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Autry's 'Bonanza': TV show's opening image on display [VIDEO]

June 20, 2011 |  9:50 am

BonanzaPonderosaMapRobertTempleAyres [Updated: 3:40 p.m. June 21]

  From the Autry National Center of the American West comes news that it has acquired and hung what we at Culture Monster are willing to bet is the most likely artwork this side of the Louvre to inspire humming.

The artist is Robert Temple Ayres, whom you probably don’t know.

The title, “Map to Illustrate the Ponderosa in Nevada,” may not ring any immediate bells.

But if you were among the millions of Americans whose Sunday nights throughout the 1960s and early 1970s included a mandatory hour with “Bonanza” and the Cartwright clan — well, we can almost hear you humming the theme song’s immortal clopping-hooves cadence right now.

Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba, Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba, Ba-bah-BAAH! Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba, Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba, Ba-ba-ba-ba, ba-Bah.

The map appeared at the start of each episode, while the theme music played, then burned away to reveal Lorne Greene, as paterfamilias Ben Cartwright, riding the range on the Ponderosa Ranch with sons Adam (Pernell Roberts), Hoss (Dan Blocker) and Little Joe (Michael Landon).

The family of “Bonanza” creator and producer David Dortort donated the drawing to the Autry after his death last September at age 93. Dortort himself had already given the museum his archive of “Bonanza” scripts, photographs, awards, production records and other memorabilia. Roberts, the last surviving star, also died last year.

RobertTempleAyresByDonRichardsBut map-maker Ayres is still with us, living in the Riverside County community of Cherry Valley, where he’ll celebrate his 98th birthday on July 28.

His daughter, Sharon Richards, was surprised and delighted to hear that the artwork he created for “Bonanza” before its 1959 debut is safe, sound and on public display.

“We never knew what happened to that crazy thing!” she said, adding that the family was a little disappointed that Ayres hadn’t been included in the 50th anniversary festivities for “Bonanza” two years ago. Her husband, Don, read about it after the fact while perusing Cowboys & Indians magazine in a grocery checkout line.

Ayres said he’s eager to revisit his work, which was part of his workaday output as a set illustrator for Paramount, where “Bonanza” was filmed. He says he never met Dortort, but did hobnob occasionally with the “Bonanza” cast.

“I’d get on stage and chat with them a bit,” Ayres recalled. With his daughter on another phone line, he remembered bringing her to the “Bonanza” set one day when Slim Pickens was a guest star. “You were onstage, back of camera, when Slim Pickens came onstage in his underwear. He saw you and acted all embarrassed,” although it was only long johns.

Ayres’ work often involved turning blueprints and technical specifications fed to him by set designers into drawings or paintings that would help guide set builders. His “Bonanza” output also included a drawing of the Ponderosa ranch house’s exterior, and a picture of a “hanging tree” for one episode about a lynch mob.

Ayres grew up in Lansing, Mich., and came west after military service during World War II. He’d always wanted to be an artist and studied at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, then at the Chouinard Art Institute and Jepson Art Institute in L.A. It was in L.A. that he finally met his cousin, the former child actress Shirley Temple.

After working as a commercial artist, Ayres landed assignments illustrating “The Golden Treasury of Bible Stories” and other books issued by Nashville-based Southern Publishing Assn. An acquaintance suggested his talents might fit in at MGM, which needed set artists for one of the great biblical epics, “Ben Hur.” He got the job, painted scenes of ancient Judea, then moved on to Paramount, and finally to Disney until his retirement in 1980 following his last assignment creating artwork for restaurants and other venues at the Epcot Center in Florida.

Sharon Richards said her father has slowed down a bit in his 98th year, and no longer paints landscapes, as he did until last year. But he’s still up for the occasional day trip, and a visit to the Autry and his most famous image is now definitely on the agenda.

By the way, Autry spokeswoman Yadhira De Leon informs us that “humming is definitely allowed in the galleries.” Now we want to know whether the Louvre permits viewers of the Mona Lisa to sing Nat King Cole.

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(For the record: In an earlier version of this post, the photo information below incorrectly gave Robert Temple Ayres' middle name as Templeton.)

-- Mike Boehm

Photos: "Map to Illustrate the Ponderosa in Nevada," by Robert Temple Ayres (top); Robert Temple Ayres with landscape painting. Credits: Autry National Center (top); Don Richards (bottom)

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