shoot the interiors. The actors also made regular appearances in Nevada at places and events like Nevada Day, the Reno Rodeo and the Sparks Nugget—and, of course, Virginia City.

During one of those visits, University of Nevada music professor John Carrico was in Virginia City with his family. His daughter Patty later recalled, “And when we went to see the ‘Cartwrights’ in Virginia City to publicize the new TV show Bonanza, we were waiting for the four stars to exit the funky motel on the end of town where they were staying. Dad said, ‘I knew Dan Blocker at Sul Ross.’ [Dan Blocker had taken a master’s degree in dramatic arts at Sul Ross State Teachers College in Texas.] Boy, was the family skeptical until the four came out toward the crowd. Dan spotted Dad and said, ‘Hi, John!’ Knock me over with a feather!”

My father was a Reno barber who spent one day a week for many years barbering in Virginia City. He told me one of my favorite stories about the show’s impact on the town. After the program had been on the air for a while, and the larger crowds of tourists had started coming to the Comstock, merchants quickly became accustomed to the lucre which came with the series. So one very busy day when the crowds suddenly dwindled to nothing at midday, no one could figure out what was going on. Then a county deputy discovered someone had put a sign up at the north end of town. The sign read “Ponderosa Ranch,” and an arrow pointed the way down Six Mile Canyon. Tourists from Reno were coming into town, turning down the canyon, and driving off into the Forty Mile Desert.

It took some time for the United States to warm up to Bonanza. The program, a western set in stunning Sierra scenery, was designed to sell color TV sets. (At the time, the public showed little inclination to abandon black and white.) Bonanza’s ratings were lukewarm for the first couple of years, and it survived mainly because it was the best showcase on the air for the coming age of color television.

Once it did take hold with viewers, in its third season with a move from Saturday to more family-friendly Sunday evenings, it had killer ratings. Its influence was such that one week Chevrolet, the sponsor, arranged for the show to run uninterrupted and then at the end of the show introduced its new models to the public. One estimate gave the program 400 million viewers in 80 nations.

Bonanza’s success sometimes surfaced in the oddest ways. Lorne Greene, with his magnificent voice, actually had a hit record with his 1964 song “Ringo”—a case of two cultural phenomena feeding off each other. The song was released in the first rush of Beatlemania in the United States, when novelty songs about the Beatles were climbing the charts. “Ringo” had nothing to do with the Beatles’ drummer—it was a story song about a western gunman—but it caught fire along with all the other novelties like “We Love You, Beatles.”

The Newcomers

As usually happens, there were plenty of people familiar with the actual setting of the series who found a condescending comment to make that was supposed to be the ultimate put-down of the show. The natives’ supposedly withering comment about the series, repeated incessantly in Nevada, was, “You can’t ride from Lake Tahoe to Virginia City in 20 minutes!”

In fact, the program never said you could. It showed the Cartwrights leaving on horseback from their ranch house and then would dissolve to their arrival in Virginia City, no time specified.

Even with that caveat, the locals seemed to know less about the area than the producers did. For one thing, the Cartwrights didn’t have to ride around Washoe Lake to get to Virginia City. In Comstock days, there was a bridge across Washoe Lake, a little-known fact to those of us who lived here, but known to the Hollywood scriptwriters—it was used in the plot of one of the Bonanza novels by Thomas Thompson.

For another thing, the ranch house—unlike a later Ponderosa amusement park—was not at Lake Tahoe, as many Nevadans assumed. The series, and the accompanying novels, made this clear. It was between Marlette Lake and Washoe Lake near the Reno/Carson road, a location plainly shown on the famous burning map seen in the opening credits.

There were nonsensical portrayals of 1860s Nevada, to be sure, but those tended to agree with local myths. In the episode dealing with the “statehood convention,” some orator said something about “depriving Mr. Lincoln of the wealth of the Comstock,” a reference to a Nevada myth about statehood being granted so that the Union would get its hands on the state’s silver. The Union had actually received Nevada silver for years before statehood.

An episode that accurately tapped into the history of Virginia City life involved miners striking a mining company to protest unsafe conditions. Though there was no strike, Virginia City was the site of the first mining union in the United States. In real life, the town was a hellhole for nearly all its residents—all but those who could afford the good life, mainly mine owners. Television viewers of the 1960s would have been jolted to read the Daily Virginia Chronicle and Territorial Enterprise of the 1860s—an unending thread of domestic battery, racism, disease, suicide, lynching, drug abuse, and mining disasters. Gunfights? Not so much.

The program provided occasional flashes of leftist thinking that were surprising considering the nation was still so close to the McCarthy period. Ben on Hoss: “Regardless of who has a right to the gold, he figures it should go to those who have the greatest need for it.”

The more common approach to Comstock life was seen in the sixth episode, “The Julia Bulette Story.” Bulette was an actual person, a prostitute murdered in 1867, but on Bonanza she was cleaned up for viewers and became a saloon owner of whom the good people of the town disapproved.

There actually was a prominent Hop Sing (the Cartwright’s cook, played by Victor Sen Yung) on the Comstock, though it is doubtful the television producers knew it. The real Hop Sing was involved in a Virginia City murder case. There was an episode entirely devoted to anti-Chinese sentiment. Some of those associated with Bonanza later felt embarrassed by the stereotypical portrayal of Hop Sing. Michael Landon publicly expressed his regret.

The earliest episodes of Bonanza relied on local history more than the later ones did, but the program had a way of sanitizing that history, though not so much that it broke from the prejudices of the time. “Like they say,” guest star Charles Bronson said in one episode, “an Indian takes better care of his horse than his squaw.”

As the program became more popular, it was purged of any elements that might drive viewers off. For instance, friction among the four Cartwrights was more pronounced at the beginning. There were times when the family members seemed not to like each other much. In the Bonanza novels, this theme was even stronger. But the program eventually evolved into a Waltons-style celebration of family.

Whatever skepticism locals may have had about the program, it was certainly seen as a form of economic development for Nevada. This is neatly illustrated by a peculiar development in the late 1960s. When Norm Neilsen, a small-town California bar owner, moved to Reno, he claimed to have written an episode of Bonanza, which was not true. Nevertheless, everyone believed it, he became a familiar community figure, built a career as a publicist and writer of Nevada folklore, and at his death, the bogus Bonanza credit was listed in his obituaries. To this day, he is thought of as a Bonanza writer who moved to Reno. (The show’s production company records and the archives of the Screen Writers Guild have no record of Neilsen. His self-made biography was filled with such artifices.)

The Legacy

Bonanza, truth to tell, was not very good. It was a basic set of stories that kept being remade every week, a fact of which the stars were perfectly aware. Pernell Roberts was the only one who was repelled enough by the formula scripts to leave the show. He then gave a lot of snotty interviews taking shots at his former colleagues on the show. Dan Blocker’s attitude was more honest and decent toward the others. He stayed with the show and told one interviewer, “Let’s face it, I sold out. For money.” In one of those marvelous twists life sometimes gives us, 20 years later almost to the day (Sept. 29, 1979) after the start of Bonanza, Roberts went back to work in the old sausage factory slicing out formula episodes of Trapper John, M.D.

Roberts had been one of the best things about the show. In a strong ensemble cast, he and Dan Blocker were the most talented actors.

When Roberts departed Bonanza, it damaged the program because he had fought for better scripts. Roberts’ own interpretation of the Adam character and his dark looks and brooding personality had been the disharmony the strait-laced program often needed. The show lost not just Roberts’ acting but his healthy challenges to the show’s producers. One of his last attempts to break out of the formula was a plan to marry off the Adam character. He proposed that Adam fall in love with a Native American woman to be portrayed by an African-American actress.

It was a bold stroke, the very opposite of the tokenism that plagued television in those days—an interracial marriage with interracial casting, no less. Within the safe confines of a family-oriented program, blacks and Indians would have achieved a permanent showcase rather than a one-time guest appearance, while Roberts’ misgivings about the cookie-cutter shows would have been appeased.

Unfortunately, producer David Dortort’s response to Roberts’ proposal was pure tokenism—a counterproposal for Sammy Davis Jr., to make an unrelated guest appearance which, as it happened, never came off.

The program did, however, go ahead with marrying Adam off, sort of, to keep Roberts happy. It prepared a four-episode story line in which Adam, in intermittent episodes from December 1963 through May 1964, falls in love with a young widow with a daughter. As the first three episodes made clear the direction the program was headed, viewers started writing to protest marrying off one of the sons—and Bonanza’s producers caved in. In a sudden jerk, a fourth episode wrenched the lovers apart and married the widow off to a Cartwright cousin. It was wholly unconvincing, bad writing, bad television, and a testament to not submitting theater to a popular vote. It also accelerated Roberts’ determination to leave. With his departure, the program lost its edge. And, unfortunately, it carved in stone the command to writers, “Thou shalt not marry off a Cartwright.”

The genial, occasionally naïve character of Hoss disguised Blocker’s real talents. He had startled theater goers during his college years and in stock theater with his skill in handling such challenging roles as Othello and Lear. He was also a thoughtful person who remembered where he came from, adopting his small Texas college’s development as his personal project and debating the rabid and fanatically right-wing Hedda Hopper at a public forum in Hollywood.

The burning map shown during the credits of <i>Bonanza</i> maps the Cartwright’s journey from Marlette and Washoe lakes to Virginia City.

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One episode, “The Gunmen,” apparently went under the bluenosed radar. It retooled the ancient Greek play Lysistrata, an antiwar comedy by Aristophanes. Hoss and Joe ride into a small town and get involuntarily drawn into a local Hatfields/McCoys-type feud. They convince the local women to withhold sex until the men end the feud (Hoss’s idea!), a plot twist that had to be described in tune with early 1960s sensibilities: one wife tells her husband she’s “not going to be the kind of a wife I should be.”

Blocker’s death in 1972 finally doomed Bonanza.

In spite of Bonanza’s role in turning Virginia City into a tourist trap, the community was in its glory in the program’s first years. Its debut year also happened to be the centennial of Nevada Territory; its fifth year was Nevada’s centennial of statehood.

No town contributed more to the 1964 centennial than Virginia City. Its residents brought Hal Holbrook to the Comstock to perform his renowned portrayal of Mark Twain in Piper’s Opera House. They commissioned the distinguished composer Ferde Grofe to write a symphony, Requiem for a Ghost Town, which debuted on the Comstock. During such a period, the Bonanza actors’ occasional personal appearances fit right in.

Thanks for Everything, Friend

Not surprisingly for a national institution, Bonanza inspired a lot of parody, from nightclub comics to Mad magazine. Two of the best were the movie Tin Men—which was released in 1987, 14 years after Bonanza left the air, an indication of the show’s enduring cultural impact—and an episode of Maverick (“Three Queens Full” a.k.a. “Three Brides for Three Brothers,” Nov. 12, 1961).

As Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh described it in their directory of TV shows, the Maverick episode “was a wild parody of Bonanza in which Bart encountered a ranching baron named Joe Wheelwright (played by Jim Backus), owner of the vast Subrosa Ranch, who was trying to marry off his three idiot sons Moose (Hoss), Henry (Adam), and Small Paul (Little Joe).” He did this by purchasing three brides who, Maverick discovers, are linked to a Wheelwright rival who wants to marry his way into the Subrosa empire. In Maverick/Legend of the West, Ed Robertson wrote that the strongest part of the episode was the way it “kid[ded] the Cartwright family’s closeness and sanctimonious reputation. The Wheelwrights stick together because Joe Wheelwright’s father swindled the Indians of their land—that’s how he built the Subrosa Ranch, and the Wheelwrights stick together in order to protect the family secret.”

There was also guesswork about these four—or five, counting Hop Sing—men living alone on their ranch. “There were a lot of rumors about the Cartwrights being homosexual,” Landon joked years later, “and I’m here to set the record straight. We were not. Thank God, Hop Sing was.”

Then there was the famous Cartwright curse. Women who got involved with any of the Cartwright men tended to get killed off or otherwise removed as marriage material before the end of the hour.

There was also the Ben adjunct to the Cartwright curse, under which the patriarch married women who then died after bearing him sons. The Barry Levinson film Tin Men, about aluminum siding salesmen in 1963 Baltimore, portrayed the salesmen gathering for breakfast each morning. Bonanza aired each Sunday night and on Monday mornings the salesmen would have conversations like this:

Sam: I’m going to tell you something. This Bonanza is not an accurate depiction of the West. …

Tilley: Is somebody talking about Bonanza here?

Mouse: Today’s the Bonanza day.

Tilley: Oh, it’s Monday! …

Sam: It’s a 50-year-old father and three 47-year-old sons. You know why they get along so good? ‘Cause they’re all the same age …

Tilley: I occasionally watch Bonanza and I think it’s like—can you believe here’s a man who’s got three kids from three different wives? They all died at childbirth—what is this? Who’s going to go around there? He’s the kiss of death.

Sam: Yeah, it’s called one hump—and out.